A rusty, red-painted trawler bobs in the waves of the North Atlantic. Inside is a claustrophobic warren of rooms: tiny, brine-smelling bunks, a well-stocked bar, and, crucially, a broadcast booth, its shelves crammed with the latest 45s and LPs, its turntables manned in shifts by a motley squad of hirsute rogues.
|Pirate Radio | Written and Directed by Richard Curtis | with Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, Tom Brooke, Rhys Darby, Ralph Brown, Kenneth Branagh, and Philip Seymour Hoffman | Universal Pictures | 135 minutes|
Richard Curtis’s Pirate Radio is a funny fictionalization of an oft-forgotten period in ’60s pop culture when merry bands of outlaws took to sea beyond British legal jurisdiction, flipped on their transmitters, and broadcast pop and rock and roll to a hungry public — starved by a stuffy BBC — via medium-wave signal.
Curtis does play a little fast and loose with the facts here. Using the Who’s 1971 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in a film set in 1966 is just one of the soundtrack’s anachronisms. The pirate stations were shut down in 1967 not by tight-assed Tories — epitomized here by seething Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), who vows to take down the “drug takers, lawbreakers, and bottom-bashing fornicators” plaguing his “recently great nation” — but by a Labour government. You can also forget the high life of Curtis’s bawdy, brightly colored bacchanal. “We didn’t have women on board, or parties,” jockey Dave Lee Travis told the Independent. “There’d be five or six DJs, plus the Dutch crew.”
What’s more, despite the crackling soundtrack — a non-stop onslaught of British Invasion standard bearers (Stones, Kinks), deeper cuts (Yardbirds, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown), and Motown and Bacharachian mood setters (Smokey Robinson, Herb Alpert) — it wasn’t all Day-Glo pop explosions and manic between-song patter all the time. Sure, pirate radio promised “mutinous freedom, a willful, anti-corporate, outlaw capitalism,” as John Dougan writes in his book The Who Sell Out. But it was still a business, beholden to advertisers. As such, “the reality was that in the early days . . . listeners were as likely to hear the music of Jim Reeves, Ray Conniff, and Andy Williams, as they were anything classified as R&B or rock and roll.”
Diving into the history of the medium and its big players, Dougan’s book is a valuable reference for people curious about this short-lived phenomenon. But it’s not quite as much fun as Curtis’s film. Despite the rather preposterous length (two full hours; the first cut is reported to have been three!), Pirate Radio is a ribald, rocking romp. Dramamine not necessary. Beyond the great soundtrack and the pageantry of its production design, you can credit an excellent comedic cast whose chemistry is palpable. The plot may be little more than a series of cobbled-together set pieces, but that gives the ensemble ample opportunity for rhythmic repartee.