REVIEW: The Boat That Rocked [Pirate Radio] [2009]

“All he did was sleep with someone else’s wife”

Why must Hollywood retitle a film that was produced in Britain? It’s the same language and frankly The Boat That Rocked sounds so much cooler than Pirate Radio … doesn’t it? Either way, no matter what it’s called, writer/director Richard Curtis has crafted a second hit to follow up his magnificent romantic tapestry Love Actually. Taking place on a renegade ship, anchored in the North Sea, the film follows eight DJs, their producer, his God son aboard to be “set straight” after expulsion from school, and the other eccentrics which help make Radio Rock an underground hit. I feel so weird calling it underground when, according to Curtis’ subtitles at the start giving a bit of history, half the population of Great Britain was listening to the “illegal” feeds. The government tries its damnedest to shut it down and the rockers live without consequence miles from shore with all the music, booze, smokes, and sex they can handle. It’s a feel-good tale about an underdog bucking the “man” as well as a piece of history, no matter how fictionalized, to show how massive freedom of speech is. 1966 was a time of rock legends, some of the most famous Brits themselves, and yet their own country could not hear them.

Do not be afraid that the film will delve into British humor and detract an American audience from understanding what’s going on. The biggest draw on the station, The Count, is actually an American himself—knocked out of the park by Philip Seymour Hoffman—and the rest of the crew doesn’t shy away from other foreigners as well. Even Murray from “Flight of the Conchords”, New Zealander Rhys Darby, gets involved in the shenanigans as Angus ‘The Nut’ Nutsford, playing, funnily enough, a character much like his maligned counterpart on that show. In fact, the only true British-ness included comes from the Parliament side-plot of Kenneth Branagh’s Sir Alistair Dormandy trying to rid the airwaves of pirate radio’s pornography. His character is so proper, cold, and, dare I say, square, that the juxtaposition of the people against rock music with those for it hits home perfectly. The comparison shows most at Christmas when we see the raucous good time on the ship—complete with Easter Bunny thanks to Tom Brooke’s ‘Thick’ Kevin—and the stuffy feast of boredom at Dormandy’s house with his right hand man as a guest, Jack Davenport’s Dominic Twatt. Poor guy, he’s always on the other side of pirates.

I like that the politics of the era and what these men were doing comes across, but it is admittedly the least effective plotline of an otherwise riot of a time. Much like Curtis’ directorial debut, The Boat That Rocked contains multiple characters with storylines that intersect and diverge as the story progresses. Unlike that film though, this one all takes place at the same locale with much tighter interweaving. While there are the threads containing ‘Young’ Carl, (Tom Sturridge), and his quest to lose his virginity; Chris O’Dowd’s ‘Simple’ Simon Swafford’s dream to find true love, and its hiccup named January Jones; and the mystery behind Tom Wisdom’s ‘Midnight’ Mark and his sexual power despite never uttering more than two words in a row; amongst so many other subplots, everything runs parallel and soon becomes solved. The film isn’t necessarily a story to be followed with evolution of character or global impact, instead it’s a platform to throw some very interesting people together and watch them interact. The actors’ performances and delivery of its witty script provide the true success.

And being character-driven saves it from a slow and painful death, as its two-plus hour runtime can appear daunting before actually sitting down to watch. I feel some of the government stuff could have been excised, especially since their being thwarted gets a bit repetitive. It shouldn’t all be gone, however, because the back and forth on the radio as these ‘pirates’ fight back is crucial, but how often do we really need to see Branagh explode in frustration and failure, in fact listening to the station he feels is illegal to listen to? All these moments end up doing is ramp up expectations for when guys like Hoffman, Nick Frost, and Rhys Ifans come back in frame. These are the guys that breath life into the tale and make it an exciting journey. Ifans and Hoffman quarrel as they try and defeat the other to rule the station and prove the other to be a chicken while Frost just delights in his normal affable way. I still can’t believe this guy wouldn’t be in the movies if not for Simon Pegg getting him to do “Spaced” without any experience. Talk about an underdog story that benefits audiences everywhere. Let’s also not forget the great Bill Nighy, though. It is always a pleasure to watch this Brit cut loose and go against type. He played a rocker in Love Actually and here plays the man that allows the rockers to be heard.

The character that resonates the most, however, is the soundtrack playing behind all the craziness. What an era of music it was. Thankfully Curtis jam-packs every second with it whether playing on the radio, sitting on the shelves, or collaged in a montage of great records to come out after the 60s during the end credits. You’ve got Angus’s revelatory playing of two Seekers songs back to back; the obvious yet effective use of The Turtles’ “Elenore” to coincide with Jones’ character’s name, sung by the cast no less; and the great use of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, introduced fantastically by Ifans’ Gavin Cavanagh as this merry band of misfits’ world begins to crumble. Not only is the film about rock ‘n roll being a force feared by an entire country’s magistrate, or about the men and women that brought it to the people being oppressed from listening, but also about the music itself. Rock has been a platform for change, for reaching the youth of the world and stirring up feelings of doing more, being better, and just plain living. The sound may change, but the message will always stay the same. As The Count says at the end, “… all over the world, young men and young women will always dream dreams and put those dreams into song … [so many fantastic songs] will still be written, they will still be sung and they will be the wonder of the world.” Bravo to Curtis and crew for getting that message out, showing us what censorship can do, and bottling it all into one heck of a good time.

The Boat That Rocked [Pirate Radio] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
[1] (left–right) Will Adamsdale, Tom Wisdom, Bill Nighy, Katherine Parkinson and Ralph Brown star in Richard Curtis’ rock and roll comedy PIRATE RADIO, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey
[2] Philip Seymour Hoffman (center) and Nick Frost (right) star in Richard Curtis’ rock and roll comedy PIRATE RADIO, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Alex Bailey

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