If I were ever asked to make a list of my top five recordings of the classic rock era, I think The Who Sell Out would be a top contender. Released in 1967, the album is mostly an homage—and perhaps a bit of a parody—of the pirate radio stations that broadcast the hottest rock 'n' roll to a voracious, largely teenage audience. At that time, the BBC refused to play more than a half hour of popular music per day, and when the bureaucrats began campaigning to rid the airwaves of "immoral" music, a bunch of roguish DJs took to the seas and piped rock to the mainland from their bulky floating transmitters. It's this cheerfully renegade spirit that The Who Sell Out captures so well; smashing rock numbers are piled on one after another, linked by fake commercials and made-up jingles (at times, it's hard to tell where the songs end and the adverts begin) and united by a merrily impish sense of humor.
Richard Curtis' film Pirate Radio is set in 1966, just a year before that Who classic, and it captures much the same spirit. The movie is based on one of the actual pirate radio stations, and that odd period of rock history more generally; the vast majority of it takes place on the boat, the large cast of characters is primarily made up of DJs, and the film itself has a gloriously ramshackle feel to it. It's stuffed almost to overflowing with sly humor, a bit of bawdiness, a winning batch of characters, and of course, lots of rock 'n' roll.
And—crucially, perhaps—it is at once a tribute and a commentary. Curtis doesn't mind picking sides—the film is very much a celebration of the free-spiritedness of the cheery pranksters who rock the boat, while the government censors are stiff, unhip, and totally unlikable—but he's also unafraid to be honest about the consequences of a lifestyle devoid of roots or responsibility.
The film is based on the station known as Radio Caroline, though it weaves together various myths and anecdotes from the pirate radio days. Here the station is simply called Radio Rock, and their rig is run by Quentin (Bill Nighy), though their biggest draw for listeners is an American expatriate who simply calls himself The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and has a nearly religious level of love for the music he's playing. There are eight DJs in total, and of course the mixture of close quarters, rock music, drugs, and alcohol make for a fair dose of drama—particularly upon the arrival of young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who is pretty sure Quentin is his father, and, later, of notorious broadcaster Gavin (Rhys Ifans), another yank whose ego is just as big as The Count's.
If the events that transpire on the boat are cheerfully loose, what's happening on dry land move the story forward and give it its structure. Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) is a prudish government-type who obsessively seeks to abolish pirate radio—though, as he is reminded daily, they are not actually doing anything illegal.
Sir Alistair is a caricature; his reasons for hating pirate radio so vehemently are never fully developed, and the film clearly sides against him. Quentin, in one early scene, notes that government censorship is an enemy to freedom, a position maintained throughout the film. And yet, Sir Alistair's concerns are not roundly dismissed; we see for ourselves the kind of heartache that can come from living a life with no rules. For all the camaraderie and good-natured hijinks on the boat, there are also cold consequences—in particular, an ugly incident when DJ Simon's (Chris O'Dowd) lady love Elenore (January Jones) joins the crew of the boat so that the two of them might marry. When her true motives come to light, though, the loose sexual morals of the men on the boat are revealed for their emptiness and grief.