Remember the 1960s? No? What do you mean you weren’t born? What do you mean you were a toddler? Oh, well, Richard Curtis’ latest film might still be for you, if you don’t mind gulping down a boatload of second-hand nostalgia with your comedy film experience.
The Boat That Rocked is set in a defanged, exaggerated 1966, ‘the greatest era for British Rock and Roll’, where everyone is beautiful and everyone loves music. Apart from the government, that is, whose square and backward old ministers, led by Kenneth Branagh, conspire to shut down the immensely popular Radio Rock, which broadcasts from a ship in the North Sea and spearheads a movement of pirate radio stations that beam great music into the country.
From the very start, the film firmly reveals its ambition to be little more than juvenile, rose-tinted pantomime of an ensemble comedy. Much has been made of this as Curtis’ departure from his world of urban romances (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill), but no one will be lost. Before long, the audience is introduced to young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who has been expelled from school for ‘smoking’. Curtis spectators will immediately spot Carl’s stuttering apologies and oh-so-polite innocence, and peg him as being ‘The Hugh Grant Character’, although in this case aged 18.
Carl’s mother has sent him to visit his godfather, Quentin (a deliciously camp Bill Nighy), who owns and runs Radio Rock, and presides over all nefarious activities on board. The boat itself has an over-flow of talent, featuring DJs such as Nick Frost as the cocky, sexually-predatory ‘Doctor’ Dave, Rhys Ifans as the Mick Jagger-esque Gavin and the brash Count, imported from America and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Curtis’ approach for his second film as director is to employ a single, roving camera through semi-improvised scenes featuring his ensemble cast. For the most part, this works, giving the film an organic feel, and constant focus on its able performers.
It is obvious that filming The Boat That Rocked was a fun, close-knit experience, although this translates into a film that has no real direction or grounding. Carl may be the audience’s anchor, but his story of finding both love and a father is very peripheral, with the latter especially getting the lazy treatment in both introduction and execution. Equally, Kenneth Branagh’s splendidly over-the-top turn as part of the government subplot is largely irrelevant and tangential, until a drawn-out closing sequence that apes Titanic while setting up the most saccharine of possible resolutions.
The majority of the film plays out as a series of comic sequences and set-pieces, with little emotional development or progression. The result is pseudo-misogynistic in its constant dick-waving; the only girl who lives on the ship is Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), who is allowed on board solely because she is a lesbian and she cooks (a joke that is repeated with giggling idiocy). Other female characters, such as Talulah Riley’s Marianne, are pristine, beautiful, and more than willing to cop off with multiple male crew members.
Interestingly, in the many broadcast montages, most of the station’s listeners are women; I’m sure some essay-hungry film student would love to interrogate this portrayal of women as hungry vessels for the men’s music and egos. As the actors were given free rein to improvise their on-air routines and banter, some of these sequences bubble with inspiration. In comparison to the bland, boring jokes found in the rest of The Boat That Rocked – where a Junior Minister is called Twatt in a Blackadder-pilfering moment of self-plagiarism – it is a real wonder that Curtis and company managed to capture the personality and power of radio.
This is helped in no small regard by the fantastic selection of period tunes. Overseen by Curtis and his resident soundtrack supervisor Nick Angel, the film features a real wealth of cues, from well-worn classics by The Who, Rolling Stones and Procul Harum, to some less-played tracks from The Turtles and The Hollies. Nitpicking music aficionados might feel their skin crawl at the few anachronisms in the tracks chosen, considering the very firm setting in 1966, but the assembled soundtrack goes a good way to communicating the spirit of its time.
This is all well and good; but there is still an unshakable feeling that this subject matter deserves something less middle-of-the-road, less dumbed down. Pirate radio, and the eventual restructuring of BBC radio, which incorporated many of the previously-outlawed personalities (something left out of the film’s awkward conclusion), is a fascinating period in British music – a period ripe for dramatisation. Unfortunately, Curtis has made this pleasant, scattershot comedy, full of pranks that have no consequence or conflict. There are flashes of potential throughout, but this boat rocks too gently to make much of an impression.