Film Review: Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio had potential. Frankly, it had more than potential with a cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Sturridge, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Chris O’Dowd, and Kenneth Branagh. Even Emma Thompson and January Jones make brief appearances. But the fact that the 2009 film was retitled and recut before being released in the US (it was released as The Boat That Rocked in the UK) aren’t good or reassuring signs.

Set in 1966 England where rock and pop music is only played on radio for a brief period of the day, Pirate Radio focuses on a ship anchored in international waters of the North Sea that broadcasts to those eager listeners. The DJs are a wild cast of characters led by the Count (Hoffman) and Ifans’s Gavin Kavanagh, who’s popularity approaches rock star levels. Living with them is Carl (Sturridge), a teenager who’s just been kicked out of boarding school and his been sent by his mother to stay on the ship with his godfather (Nighy), who runs the ship. For Carl, it’s a coming of age story. Meanwhile, the humorless government (led by Branagh) want to shut down the pirate radio stations and struggle to find excuses to do so.

It’s not all bad, really. It’s entertaining, if not unsurprising. Pirate Radio plays as a sort of 1960s Empire Records. The cool kids against The Man. They fight against each other — barely — and everyone inevitably (and unrealistically) gets along regardless of the wrongs that have been done against them. Because it’s based on the existence of pirate radios and not a specific pirate radio, some of the historical context is lost. And, just like Empire Records, there’s that fairytale happy ending that you can seemingly always count on from movies.

Photo by Alex Bailey


In a previous life, Corinne ran a music website. After going strong for a decade, the site went on a hiatus. Consider her the antiTastemaker.