“Rock music” was frowned upon and apart from two hours a week on the BBC, had largely been forced to operate offshore on board “pirate ships”, broadcasting illegally from international waters. Richard Curtis here presents more a re-imagining of the situations, characters and events of the period. Radio Caroline is not mentioned but lurks behind every rusty davit, extendable microphone and spin of the turntable.
“Young Carl” (Tom Sturridge) all wide eyed innocence, is sent by his mother into the heady atmosphere of a radio station that just happens to be on a boat, in the middle of the North Sea (here reperesented in key scenes by Portland harbour), that is listened too avidly, almost religously, by literally millions of rock starved fans.
The station, controlled in the loosest sense by Quinten (Bill Nighy) Carls “uncle”, is home to many characters, themselves either representations or caricatures of real DJ’s of the period. We have “The Count” (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), “The Dawn treader” (Ralph Brown) and “Thick Kevin” (Tom Brooke) and “Simple Simon” (O’Dowd).
Of course any rebellion needs something to rebel against, this is provided by Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), playing almost a pantomine villian of repressed everything. Assisted by his assistant “Twat” (Davenport), a childish mistep in character naming, after the inspired Blackadder “Captain Darling” and it’s many comic uses, it falls to Dormandy to shut down the radio station by foul means or fair, this is the goverment after all.
Life on board is anarchic, fun and is portrayed as one big happy family which may be playing fast and loose with the facts but makes for a more enjoyable movie. In an effort to boost rating still further “Gavin” (Rhys Ifan), is enticed to the station. At a time when DJ’s were almost more famous than the records they played and would have been treated like gods, he is well played by Ifan. This adds an element of rivalry with “The Count” but this is easily rectified by a double dare, which involves climbing the ships rigging to the highest point, all whilst broadcasting to the nation from below.
There are too many characters and by necessity some get pushed to the lower deck but those that remain enjoy some notable scenes. Meeting the “Dawn Treader” at breakfast he is asked who is, despite having worked on the station for years on the graveyard shift, no-one had actually ever met him. Later we see him struggling to save his prized records from a watery grave in a well photographed and lit underwater scene, “it’s all about the music man”.
“Simple Simon” gets perhaps the best scene where he mimes to “Stay with me baby” following a rather unconventional marriage and subsequent break up. Quinten also witnessing first hand the power that Star DJ’s possessed, in a chanced upon Album cover pastiche of 100 plus semi naked women held within the gravitational pull of “Gavin” the DJ.
Bill Nighy, still enjoying a spectacular late career blossoming, as usual impresses and holds the film togther. Young Carls fumblings with Marianne (Riley) are ably “assisted” by “Doctor Dave” (Nick Frost) during one of the few “ladies Days” that are allowed for the crew.
There is a story relating to Carl’s seach for his father (which allows a quick star Cameo and feels somewhat tacked on) but again this just provides another plot device to drive the story to a logical conclusion.
Perhaps some character trimming might have helped but this does not distract and even adds to the overall colour and feeling of free wheeling crazy, uncontrolled fun, with no rules. DJ’s knowing they were having the time of their life and smart enough to recognise it and how fleeting it was likely to be.
Not a detailed account of period (some songs are played before they had been written) but a fantastic evocation of the time, feel and sound that this slice of history represents.
All the characters seem just right, act like they have been DJ’s all their life and appear to be having a great time, it is certain that most of the audience will join them on the voyage.
Despite a third act that threatens to literally drown the story, emphasis is eventually put firmly back on characters rather than effects and feel good movie status is confirmed.