When it comes right down to it, I am not really sure what the ultimate purpose is for this movie's existence. It does not seem to aspire to any higher purpose. It does show some rebellion against the government, but it is not something that is explored all that deeply. For that matter, once it reaches its conclusion, it does not seem like a whole lot has been changed. Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Pirate Radio exists solely to entertain its audience with some great music, a collection of colorful characters, and a tale of youthful rebellion of the past. Kids, pay attention, this could have been your parents 40 years ago.
Pirate Radio, released as The Boat That Rocked in the UK, is a fictional tale based on truth. It does not go so far as to claim "based on a true story" or "inspired by actual events" but I think you get the point. This is more about evoking the emotions and feel of the era without slavishly attempting to recreate a story of the time. It is a much better approach as it allows for more freedom to deliver interesting characters. For this decision, I applaud writer/director Richard Curtis, a man who has shown an ability to juggle large casts, making sure they all get their due and that you actually care about them and their place within the story.
Let's set the stage, shall we? In the 1950s and well into the '60s, BBC Radio played a mere 30 minutes of pop music. For some of that time it was illegal to play rock and roll. This has to be considered a travesty considering the wealth of rock and roll music at the time. Think about it — The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Cream, The Kinks — the list goes on and it was not allowed on the radio. Certainly makes radio piracy seem like the right thing to do, right? To that end, rock and roll DJs took to the seas, broadcasting 24/7 from ships anchored in international waters off of coasts. There were a number of ships doing this and at any given point half of all the radios in the country were tuned to one of these ships, getting a nice dose of needed rock and roll.
Pirate Radio centers on the ship called Radio Rock (inspired by Radio Caroline, which still broadcasts — check iTunes radio under Alternative Rock). It is manned by an eclectic collection of DJs who each have their specified shifts and duties, be it rock, news, or comedy. They are a colorful cadre of stir crazy folks, cooped up on a ship for long stretches with no women on board (save for their lesbian cool). They go on air, do their subversive best to deliver what the people want, and then return to their cramped quarters for a smoke.
Our entry into this story is through Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teenager on summer holiday sent to spend time with his godfather who happens to be Quentin (Bill Nighy), the station manager. He is our wide-eyed vehicle into this wild world of rock and roll, alcohol, drugs, and the biweekly sex visits by fangirls from the mainland.
Now, there really is not much of a story to be found. Pirate Radio is not so much about telling these guys story as it is allowing us into their lives. There is something very organic in the way we move around the ship, into and out of the lives of the various DJs. It is a lot of fun, so much so that I would not have minded spending more time with any of them.
Of course we do need a villain. To satisfy that requirement and give the idea of plot, we have scenes with Sir Alastair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh). He is an uptight hater of rock and roll who does all that he can to outlaw pirate radio and silence their broadcasts for good, along with his tireless assistant Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport). Their scenes are shot in washed out colors that are devoid of life and in stark contrast to the brightly colored Radio Rock where everything is alive.
The cast is filled with actors who deliver fun performances. Among them are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Count, an American DJ who is one of their most popular personalities, and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) as the Dave, a man with voracious, umm, appetites, and Rhys Ifans as the hottest DJ around, Gavin. All of their personalities add to the tapestry that is Radio Rock.
Richard Curtis does a fine job of making this movie more about the characters than about anything else. He juggles the large cast with skill, taking us onto the ship and into their lives. He presents them in such a way that we begin to care about them and don't care so much about plot. It is a movie crafted around rock and roll and entertainment above all else. I doubt he wanted anything more than to have you leave the theater with a smile on your face.
Bottom line. It is not the greatest film, but it is one that will make you smile. It will remind you about just how much great music came out of the 1960s. This is a movie that should be seen if for nothing else than the good feelings it brings up.