"Don’t rock the boat" technically means, "Don’t stand up and dance around in this dinghy, lest we capsize and drown." But like many clichés, it’s gathered a certain amount of baggage. For some folks, the phrase embodies commonsense citizenship: Play nice. Don’t throw spitballs or start food fights in the cafeteria. Don’t wear your bathing suit to work, even on casual Fridays. For others, it can embody a level of sheepish acquiescence: Follow the crowd. Don’t question authority. Change your last name to Lemming.
So just what happens when you sequester a whole bunch of natural boat-rockers on … a boat?
In 1966, the British government tightly controlled the island’s radio airwaves through its omnipresent media entity, the BBC. Its outlets were committed to fostering high culture, and as such the dial was dominated by classical music and educational programming. British rock was storming the United States, but not one state-controlled station on the island was broadcasting The Beatles, The Stones or The Who.
Offshore, it was a different matter. Several ship-based radio stations were broadcasting rock ’til you drop to upwards of 25 million listeners. That’s fact. Onscreen, it’s suggested that (the fictional) Radio Rock was one of the movement’s literal flagships.
These pirate radio ships weren’t doing anything illegal, exactly. But as Radio Rock owner Quentin tells his pack of rowdy DJs, "governments loathe people being free," and it’s not long before bureaucrat Sir Alistair Dormandy—a man so pallid and grim as to make frozen carrot sticks look lively by comparison—decides to squash these ships like the loud, fetid, morally squalid sources of depravity he considers them to be.
He tells a lackey that the great thing about being in government is, "If you don’t like something, you simply pass a new law making it illegal."
It’s in the midst of this charged atmosphere that young Carl is sent to Radio Rock by his mother as a curious sort of "punishment" for getting expelled from college. He’s quickly embraced by Quentin, the DJs and the boat’s crew, and he learns that most of his mates are … well, loud, fetid and morally squalid sources of depravity. But they’re really a whole lot of fun, too, and so Carl embarks on a quixotic adventure in which he learns ….
In which he learns …
Well, maybe he doesn’t learn a whole lot. But he sure hears some cool music.
[Note: The following sections include spoilers.]
Carl, in truth, does learn one pretty important thing: the identity of his long-lost father. After discovering that he’s onboard Radio Rock, Carl tells him, "You’re the man I’ve been missing and waiting for and searching for all my life."
The revelation doesn’t seem to mean much to Carl’s father. But while the reunion might’ve felt mightily anticlimactic to Carl, the boy still risks life and limb to save his dad when the boat starts to sink.
When one of the DJs gets married aboard Radio Rock, Quentin (who’s officiating) says the couple is wedded "in the sight of God … which is scary." He adds that "Jesus Christ alone knows why [the bride] is marrying [the groom]," considering the fact that the bride looks like a "goddess."
In the middle of a guessing game, Carl is told to think of a "nice guy" who "wears a dress" and has "lots of friends." Upon hearing that the answer is Jesus, Carl sputters, "Why didn’t he say the son of God?" His game partner, Thick Kevin, looks flabbergasted. "He is?" he says.
You can think of Pirate Radio as sort of an Animal House that floats.
When Carl comes aboard, he sheepishly tells his shipmates that he’s always attended all-male schools and the closest he’s come to a sexual encounter was when he was "licked on the face by a horse." Immediately, Carl’s virginal status (and its loss) becomes the boat’s primary preoccupation and, by extension, the film’s.
Radio Rock receives a shipment of women every two weeks or so—invitees who "pleasure" the DJs and crew. There’s talk of threesomes, partner swapping, anatomical attributes, defecation during sex and much, much more.
Carl does eventually fling off his virginity. But he’s not fast enough for Marianne, the girl involved. She does the deed with another smooth-talking DJ while Carl searches for a condom. Once the pair has officially paired—a bit later—Carl walks out of his cabin to find the entire boat waiting—and broadcasting the act live—from the hallway.
We see one man nude. (His hands cover his genitals.) Carl’s backside is shown after an attempt at sex. Others appear naked, too, their most critical parts covered by sheets.
DJs verbalize some pretty shocking double entendres on the air. The ship’s female cook sleeps with one of the boat’s female guests. DJs admit to having had homosexual one-night stands and cheating on their wives. (A government official calls the DJs "bottom-bashing fornicators.") Carl’s mother, Quentin tells us, was a "sexual legend."
Oh, and that wedding I referenced is just a sham, by the way. The bride is using the groom as her passport to live long-term on the boat—so she can have sex with someone else.
The Count and Gavin, vying essentially for station supremacy, engage in a game of chicken that requires them to climb up the ship’s mast, crawl along the crossbars and, finally, jump into the icy waters below. Both complete their daring task—and both are later shown battered and bandaged.
The ship, while fleeing British authorities, hits something big and sharp. It begins to sink, and as the water rises onboard, several passengers appear to be in mortal peril.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear the f-word nearly 30 times, but its presence goes beyond this simple tally. The word is used to illustrate the boat’s anarchist tendencies, with the Count announcing to his audience that he’ll be uttering the word on the air very soon. Quentin apparently talks him out of it. But during their discussion of the f-word—in which it is used liberally—we learn that the Count "mistakenly" kept the microphone live.
Other curses include an s-word, a half-dozen misuses of God’s name (once paired with "d‑‑n"), two abuses of Jesus’ name and the British profanity "bloody."
Drug and Alcohol Content
We don’t see drugs being used on the boat, but the drug culture seems to be a given. When Carl first shakes hands with Quentin, Quentin asks if they’ve met before. When Carl says no, Quentin says, "There was a lost decade, so I always have to check." Carl admits to Quentin that he was expelled from school for smoking cigarettes and taking other unspecified drugs—to which Quentin says, "Well done." A DJ claims to have taken scads of drugs.
A birthday cake looks like it’s festooned with cigarettes (though it could be marijuana, too). Almost everyone is shown smoking and drinking.
Other Negative Elements
Radio Rock is, for much of the film, a technically legal entity. But when the government does pull the plug on floating radio stations, the ship pulls up anchor and starts running from the law, broadcasting all the way.
Neither Carl’s mom nor dad appear to be particularly good parents. It’s a wonder, frankly, that Carl is as well-adjusted as he is.
One of the taglines floating around the Internet for Pirate Radio goes like this: "1 boat. 8 DJs. No morals."
That is, in fact, an excellent summary of what moviegoers can expect. We really need to say little else here.
But we will anyway.
The charm of Pirate Radio is predicated on rock music’s self-image of rebellion. The film gives us a black-and-white choice between the "good guys" (the wild, crazy, music-loving DJs) and the "bad guys" (the staid, stupid, music-hating government officials). It’s a clash as timeless as pitting the grim, grouchy third-grade teacher against the much-loved class clown. In playground public opinion, the clown always wins.
But historically speaking, the "battle" was a bit more nuanced. It wasn’t as if rock was outlawed on the British Isles, after all. British rock albums flew off the shelves there as much as they did in America. The boat-bound stations weren’t shut down because the music was foul, but because the frequencies were jamming emergency lines and endangering sailors (something the film alludes to, but with an air of skepticism). Most of the boats went off the air without much protest. And six weeks later, the BBC launched its own rock and pop show.
But those little facts somewhat undermine the comedy Pirate Radio wants to create around the idea that rock is the providence of bad boys. And bad boys have so much more fun than the folks who play by the rules, right?
"These are the best days of our lives," the Count tells Carl one night. "Maybe you’ll have better days, but I doubt it."
It’s a statement that hints at a two-pronged philosophy: 1) To live in a state of perpetual adolescence is the ideal—and maybe the only satisfying—way to live one’s life, and 2) Behaving irresponsibly is a great way to stay young. How does that old John Cougar song go? "Hold on to 16 as long as you can?" In Pirate Radio, we have a literal boatload of middle-aged men who take that philosophy to heart—and the results, to my eye, aren’t all that pretty.
Near the end of the film, we see one of the DJs, now completely submerged on his sinking vessel, nearly die because he refuses to let go of his stash of records. It is, in fact, the perfect metaphor for nearly everyone on that boat: By clenching grimly to the idea that the only worthwhile way to live is to live wild and live young, they’re unable to embrace the beauty of life in all its fullness, in all its stages.
"These are the best days of our lives," the Count says. Really? The best days for this guy consist of living on a cramped boat, running from the law while holed up with a bunch of other delusional, self-absorbed, middle-aged man-boys.