Between rock and a hard place
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov. 13, 2009
In town to introduce a preview screening of "Pirate Radio," writer-director Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") described his comedy about a boatload of renegade DJs who broadcast rock-and-roll from a ship anchored off the coast of England in the mid-1960s as only "partly true." Well, duh. The disclaimer will, I suspect, be utterly unnecessary for anyone who sees the film, a tale so raucous, raunchy and punch-drunk with love for the rebellious spirit of rawk -- and so disdainful of those who have tried to squelch it -- that it pretty much negates any claims to objectivity, let alone factuality.
In other words, it's not a documentary.
The premise, however, is very real. In mid-1960s England, just as the Kinks and the Beatles were taking the world by storm, official British radio was under the monopoly of the BBC, which played precious little of anything anyone actually wanted to hear. In response, enterprising broadcasters set up offshore radio stations that would spin the latest tunes around the clock. They weren't technically illegal -- yet -- but there were those who wanted to shut them down.
In "Pirate Radio," those would be Sir Alistair Dormandy, a priggish cabinet minister played with apoplectic if tight-lipped relish by Kenneth Branagh, and his coolly competent aide, Twatt (Jack Davenport). Their names alone should be enough to tip you off that these are the bad guys. Dormandy is an upper-class twit, and Twatt is, well, exactly what you think. The movie crackles with a cartoonish malevolence whenever they're on screen.
On the other side is a raffish rogues' gallery of lovable losers, led by ship's captain Quentin (Bill Nighy). Dubbed Radio Rock, the floating station's on-air talent pool includes headliner Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a prototypic Howard Stern, and a lineup of such colorfully nicknamed characters as Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), Big Dave (Nick Frost) and The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the station's lone American, who lives to see how many f-bombs he can get on air. Why do you think Dormandy wants to shut them down? Or better yet, let them sink?
But the film really centers on Quentin's teenage godson Carl (Tom Sturridge), a fresh-faced kid who has been kicked out of school for smoking (yes, both kinds) and sent to work at the station by his party-hearty single mother (Emma Thompson) as a way to straighten him out.
What, is she crazy? Probably not. A prominent subplot involves speculation about which one of the station's staff might be Carl's father and how long it will take Carl to figure it out. Despite a pretty obvious red herring, it isn't hard to guess. Another narrative thread involves Carl's halfhearted attempts to lose his virginity to a couple of female visitors to the ship. And by halfhearted, I mean half sweet . . . and half nasty. One episode shows Carl tossing Big Dave's last condom into the North Sea as a way to prove the purity of his love for Quentin's niece Marianne (Talulah Riley). The irony is that, only moments later, he's going to wish he hadn't.
Yeah, I know. But such is what passes for romance around here. Radio Rock is pretty much as Sir Alistair describes it: "a sewer of dirty, irresponsible commercialism and low morals." What's not to like? It's "Animal House" on water, with Branagh playing Dean Wormer.
If there's a love story, then, it isn't Carl's, but director Curtis's. And the object of his -- and the movie's -- swooning affection is none other than the nose-thumbing, sex-obsessed, antiestablishment roots of rock music.
Despite its plentiful crude humor, "Pirate Radio" does have a soft spot. Remember that girl Lou Reed sang about in the Velvet Underground's classic "Rock and Roll"? The one whose "life was saved" by a rock-and-roll radio station? Just when things look most dire for the embattled crew of Radio Rock, "Pirate Radio" attempts to return the favor.
Contains a steady stream of obscenity, sexual humor, partial nudity, drug references and other miscellaneous bad behavior.