The irreverent yet fact-based tale of a seafaring band of rogue rock and roll deejays whose "pirate radio" captivated and inspired 1960s Britain. Playing the music that rocked a nation and a decade, the group boldly and hilariously defies the government that tries to shut them down.
Broadcasting live 24/7 from an old tanker anchored in the middle of the North Sea (just beyond British jurisdiction), Radio Rock sends out a vibrant and unifying signal to millions across the nation, ranging in age from wide-eyed pre-teens secretly tuning in long past their bedtimes to everyday people in need of a musical pick-me-up. The Radio Rock roster, overseen by unflappable station owner (and ship's captain) Quentin (Bill Nighy), includes a risk-prone American known only as The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman); mystic deejay royalty Gavin (Rhys Ifans); slyly amorous Dave (Nick Frost); idiosyncratic New Zealander Angus (Rhys Darby); the rarely seen Bob (Ralph Brown); the aptly named Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke); lovelorn Simon (Chris O'Dowd); ladies' magnet Mark (Tom Wisdom); shy Harold (Ike Hamilton); reporter News John (Will Adamsdale); and lesbian ship's cook Felicity (Katherine Parkinson).
One night in 1966, Quentin's teenaged godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) comes aboard. While Carl harbors romantic aspirations that he hopes will be fulfilled during one of the biweekly visits by Radio Rock's prettiest fans, he also hopes to find out more about his long-absent father...
As the ship sails on and rocks out, what Carl and the freewheeling, free-loving Radio Rock gang don't know is that back in London, landlocked government minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) has embarked on a vehement crusade to silence their signal—permanently. To stay afloat and keep their devoted audience plugged in, the crew will have to band together and trust in the power of music like never before.
From Richard Curtis, writer-director of the world's most guaranteed-to-deliver (wink, wink) date movie, 'Love Actually,' comes the new comedic gem, 'Pirate Radio' (or to our international readers, 'The Boat That Rocked').
Largely ignored by audiences, the studio marketing department clearly dropped the ball with this all-star release, but I can understand how that could happen. The film is rather difficult to categorize. An ensemble piece that freely leaps from juvenile antics to broken hearts and coming of age journeys, and even to a handful of thrilling ship-in-danger action moments, 'Pirate Radio' is Curtis' attempt at his own version of Robert Altman's 'M*A*S*H.' In place of the Korean War, we have the free-loving '60s, where pop music and rock n' roll weren't just synonymous, but according to the British Government, pornographic. Banned from the BBC radio stations (except for a meager 30 minutes per day), rock music in the U.K. took to the seas, broadcasting from radio stations on ships anchored off the coast. Here, the fictional Radio Rock is less 'based on a true story' than an amalgamation of many rockin' radio ships and their massive audience of 25 million listeners. The movie succeeds in recreating the "feeling" of the time, rather than the kind of technical period accuracy seen in a film like 'Zodiac.'
Our eyes into this quirky universe are those of Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), whose mother sends him to live aboard Radio Rock with its manager, Quentin (Bill Nighy), after he's kicked out of school. Carl will grow up, fall in love, and maybe – just maybe? – uncover the identity of his long lost father. Radio Rock is home to a ship full of fantastic character actors, including Phillip Seymour Hoffman ('Before the Devil Knows You're Dead'), Nick Frost ('Hot Fuzz'), Rhys Ifans ('Danny Deckchair'), and the outrageously hilarious Rhys Darby (Murray, 'The Flight of the Concords'). It's a fraternity of music. A brotherhood of practical jokes. All for one and one for Rock.
On the antagonist front, governmental baddies (who have no rock in their souls) include the dastardly-boring Kenneth Branagh ('Valkyrie') and the dastardly-dastardly Jack Davenport ('Pirates of the Carribean') whose innuendo-name is best abused in the deleted scenes. Together, Branagh and Davenport will stop at nothing to outlaw the pornographic plague of rock and/or roll. Their scenes form a nice visual and tonal contrast to the brightness and hijinks aboard Radio Rock, and are equally funny in their own way.
At first, the large ensemble story is a bit jarring. So many characters. So many montages. But somehow, in cartoonish broad strokes, 'Pirate Radio' finds truth. Over the story, we get to know each character for his or her quirks, foibles, and heart. And this is what makes the movie a pure joy to experience. Working both as fanciful escapism and an excuse to listen to some great tunes, the performers here are so top notch, without warning we find ourselves loving them all (and thinking only in pop rock song lyrics). The only bad news is that the Beatles remain absurdly expensive to clear for films, so the one band that defines '60s pop more than any other is sadly absent from this universe. Still, I sat down to watch this after a stressful day, and by its conclusion, I was grinning from ear to ear and cheering along with the characters as they shouted, "rock n' roll!"
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB dual layer, BD-Live 2.0 enabled, Blu-ray does not appear to be region locked. Popping the disc to my PS3 activated BD-Live internet trailers ('It's Complicated,' 'Green Zone,' 'MacGruber,' and 'Robin Hood') all AVC encoded at less-than-DVD bit rates, and two channel DTS stereo. BD-Live Trailers can be skipped by hitting your Menu Button.
This VC-1 1080p transfer (aspect ratio 2.35:1) is sharp and vibrant. The source is in perfect condition. No blemishes, scratches or dust. Contrast is excellent (check out the night scenes on the exterior of the ship itself – with black levels super dark next to waves crisply reflecting radiance). Detail is vivid throughout, showcasing the period production design wherever and whenever the camera decides to find focus. Colors aboard the "ship universe" are bold and strong, populating many shots with an abundance of resolution and eye candy. Despite this saturated feel, skin tones remain even and natural.
In contrast, the "government universe" is quite de-saturated, as a result of both production and costume design, and also the film's color grading. Here, skin tones are as lifeless as the characters' surroundings, but since this is clearly filmmaker intent, and accurately represented at that, no points were deducted for this difference. In fact, this grayish universe makes each return to the bold, colorful ship so much more noticeable and enjoyable.
What does knock 'Pirate Radio' ever so slightly from the heights of perfection include: aliasing on the opening white titles and in a couple of the montages featuring split-screen footage, occasional softness, and a couple of the visual effects in the climax become waxy and grainy. Overall, this is a strong Blu-ray disc that is highly colorful, but in a natural way that isn't digitally over-saturated.
For a smaller, British comedy, my expectations were low, but this disc's default English 5.1 DTS-MA surround sound track is a surprise stunner. Classic rock music is the main attraction here, of course, and yes, it's front-loaded, but the surrounds are always in use. Mostly for ambience such as ship noise, but as we're on the ocean, sequences of violent seas provide strong LFE and well placed surround effects. Dialogue is mostly centered, and clear, despite many scenes with as many as 14 characters in the same room.
The oddest part of this auditory experience is how modern, multi-channel, lossless sound deals with music recorded 40+ years ago in mono or stereo analogue. Opening titles feature The Kinks' blistering 'All Day And All of the Night' mixed with modern swooshing effects. The old song seems to hit a peak resolution when overlaid/compared with modern effects. This isn't necessarily a complaint, or a problem with the movie; simply a phenomenon of the times, of mixed eras and technologies. The good news is that all these classic tunes sound their best, so crank it up.
Universal also provides French and Spanish DTS 5.1 soundtracks. For Subtitles, they offer English SDH, Spanish, and French.
'Pirate Radio' is a silly, comic romp that manages to create meaning within a love letter to a bygone era. This film has great music, amazing actors, and a clever script. All sublime ingredients for a fun night at home. It might not be demo material, but video and audiophiles will be generally pleased with the presentation. This is an easy recommend (for teens and above – there's some sex, foul language, and drug use). And even more so to fans of British cinema, or to baby boomers looking to reminisce.