Monday, November 23, 2009

“Pirate Radio”: Two Views

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R, actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans and writer/director Richard Curtis on the set of Pirate Radio. (Alex Bailey/MCT; copyright © 2009.)


Frat-Boy Romp Through the British Invasion


“One boat, eight D.J.’s, no morals.” That’s how Pirate Radio, the new film by writer-director Richard Curtis, is being advertised. But though Pirate Radio is a work of fiction, it’s inspired by true events in Britain in the mid-1960’s. At the time, British rock bands — the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Yardbirds and others — were the most popular in the world; indeed, they sold so many records and drew so many concertgoers in the U.S. as well as the U.K. that they were known as the “British Invasion.” But the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) only broadcast rock ’n’ roll on the AM band two hours a day — and to serve a rock-hungry public a group of independent entrepreneurs hit on the idea of breaking the BBC’s monopoly and broadcasting all-rock programs from stations aboard ships, moored in international waters off the British coast and therefore at least theoretically out of the reach of British law.

At least that’s the legend the film tells. The BBC wasn’t as uniformly hostile to rock as it’s depicted in this movie. The Beatles themselves had a half-hour weekly program on the BBC, Pop Go the Beatles, in which they played not only their hits but material (mostly covers of 1950’s hits by their American heroes, including Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and the Coasters) they never otherwise recorded — and in 1994 some of these songs were issued on CD’s and turned out to be among the most exciting and dynamic performances the Beatles ever gave. What the BBC did refuse to do was play rock ’n’ roll records for more than two hours a day. In the U.S. in the 1930’s and 1940’s U.S. radio stations had generally avoided playing commercial records, partly because the record companies didn’t want them to (the reasoning was that you wouldn’t buy a record if you could hear it on the air for free) and partly because they didn’t think records sounded good enough for the radio. Improvements in sound quality and the development of radio as a promotional medium for records changed all that in the U.S. in the 1950’s — but the BBC still clung to the idea that if they were going to broadcast rock at all, they were going to do it the old-fashioned way, with the musicians in their own studios performing in real time.

The inspiration of the pioneers of what came to be called “pirate radio” — not only because they were operating in defiance of British law but because they were literally doing so at sea — was not only to play rock records on the air but to copy the format of American Top 40 radio. That meant a high-energy presentation in which the disc jockeys wouldn’t just politely tell you what the song was called and who was playing it, the way the BBC’s announcers did; they’d practically scream out the titles and band names, carry on a running line of patter to project their own personalities and sometimes even talk over the music. It also meant that they would accept advertising and support themselves financially through commercials, the way American stations did. In her 1966 book on British rock, The Pop Makers, author Caroline Silver described how the most popular of the pirate stations, Radio Caroline — named after U.S. President Kennedy’s daughter and the real-life model for the fictitious “Radio Rock” in Pirate Radio — operated:

“Unlike licensed British radio stations, which do not broadcast commercials, Radio Caroline is a commercial station, accepting advertisements which are paid for at the rate of 100 pounds sterling ($280) a minute. With this money, Caroline operates two radio ships, Caroline North and Caroline South, from which it transmits continuous pop music interspersed with commercials. Since unlicensed broadcasting is not permitted on British territory, both the ships are moored in international waters, which means they must always be at least three miles out to sea. Caroline South lies off the southeast coast of England; Caroline North is moored in the Irish Sea near Liverpool. Their programs are enormously popular with British teenagers. The name ‘pirate’ was given to the radio ships by the press. In response, disc jockeys working on board the ships wear T-shirts with skulls and crossbones on them.”

The real Radio Caroline was powerful and well-heeled enough to run the Caroline Club, a fan club which gave it both extra promotion and an additional source of income in membership dues; and to promote live shows on the British mainland — including a November 1965 concert called Zowie One at the New Brighton Tower ballroom near Liverpool (one of the places the Beatles had played in the early days) in which 11 bands, including the well-known Yardbirds, played for free in exchange for promotion on Radio Caroline. The movie “Radio Rock” is a considerably raunchier operation, in which — unlike the real pirate D.J.’s — the fictional ones hardly ever leave the ship. It comes off as less a radio station — even a counter-cultural one — than a giant, ongoing frat party at sea. The plot of Pirate Radio intersperses three story lines: the coming-of-age story of young naïf Carl (Tom Sturridge), who’s sent to the station’s ship by his hyper-sexual mother Charlotte (Emma Thompson); the rivalries among the D.J.’s themselves — particularly the charismatic Gavin Cavanaugh (Rhys Ifans) and “The Count” (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an American expat hired by Radio Rock to give their programs the authentic U.S. “feel” they were aiming for; and the efforts of the British government to shut down the pirate stations.

The real 1960’s pirate D.J.’s were regularly ferried back and forth between the radio ships and dry (British) land, where they got to socialize, hang out in pubs and generally have normal lives. The movie D.J.’s are a bunch of horny straight guys trapped on the ship almost 24/7 with only one female — a Lesbian cook named Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) — and supplied with food, drink and sex only at two-week intervals when a launch comes to the ship bearing women. Among the ship’s permanent residents are the self-consciously aristocratic owner Quentin (Bill Nighy), whom Carl at one point thinks is his father. (Asked by one of the D.J.’s who his dad was, Carl laconically says, “Some guy who fucked my mum one night and left without leaving a thank-you or an address.”) The assorted D.J.’s include Dave (Nick Frost), who takes on the task of getting Carl his first chance at sex — an effort which ends a good deal better for Dave than Carl when he comes between him and nice-girl Marianne (Talulah Riley), Quentin’s niece and the woman Carl really wants but is too scared to ask.

The forces of authority are led by Cabinet minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (an almost unrecognizable Kenneth Branagh) and his assistants, Twatt (Jack Davenport) and Miss C (Sinèad Matthews) — in the original draft of the script she was called “Miss Clit” but Curtis blessedly decided that two characters whose names were sexual innuendi were at least one too many. Coming off as refugees from Monty Python (whose initial run on BBC-TV started in 1969, three years after the prime of pirate radio), these three are caricatures of the evil authority figures common in rock ’n’ roll movies. Dormandy is a social reactionary who wants to impose his own preference for classical music on the entire country, and he’s also sufficiently screwed-up sexually that he continually talks about wanting to “grab the testicles” of the radio pirates and squeeze them.

The conceit that there’s an ongoing battle for the soul of radio between elitists who want to stick the public with boring classical music and down-to-earth folks who want to give audiences the pop they want is as old as the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly — also based on a real-life radio personality (a woman named Jean Hay who broadcast a swing-music show to American servicemembers in World War II) and also refusing to acknowledge the possibility that there might be some people out there who like both classical and pop. It’s an especially ironic plot gimmick for a movie set in 1960’s Britain, where many of the rockers drew on the classics for inspiration (Paul McCartney wrote a piccolo trumpet into “Penny Lane” after he heard one in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, and Procol Harum turned a Bach organ chorale into “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) and were quite proud of themselves for doing so.

There’s another older movie that has a similar authorities-vs.-youth conflict over music, and it was also both made and set in Britain: It’s Trad, Dad! (released in the U.S. as Ring-a-Ding Rhythm), a 1962 production directed by Richard Lester and drawing on the same cheeky sensibilities as his later films with the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! In some ways it’s even cheekier than Pirate Radio — complete with a narrator who takes an active part in the action — made during a time when film censorship was considerably stricter in both the U.K. and the U.S. and the kind of sexual content splashed across the screen in Pirate Radio would have been inconceivable. Nonetheless, Pirate Radio (released in Britain — and listed on the Web site — as The Boat That Rocked, a more ambiguous title) is quite likable, a rambunctious romp, nicely acted and so ferociously energetic that though it’s relatively long (135 minutes) it doesn’t seem padded, as so many two-hour-plus movies these days do.

Pirate Radio is being sold as a star vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman, probably because he won the Academy Award for playing the title role of Capote, but it’s really an ensemble film. Certainly Hoffman’s role as the grizzled “Count” is as far from the nattily dressed, queeny Truman Capote as could be imagined — a nice tribute to the actor’s versatility — but Rhys Ifans’ Gavin is a more striking and more charismatic character. (Ifans previously starred in a charming Australian import from 2004 called Danny Deckchair, in which he’s a proletarian loser whose life changes when he equips his deck chair with helium balloons and flies: a live-action precursor to the recent computer-animated hit Up.) As Carl, Tom Sturridge is perfectly cast, attractive but sufficiently guileless that we can believe he’s still a virgin when the action starts — and Emma Thompson delivers a force-of-nature performance as his mom, making an indelible impression in just five minutes of screen time. Bill Nighy is O.K. as Quentin — though I couldn’t help but wish Curtis had cast Branagh in this role and got Monty Python veteran John Cleese to play Dormandy — and of the three “baddies” it’s Jack Davenport’s Twatt who makes the strongest impression, projecting the character’s bullying nature as well as his fear of losing his job if he can’t figure out a legal way to get Radio Rock and its pirate brethren off the air.

Though Curtis draws on many real-life incidents involving the pirate radio ships for plot elements — including an on-air marriage of one of the D.J.’s and a shipwreck scene he directs in what appears to be a deliberate parody of the James Cameron Titanic — the most moving plot element is the dramatization of just how powerfully the pirate stations reached their audience and built a sense of community. Early on in the film Curtis shows a young boy sneaking a portable radio out of his dresser drawer and keeping it under his pillow so he can listen to Radio Rock clandestinely while his parents think he’s sleeping — a scene Curtis remembered from his own childhood. Throughout the film Curtis cuts between the broadcasting activities aboard Radio Rock’s ship and people of various ages and stations in life listening to them and cherishing the D.J.’s as virtual friends. (Even the station’s newscaster, played by Will Adamsdale as the expected WKRP in Cincinnati nerd stereotype, seems to spend more time talking about the doings of the D.J.’s than anything that’s happening outside the ship.) This powerful sense of rock ’n’ roll radio as a community builder — immortalized in the 1960’s by songs like Bob Seger’s “Heavy Music” and Lou Reed’s “Rock ’n’ Roll” — is, more than anything else, what makes Pirate Radio more than just a raunchy comedy with an intriguing premise.

The ending of Pirate Radio portrays the battle between the pirates and the authorities as one in which the pirates lost the battle but won the war. Curtis doesn’t tell us that the British government’s response to pirate radio was both to beat them and join them; while Parliament was passing the Marine Offences Act to make the pirate broadcasters illegal, the BBC was creating a 24-hour rock channel, Radio One, and even hiring some of the pirate stations’ star D.J.’s — including Radio Caroline’s Johnny Walker (real-life model for “The Count”) and Radio London’s John Peel. Nor does he mention that the real crusader against pirate radio in the British government wasn’t a cookie-cutter Right-winger like the fictional Dormandy; he was Tony Benn, a radical socialist in the Labor Party (he’d been born into an aristocratic family as Anthony Wedgwood-Benn but had cut down his name to match his Leftist politics). Curtis’ final credits boast that there are now half a million radio stations in the world playing rock and pop full-time, but in his zeal for an affirmative ending he ignores just how homogenized and dull commercial rock radio has become; a little over a decade after Seger and Reed penned their songs about the power and community of broadcast rock, the best songs about rock on the air were cynical anti-commercialist diatribes like Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio” and the Clash’s “Capital Radio.”

Nonetheless, Pirate Radio is a dazzling film, a fun romp that manages to put a fresh spin on the hoary old clichés of the rock ’n’ roll movie and make some pretty well-worn situations seem new and amusing. Occasionally Curtis seems to have written his script around the music — one gets the impression the film uses “Marianne” and “Elenor” as character names just because there were songs from the period with those titles — but with strong, vital music like this that’s not a problem. Ironically, the songs by American acts — the Beach Boys, Turtles, Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Aaron Neville and the Box Tops — seem to hold up at least marginally better than the ones by the Brits, the Kinks and the Who excepted. But there are enough music cues in this film that if they included all of them on the soundtrack CD, it would be a boxed set. Though one could imagine an even more interesting film with the 1960’s radio pirates as its basis, this one is quite entertaining and well worth your while.


Something for Everyone

by D J CEE

Pirate Radio has something for everyone. Saying some thing like this is usually lazy and evasive, but this film really does have just about everything.

(Full disclosure: I was a D.J. on Free Radio San Diego for about five years and was asked to do this review because I might have a unique take. This movie is about a very different time, and my pirate experiences only vaguely resemble the fictionalized history Pirate Radio offers.)

Let’s check everything off and be sure that Pirate Radio does have something for everyone.

Sex: Yes, plenty; about as much as you can have in an R-rated film and still have time for anything else. (While the gigantic popularity of Radio Caroline, the main inspiration for the film, might have given the D.J.’s an edge with women, a man today would have better luck being in the worst band in town than being a pirate D.J.)

Heartbreak: Yes. One D.J.’s marriage collapses as soon as it begins. (See also sex.)

Coming of age/Journey of Discovery: Yes. Much of the film focuses on a young man just expelled from school, who for no rational reason ends up living on the pirate radio ship. He also loses his virginity. (See also sex.)

Violence/Catastrophe: Not much in the way of violence, personal violence. There’s a rivalry between D.J.’s that approaches insanity. The real action comes toward the end. There’s a police raid (something too familiar to radio pirates today) that puts you on the edge of the seat. The real action comes at the end in a shipwreck that draws on The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic.

Comedy: Yes. Lots. Sometimes just right. Sometimes a bit jarring: the Pythonesque scenes of Kenneth Branagh as the government minister working to close down pirate radio just try too hard.

Now while it’s fun to dissect a movie, you will have much more fun seeing this one. It will make you talk to your friends. You’ll wonder why some things are unavoidable on radio while others are entirely absent. You’ll remember times that you got together with others for a purpose.

Perhaps more than the sex, catastrophe, comedy or great ensemble acting, this movie is about the power of music. Even if you don’t like rock ’n’ roll, or any sort of popular music, you have almost certainly been under the spell of a musician. Screaming, hollering, running around in front of the bandstand (or the pulpit) demonstrates the power of music. Falling into a trance at a piano recital demonstrates music’s power. Risking prison, confiscations, and astronomical fines just to broadcast makes music’s hold on us plain. Celebrating the power of music and uncensored speech is what pirate radio is all about. Happily, it’s what this movie is about.