Rock and roll, the BBC and dictatorship: a movie review

Governments, especially repressive ones that are worried about their people getting out of hand, tend to repress art, especially that which may be considered “subversive.”

This dynamic is captured, in a feel-good sort of way, in Richard Curtis’s “Pirate Radio.” The plot of the film is fairly simple: Radio Rock (which is reportedly based on one of the real pirate stations of the day, Radio Caroline) is highly successful with its colorful mix of disc jockeys, most notably Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Count, and rock and roll. Opposed to this is Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) a miserably grey cabinet minister who leads an all-out assault on pirate radio stations. (Given that about half the population of the U.K. was listening to pirate radio, the move was highly unpopular and, one would assume, politically ill-advised.)

Thrown into the plot are a few romances, a boy’s quest for his father’s identity and a few other things of that sort. But really, the plot isn’t much more than a vehicle for some well done comedy (Simon, played by Chris O’Dowd, is hilarious as the D.J. on the sex-obsessed boat holding out for “the right one”). More important than any other theme in the movie, as cliché as this may sound, is the spirit of rock and roll.

Human beings have a natural tendency to resist repression, as evidenced throughout history, all around the world; the repression of art tends to be part of the repression of people overall, one of many tools governments use to stamp out dissent. It’s no coincidence that Iran’s highly unpopular dictatorship banned “immoral” music in 2005; already by that point student demonstrations were commonplace, and now, just a few years later, this movement has thrown the stability of the regime into question.

Iran isn’t a unique case. In North Korea, citizens are issued radios that are specifically set to receive only state programming; anyone who commits the “crime” of possessing a real, working radio faces imprisonment. One can see how the leaders, who came to power in a revolutionary movement promising liberation, might worry about the lyrics to The Who’s legendary “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “The party on the left/is now the party on the right/The men who spurred us on/sit in judgment of all wrongs…” Still, one wonders how Shakira might threaten national security.

In 1960s Britain, rock did express discontent – it was the 1960s after all. About half of the population listened to the illicit rock music that the government was trying to stamp out.

It is this spirit that the movie, with its colorful collection of pirate characters standing against seemingly inhuman bureaucrats, cheerfully portrays.

As we know, attempts to get rid of rock music ultimately failed; many of the real-life pirate radio personalities, like John Peel, became BBC Radio 1 hosts. The lesson of history is in line with that of the movie: that these attempts will eventually always fail. In an ironic twist, I saw “Pirate Radio” almost exactly 20 years after Czechoslovakia disintegrated in the “Velvet Revolution.” Of course, we all know that censorship of popular music, most famously the Velvet Underground and the Plastic People of the Universe, was a well-loved practice of the Czechoslovak leadership. This attitude that the people, artists and otherwise, should just keep quiet lest they accidentally act as Western pawns, was at least part of the reason for the nation’s collapse.

Aside from the first-rate soundtrack, this message of human irrepressibility wrapped up in a feel good comedy is the best reason to see the movie; it gives one hope. Hope, for example, that one day all of those who want to listen to Jay Z, Jimi Hendrix or some local “immoral” Iranian music (or perhaps, to read “Lolita”) in Tehran will be free to do so openly in a secular democratic republic.

Branagh, and his assistant, Mr. Twat, represent governments at their worst: limiting human expression and dignity instead of enhancing them. As the cartoonish-miserable nature of their characters point out, any government or government agency – theocrats, disintegrating socialist states, the BBC – that seeks to clamp down and censor the arts is or has set itself up against human happiness, whatever it purports to represent.