“Pirate Radio” is about the indomitable never-say-die spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about a group of DJs on a ship in the North Atlantic who spent the late Sixties bringing the music to millions of British kids. It’s a good story, but maybe the fictitious story of Radio Rock would mean more today if the music meant more today. Popular music doesn’t have the same rebel spirit it once did, and as such it’s hard to imagine that once, many years ago people were willing to die for the music they loved.
The action begins when Carl (Tom Sturridge), a rebellious teenager recently expelled from school, arrives on the pirate radio ship. He’s been sent by his mother to stay with Quentin (Bill Nighy) his flamboyant godfather, in the hopes of straightening out his life. Fat chance. He’s surrounded by a group of rogue DJs—The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Simon (Chris O’Dowd), Angus (Rhys Darby), Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), DJ Smooth Bob (Ralph Brown) and the decadent “king of the airwaves”, Gavin (Rhys Ifans)—a less-than-wholesome group who are the collective voices of rebel rock. Life on the boat is a nonstop party until the creation of the Marine Offences Act, which aims to silence the rowdy DJs and their “rock ‘n’ roll pornography,” a failed marriage drives a wedge between the DJs and a blown engine threatens not only the existence of Radio Rock, but the lives of the DJs as well.
The tone of “Pirate Radio” is pitched somewhere just slightly above reality, just below parody. Its version of the freewheelin’ Sixties feels unreal, as if people back then were all colorfully dressed wild men and women without a care in the world. It’s obviously a highly idealized vision of the time that will appeal to boomers with rose colored memories of the time, but for the rest of us it will likely seem a bit naïve. The characters, as presented here by some very good actors, are caricatures from the Swinging Sixties and not fully developed people.
Philip Seymour Hoffman comes closest to creating a real character as a man who becomes racked with melancholy when he realizes he is likely “living the best years of his life” and his trip back to dry land will be downhill, but by and large reality gets lost in the feel-goodness of it all.
It’s a story about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with little of the former and lots of the latter. In fact, “Pirate Radio” may be the first movie in some time that is actually more fun to listen to than actually watch. It has a blazing soundtrack, rich with great Brit rock like The Easybeats’s “Friday on My Mind” and Arthur Brown’s “Fire” but the film itself plays like a series of events rather than a movie. There’s just not enough story and a few too many dance numbers here to justify a two hour running time.
“Pirate Radio” has its heart in the right place and is an enjoyable piece of 60’s fluff, but I would have been happy to simply have the soundtrack and leave the movie behind.