The fictional town in the classic 80’s movie FOOTLOOSE, where dance is prohibited and only hep-cat Kevin Bacon can roll into town and get the young folks their groove back, may have seemed to some like a ridiculous conceit. However, anyone with any knowledge of the trials that rock and roll and basically all other forms of radical new music had gone through can sense that in some places that conceit might not be too far off. One such trial is chronicled in the movie PIRATE RADIO, written and directed by Richard Curtis, a funny, free-wheelin’ tale of the United Kingdom back in the 60’s, who outlawed rock and roll stations on their mainland, so rock DJs took to the high seas and broadcast from boats docked in the North Sea.
The station the film focuses on, Radio Rock, is shown through the eyes of a young newcomer to the ship, sent there by his “popular” mother once he is expelled from school. Tom Sturridge plays the young Carl as a bystander trying to soak it all in on this ship, while also trying to cope with and investigate the fact that he never knew who his father was, and suspects it may be one of the older rock DJs on the boat. Quentin, played by Bill Nighy, runs the boat as an inmate in charge of the asylum, and ushers Carl through the experience. While 25 million listeners tune into pirate rock and roll stations to hear the incredible collection of artists Curtis puts on this soundtrack, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branaugh) is placed in charge by the Prime Minister to shut them down. This means Branaugh plays the John Lithgow part from FOOTLOOSE.
The film is basically a collection of short, funny side stories, with the main plot of the House of Commons trying to shut the radio stations down acting merely as glue to hold these stories together. Carl is exposed to quite a bit on this adventure, dealing with the discovery of his birth father and the loss of his virginity. One DJ from the boat, Simon (Chris O’Dowd) gets married and loses the wife in less than a day, played by January Jones (a little something for you “Mad Men” fans) in a small but amusing part. The American DJ, The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has to deal with the return of classic British heartthrob DJ, Gavin (Rhys Ifans), stealing a bit of his thunder. Nick Frost plays the DJ, Big Dave, in a role that teaches us rock and roll can make a sexual being out of any body type…or maybe just in 1960 Britain. Rhys Darby (something for you “Flight of the Conchords” fans) and Emma Thompson have small roles as well but get good laughs in their scenes, while other characters Smooth Bob (Ralph Brown) and Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom) are given opportunities for laughs as well. Branaugh does well even as a stock character who hates the music and all it stands for, mostly due to a funny scene of him and his family at Christmas dinner.
These collections of funny storylines are the plus and the minus of the film, however. The film spends all this time dealing with these funny asides, it never goes to the heart of what a film like this needs to be: a commentary on the importance and cultural relevance of rock and roll. In that respect, it will be judged against films like ALMOST FAMOUS, which had a storyline for audiences to invest in but also took time to remind us of the beauty and art in rock and roll music. And part of the fault for PIRATE RADIO coming up short in that comparison falls on Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who as Lester Bangs in ALMOST FAMOUS couldn’t stop reminding us of the importance of the music, and as The Count only mentions that importance once, toward the end, after having 110 minutes to do so prior. The film is funny and has a great soundtrack and fun characters, but in recounting the importance of rock and roll and the freedom that music represents, it had the opportunity to be so much more.