Pirate Radio (2009)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on November 10, 2009 @ tonymacklin.net.

Sometimes there's a movie that comes along that shivers your timbres.

Pirate Radio is one such delight. It's a treasure trove of rock and roll memories, energy, and infectious spirit. It's as groovy as the 1960s.

Set in 1966 and 1967, based on actuality, Pirate Radio is the story of a rogue station on a ship that broadcast rock and roll to an England deprived of the new, rambunctious music.

Because of BBC contracts and government hostility, rock music was absent on the airways in Britain. To foil those restrictions, ships anchored just beyond British jurisdiction played the forbidden music.

Pirate Radio is the story of one such ship. It's a tale of DJs on an old tanker who are folk heroes to the public. They're as merry a group as existed in Sherwood Forest.

They are visited on occasion by swash-buckling women who worship the boards they walk on. [The only female that lives on the boat is the lesbian cook.]

Also coming to the ship is Carl (Tom Sturridge), a young fatherless man, whose mother (Emma Thompson) was a live-wire groupie in the past.

The DJs are free-spirited, sometimes coarse, self-absorbed addicts of music. They don't live by a lot of rules. As Quintin (Bill Nighy) -- the owner of the station and captain of the ship -- unabashedly says of one of his crew, "All he did was have sex with somebody's wife."

Two of the DJs have a risky contest for dominance. One is an American called the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the other is the cooler-than-cool Gavin (Rhys Ifans) who returns for another stint on the ship. It's a battle between denim and silk.

On shore, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) plots to bring the ship and station to ruin.

Amidst all the machinations, rock and roll rules. The film pays spirited homage to the music -- The Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Leonard Cohen, The Beach Boys, et al.

The cast is stellar. Bill Nighy loves rock and roll; as a young man Nighy fronted his own band. Nighy is as inimitable as always as the implacable Quentin.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, and all the actors who play the DJs on board, create a reckless but intriguing ambience. Some of the dialogue was improvised, and it has an immediacy.

January Jones (tv's Mad Men) gets a nice break from Madison Avenue as a smitten woman who comes to the ship.

Pirate Radio captures the spirit of a time. It's not like the callow Taking Woodstock, which ineffectively used a time and place as background for a tacky movie about a man and his shrewish mother.

Pirate Radio is the real deal. Writer/director Richard Curtis has an encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll. He's a humanist who uses it to great advantage.

Curtis creates both offbeat and stirring moments (the flotilla) using the immortal music. Pirate Radio soars on the white caps of rock and roll.

I'll surely take that rocking cruise again.

© 2000-2019 Tony Macklin