If ever there were any doubt about the power of music to affect and otherwise change lives, then “Pirate Radio,” inspired by true events, written and directed by Richard Curtis, irreverently, boisterously, magically, dispels it.
The story’s set in England, in 1966, the explosion of rock and roll causing consternation among the establishment. As the BBC (as per the story; the truth was otherwise) had no outlets for such music, Radio Caroline, moored offshore, beyond the tentacles of the law, broadcast The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and their ilk to over half the U.K.’s population.
The movie nicely captures the effect the music had on its listeners. Throughout the film, cutbacks show teenagers in their bedrooms, young adults on the streets, nurses, greengrocers, even people over thirty, in a word, everyone, glued to their radio, dancing, smiling, and otherwise grooving.
But, of course, it wasn’t de rigeur for the authorities. Her Majesty’s government entrusted Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a Milburn Drysdale clone from The Beverly Hillbillies, and his bumptious assistant with the unfortunate name of Twatt (Jack Davenport), to squelch the station.
First of all, authorities were dealing with a force of nature. The staff of Radio Caroline were a band of misfits, loons, and outcasts, each with a distinct personality and each with one thing in common: a deep-abiding love for the music they played (and what a great pretext to have the magnificent soundtrack play non-stop: they were always on-air).
The atmosphere on board was creatively calamitous as befits a gang of pirates (and isn’t it nice when, here, we see pirates and don’t think of either Penzance or Somalia?). In appropriate fashion they celebrated a 17-hour wedding, a deflowering, and Christmas. On board they got the job done, with fortnightly visits of a boatload of girlfriends, groupies and any G-word you care to throw in.
The king of the DJs was an American named The Count, whose role was nailed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was so cool, he was glacial and let it be recorded that he was willing to go down with the ship for what he believed in. Accidentally on purpose he became the first DJ to utter the F-word live on air. He also, in the most deliciously defiant moment of the film, led the charge to fight on past midnight on New Year’s Eve, when transmission was supposed to stop. His mortal opponent was Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Upon his arrival, in true alpha male form, they agreed to resolve their differences with a climb up the ship’s mast. The weirdest of the lot was Smooth Bob (Ralph Brown) who nobody knew existed because a) he had the graveyard shift and b) he preferred to sit in his stateroom, playing records, coddling the vinyl as if it were a talisman.
The main story recounts the efforts of the Government to shut them down (they failed). Another story concerns Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), the godson of Quentin (Bill Nighy), the droll business manager, who had been exiled to sea by his mother, Charlotte (Emma Thompson), a comely Sixties Swinger herself, for such disruptive behavior as smoking and drinking. Not only does he lose his virginity (Marianne, Quentin’s niece - Talulah Riley) on a live radio broadcast, he also finds out who his father is. In fact, he rescues him when the ship sinks.
And it’s this sinking ship that provides thematic cohesion to the film. Metaphorically, the ship was sinking, as Dormandy was trying to capsize the enterprise. But also, in the film’s moving finale, the danger of drowning was imminent and real. Having sent out a distress signal, which the government ignored, the crew huddled on the prow of the ship, awaiting the inevitable. But then, lo and behold, what should appear but an armada of listeners in every manner of floating rig, to pluck the plucky rock and rollers from the drink, thus showing how, just as the music they broadcast saved their listeners, so too did the listeners return the favor.