There’s a real love for classic rock and pirate radio that shines through in Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked, a piece of 60s nostalgia that might have otherwise sunk under its sentimentality.
Despite a somewhat plotless script – the opposite of the problem that plagued Curtis’ previous film, Love, Actually – it’s impossibly cheerful and downright infectious; sure to win over most audiences. And as you might expect, given the subject matter, there’s an excellent soundtrack featuring over 50 hits from the era.
Curtis is best known as the writer-director of Love, Actually and as the screenwriter of Bridget Jones’ Diary, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and others – some of the most popular romantic comedies of recent years.
The Boat That Rocked carries the same breezy tone as those films, but there’s precious little romance or comedy, at least in the traditional sense; instead, there’s a love by the director for his subject matter (the tale of pirate radio was Curtis’ pet project), and a cheery, warm-hearted air throughout in the place of the usual gags.
It’s the mid-60s, and pirate radio stations have taken Britain by storm, playing the rock hits that listeners really want to hear instead of the regulated fare on the country’s land-based stations. You see, they’re pirates in more literal sense: getting around standards and policies by broadcasting from ships in international waters.
The most popular off these stations is Radio Rock, owned and operated by the groovy Quentin (Bill Nighy). His DJs include American expatriate The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the hip, ever-popular Gavin (Rhys Ifans), who is returning to Radio Rock after a stint in the US, Doctor Dave (Nick Frost), Angus (Rhys Darby, who gets a lot of laughs here), Simple Simon (Chris O’Dowd), ladies’ man Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), and Bob Silver the Dawn Treader (Ralph Brown), whose presence goes almost unnoticed given his early-hours slot.
Others aboard include a lesbian cook played by Katherine Parkinson (there are no heterosexual women allowed on the ship), news man On-The-Hour John (Will Adamsdale, who has a great throwaway line towards the end), a mild comic relief role, Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), and a strangely mute shipmate Harold (Ike Hamilton) – I’m not quite sure what his role was here, but he features in one of the film’s most touching scenes.
And then there’s our young lead, Carl (Tom Sturridge), who has been sent by his mother (Emma Thompson) to live with this crew, for some reason. It’s quite an ensemble cast, and they’re all quite wonderful here, creating fully realized characters without all that much screen time.
There’s a disaster movie climax, played out in the same breezy-fun tone as the rest of the film by the director, in which we inexplicably find ourselves caring about the characters almost despite the film itself. And we care about them despite their faults – of which there are many – chief of which (especially amongst the DJs) is a general air of smugness.
The bulk of the film is generally plotless: we watch the characters eat, drink, party, screw, fall in love, get their hearts broken, and broadcast some classic rock to the faithful schoolgirls, nurses, pre-teen boys and young lovers tuned in. Not much of significance goes down (my favorite scene: a showdown between The Count and Gavin), but we’re content to share our time with these characters, just like Carl, happy to be on board.
There is some semblance of plot, however, and it’s The Boat That Rocked‘s one big weakness. Government official Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) wants to shut the station down, and employs a man named Twatt (Jack Davenport) to aid him.
The scenes featuring these characters – and Branagh’s performance, in particular – are such broad parody they only detract from the rest of the movie. What’s worse, they are almost completely isolated from the other characters; those on board Radio Rock aren’t even aware of their existence, and while they are aware of the government efforts to shut them down, they do little to actively combat them.
There’s also a mild bias towards women on display, which is strange considering Curtis’ previous features. Most of the female characters are groovy 60s sex objects in the Austin Powers vein, two of which break the hearts of male characters rather remorselessly.
But on the whole, The Boat That Rocked is perfect lightweight fun as long as you’re in the right frame of mind. While it’s mostly fictionalized, Curtis has based Radio Rock on the real-life Radio Caroline. And that soundtrack really is excellent.