Pirate Radio (2009)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 0; L- 8; S-3/N-7 Running time: 1 hour 20 min.

I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you
Psalm 144:9

These modern pirates defied the british government by broadcasting from a ship rock and roll music.

2009 Universal Pictures

Okay, so neither the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, nor the Who were singing to the Lord, and their instru ments were electric guitars and drums instead of ten-stringed harps—but their songs and genre were new.

There was a time when they could not be heard over the air in Great Britain because rock was regarded by the powers that be as the Devil’s music. Director Richard Curtis’s film, entitled in Great Britain The Boat That Rocked, will remind you of the American film Footloose. Like the film from the Eighties, PR deals with the attempt of the young to enjoy their rock music against the wishes of prudish elders.

Curtis, however, treats the subject in a farcical way, at least compared to the more straightforward treatment by Herbert Ross, and the American dealt with the banning of rock music in just one town, whereas in the British film it is an entire kingdom. It is hard to believe now that during the first two thirds of the Sixties, the golden era of British rock music, that the genre was almost entirely banned on British airwaves, with the BBC playing pop music for just 45 minutes a day. No wonder that 25 million people tuned in to the music played 24/7 by Radio Rock, broadcast from a leaky “pirate ship” anchored just outside of territorial waters.

The story begins with Uncle Quentin (Bill Nighy), the aristocratically mannered owner of Rock Boat, as it is called, agreeing to take on his godson Carl (Tom Sturridge), whose strict mother (Emma Thompson in an all too brief cameo) is upset when he is expelled from school for smoking weed. Little does she know of the motley crew aboard the ship, headed by the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman); the lustful “Doctor” Dave (Nick Frost); uptight romanticist Simon (Chris O’Dowd); and the clueless Angus ‘The Nut’ Nutsford, (Rhys Darby); the seldom seen (because he does the graveyard shift of the wee hours of the night) Bob Silver “the Dawn Treader,” (Ralph Brown), and the only woman crew member, safe from any lustful eyes because she is a lesbian, the cook Felicity (Katherine Parkinson). After a while an additional DJ shows up, Gavin Cavanagh (Rhys Ifans), the exiled “king of DJs.

Opposed to Radio Rock is the British government, with Minister Alistair Darmody (Kenneth Branagh) entrusted with the mission to shut the station down. Mr. Branagh’s role is similar to the one he played in Rabbitproof Fence, that of the Australian government minister who carried out a racist policy against the Aborigines. In keeping with the tenets of farce, Mr. Branagh plays the part to the hilt—we could easily see him twirling a mustache and rubbing his hands in glee. Darmody is served by an underling with the curious name of Twatt, who reminds me of the cartoon characters of Sylvester Cat or Wylie Coyote in the way that he comes up with devious plan after plan, only to be thwarted each time by the intended victim.

The film will be hard to use with a church group due to a number of sex scenes and the episode in which the Count, forbidden by Quentin to use the “F” word, leaves the mike open and manages to get his boss to say it first. This goes out on the air to listeners, most of whom are amused and delighted, while the government officials gnash their teeth in outrage. Also, I cannot recommend the subplot in which young Carl loses his virginity ( “a boat load of “birds” come aboard for regular visits with the lecherous crew). More acceptable is another subplot involving Carl searching for the identity of his father, whom his single-parent mom refuses to identify. Is he one of the crewmembers? The film seems headed on a tragic course in the final episode, in which Mother Nature does what Her Majesty’s government is unable to do, sink the ship, the government refusing to allow a rescue mission, allegedly because of lack of funds. From a Christian or moral standpoint, this is a very flawed film, and yet also enjoyable with its theme of the little people standing up to the powerful and pompous government officials

For Reflection/Discussion

1. In what ways is this a counter-cultural story? How does the filmmaker’s siding with the radio staff affect the way that the government officials are portrayed?

2. Compare the film to Footloose. How are the opponents in the latter film shown as more rounded characters? Indeed, in that film, how does the minister played by John Lithgow change?

3. What do you like about, and what would you disagree with, the DJs? How might their loose sexual mores add to the bias against rock and roll music?

How did rock and roll both embrace societal change and contribute to it?