Film review: The Boat That Rocked [Pirate Radio in America] (2009), directed by Richard Curtis
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything good said about this movie, or indeed read a good review of it, yet it still has a healthy 7.4 out of 10 rating on IMDb, after a good 40.6k votes. Which sort of spoils the whole “now I know why” idea.
The Boat That Rocked, written and directed by the British RomCom King Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually, Four Weddings, Bridget Jones, etc., he basically made Hugh Grant’s career AND was behind The Vicar of Dibley), is set in 1966 and is a celebration of the golden era of pirate radio. It begins by telling us that it was the era of great music, and yet, the BBC played less than an hour of it every day. As a result, there were a number of pirate music stations operating offshore, such as on ships docked in international waters.
The film is a story of one such ship, transmitting Radio Rock 24 hours a day. To this vessel, young Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent by his mum (Emma Thompson) to “shape up” – although considering the ship is all about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, you can’t help but question her motives. On board, he has his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), who owns the station, and an assorted cast of DJs (including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O’Dowd, Rhys Darby (the manager in Flight of the Conchords), Nick Frost and Rhys Ifans) and crew, such as Felicity (Katherine Parkinson, Jen in The IT Crowd), the cook. A lesbian, she’s the only female exception to the “men only” rule.
On shore, in the Houses of Parliament, is Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a humourless politician tasked with shutting down the pirate stations. At his command, he has the equally square Twatt (Jack Davenport), whom he hopes can help. Of course, the pirate stations aren’t actually doing anything illegal by existing, but they’re out of the government’s control, and use “filthy language” and is “a menace to society”, and so on, you get the idea.
Other notable appearances: Talulah Riley as Marianne (Quentin’s niece), Gemma Arterton as a groupie and January Jones as Elenore.
So the film is basically about what goes on behind the mike at Radio Rock, and about the politicians trying to shut them down, and all the while, we’re treated to a fabulous soundtrack. And it’s not half bad a film – not half good either, granted, but you know, all in all …
The characters are perhaps not the most likable ever, not all of them, yet they are mostly endearing and at least some of them get to develop a little. As it’s a big ensemble film, unfortunately everyone can’t get a lot of space, but at least you get to see them. A bonus is that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a character that is actually sympathetic for once – he normally gets to play slimeballs for some reason.
I think the problem with the film is that it doesn’t quite know what it is. Is it a loving tribute to pirate radio (yes)? A romantic comedy (err, which couple are we supposed to root for)? A plain comedy (better)? A film about music radio (yes)? Or a film about times gone past (yes)? It tries to be Jack of all trades and because of that, it doesn’t really master any. Still, as a radio person, I can’t knock a film about a radio station, especially not one that plays such great music. And not when it’s created by the master that is Richard Curtis, whom I’ve yet to see a film by that I didn’t instantly love, with or without Hugh Grant.
Can’t help but feel nostalgic, even though I was born 15 years after the end of pirate radio. There’s just something terribly romantic in living on a ship broadcasting radio to spite The Man and giving people what they want. Ahh, those were the days.
3.7 out of 5 chickens.