Pirate Radio is about several things, but swashbuckling is unfortunately not one of them. It's about Radio Rock, a rock n' roll radio station illegally broadcasting to the United Kingdom out of the North Sea in the 1960s. It's about the men (and woman, but a lesbian, so it's ok) running the ship and the rebellious, unorthodox lives that they lead. It's about young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who's sent to live on the ship with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), the ship's Captain, to get his life on the right track. Oops. Finally, it's about select members of the British government who have made it their mission in life to destroy pirate radio. They don't want to simply fine or punish, they want to wipe it from the face of the Earth.
The multiple plot lines is Pirate Radio's flaw, but by no means is it a big flaw. Life on the boat is the primary focus, while Carl's stay is a close second. The fight against pirate radio is a distant third, which is a shame, because Kenneth Branagh's Minister Allistair Dormandy is wonderful, as is his devious underling, Dominic Twatt. That's "Twatt" with two t's.
I don't mean to say that the rest of the cast pales in comparison to Brannagh. On the contrary, when you've got Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost, and Rhys Darby, you're guaranteed a good time. Frost and Darby have only been in a handful of films, but you may know them as Ed from Shaun of the Dead and Murray Hewitt from the HBO television series Flight of the Conchords, respectively. Philip Seymour Hoffman is at the top of his game as The Count, the only American on the crew and appropriately loud and boisterous.
While the plot of government intervention is highlighted in the trailers, it takes a backseat to life on the boat, as I said earlier. While at first I thought this was an issue, I've reconsidered. My problem was two fold: the film devoted such little time to this matter that you practically forget this threat was looming; and that the crew of Radio Rock didn't seem at all concerned with being forcefully shut down and possibly arrested. It was hardly an afterthought to them, if that. I understand that they're the type of people to not get bummed out by problems outside of their control, but wouldn't they show at least the tiniest bit of worry?
No, I guess they wouldn't. These people consider themselves untouchable, both in a legal sense (pirate radio wasn't outlawed yet) and somewhat in a literal sense. They are anchored in the middle of the sea. And I realized that, intentional or not, by only showing us bits and pieces of the government threat, we often forget it was there, much like the disc jockeys. It's in the back of our minds too, but it isn't nearly as important as what's actually happening on the boat. So why should we even care? The Captain cares, it's his boat. We learn early on that he watches out for their safety when he tries to stop The Count from dropping an F-bomb on the air. He fails spectacularly and we're given a great scene.
Pirate Radio is actually a British film (if you couldn't tell by the cast) that was released in UK cinemas months prior to the US date under the title The Boat That Rocked. It's a very fitting title, because of the amount of rock music played throughout as well as the amount of promiscuity embraced by the crew. The title was changed in an attempt to "reinvent" the film for the US box office and hopefully recoup the losses it suffered in its home country. Apparently they've never heard that sex sells. It's a shame that the film didn't do better than it did. Although this boat is a rockin', you should definitely come a knockin'.
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