If this was the message the filmmaker was trying to impart — that the soul of rock & roll was obscured somewhere along the runaway assembly line — Pirate Radio might have been taken as a subversive commentary on a society obsessed with leisure and amusements. That’s not the message.
Once, when entertainment was something you needed to seek out, you’d pay a dime — previously a nickel, later a quarter — to listen to your favorite pop music tune through a juke box. If you got to hear your favorite song for free, on the radio, which might happen no more than five or six times each day, it was a two-minute interval of pure pleasure. Actually owning a record was a rare luxury. They were sold in limited quantities in tiny nooks of Woolworth’s, and in the back of some neighborhood drug stores, where children were discouraged from congregating.
That was the tail-end of the era depicted in Pirate Radio, which attempts to tell the story of the how the emergent teenage music overcame the rabid opposition of corporatist squares, an inevitable victory attained because joy is much better than gloom. Hundreds of screenplays have previously worked this theme, from “Rock Around the Clock” in 1956, past the “T.A.M.I. Show” of 1964, to the best of the genre, “American Hot Wax,” the 1978 biopic of DJ Alan Freed (which features a brief role for the unpleasant upstart comedian Jay Leno.)
It looked as though Pirate Radio had the potential to surpass the lot, with the advantages of a skilled writer-director, Richard Curtis, a decent budget, an engaging cast, and an under-worked subject in the short, happy life of unlicensed offshore broadcasters, who for a short while beamed their signals from the North Atlantic into Swinging London.
The movie works best when Curtis is left to do his miniaturist thing, and there are a couple of small, understated scenes that are at least as good as his earlier work in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and the “Vicar of Dibley” TV series.
In one moment representative of the best of British cinema, a disconsolate newlywed DJ, just cuckolded on his wedding night by a colleague, takes silent solace from sitting on a coach with two chums, wordlessly dipping his bourbon-cream biscuit in a mate’s mug of tea. In another standout segment, a shy, middle-aged DJ, inarticulate and socially dysfunctional when not introducing records, can’t think of a single thing to say after meeting the son he abandoned at birth. The son becomes equally mute and panic-stricken — and an audience’s impulse is to look away from something so realistically intimate and touching.
The film’s problem is that there aren’t enough of these inspired quiet moments of character study. Unexpectedly, in a rock & roll movie, there’s far too much rock & roll, and most of it is the wrong sort entirely. The historical pirate radio stations, such as Radio Caroline and Radio London, filled a need by broadcasting hit parade music interspersed with rapid-fire chatter from American-influenced DJs. The repertoire of Number One hits in the UK in 1966, spun from 45 RPM platters, included essential rock classics such as The Spencer Davis Group’s Keep On Running, The Walker Brothers’ The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, and Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames’ Get Away — none of which is heard in the movie soundtrack. (But you lot can listen to them at Mog.com, by clicking the preceding links.)
The ’66 British chart-toppers also included a fair bit of what we would now call unlistenable schlock: Tom Jones’ maudlin “Green Grass Of Home,” Frank Sinatra’s cloying “Strangers In The Night,” and Gentleman Jim Reeves’ just-plain-awful “Distant Drums.” Incredibly, those three chestnuts held the Number One position for a combined 15 weeks.
Recognizing that no contemporary CD soundtrack-buyer is going to pay for such schmaltz, even if it was what Pirate Radio listeners were accustomed to back in the day, the filmmakers elected to pull the old switcheroo, substituting how it should have been, for how it was. And so, director Curtis (who would have been sipping his Ribena as a seven-year-old when Radio Caroline was in its heyday) contrives to depict a Top 40 station as featuring an Album Rock format, when they are two entirely different beasts.
This blatant misrepresentation is further confounded by having his DJs play tunes that wouldn’t be recorded for another 12 months or more after ’66, such as Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” John Fred & the Playboy Band’s “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” and Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne.” While it’s true enough that Noel Harrison had a minor hit with Cohen’s “Suzanne” in 1968, it’s absurd to think that any Top 40 radio station might ever have subjected its listeners to Lenny’s idiosyncratic moaning.
Do we split hairs? I think not. Evidently the budget of Pirate Radio exceeded $50 million, owing to the director’s penchant for recreating period details with painstaking accuracy. To spend a fortune trying to accurately depict obscure gauges, meters, and broadcasting instruments, and then take an inauthentic approach to the music selection, is to reveal the director’s priorities. No Beatles. No Lovin’ Spoonful. However, there are two tunes by the Turtles, including “Eleanor,” which the pirate DJs seem to have been prescient enough to play two years before it was even written. (Top that trick if you can, Jimmy Savile.)
Not that you’d blame poor Curtis for being disinterested in the music. Who wouldn’t be? When you’ve spent your entire life submerged in the Baby Boomer rhythm, as we all have, it’s hard to imagine that it ever might have been fresh, interesting, or anything you’d ever go to effort of tuning in. Rock & roll is just too readily available a commodity to command any attention these days.
There’s a bit of dialogue in an earlier rock movie, the Monkees’ 1968 release, “Head,” where one of the bad guys taunts our heroes, regarding their obsession with the usual caprices such as sex, drugs and rock & roll: “Be careful of what you wish for, fellows. One day you just might get it.”
I would say that adage applies to a force-fed diet of endlessly recycled tunes, most particularly when they are so obviously being used to accompany someone’s desperate attempt to sell you something. The makers of Pirate Radio want to sell you a glimpse of how much fun broadcasting used to be, but you’ll find it more satisfying to stay home and catch a re-run of WKRP in Cincinnati.
- 11/22/09: Anyone with any degree of interest in the real pirate radio should visit http://radiolondon.co.uk/, a comprehensive, addictive site run for more than 10 years by Chris and Mary Payne.