‘The Boat that Rocked’

Hang the DJs! Hang the DJs!


As someone who spent his formative years involved in FM radio in its glory days — picture, if you will, a scrawnier version of the teen rock-journo in “Almost Famous” — I’ve always been partial to films about DJs. “Talk Radio,” “Play Misty For Me,” hell even “It’s All Gone, Pete Tong” give me a warm and fuzzy feeling equaled only by the fine bottle of West Coast Shiraz downed prior to viewing this week’s film in question.

As such, I was primed to enjoy director Richard Curtis’ “The Boat That Rocked” (opening locally as “Pirates Rock”), an ode to the halcyon days of British pirate radio, circa 1966, when the stodgy old BBC dominated the airwaves and mostly refused to recognize the revolution that was happening in pop music. Considering that 1966 saw the release of records like Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On,” The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” Bob Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde,” and The Beatles becoming, ahem, “more popular than Jesus,” you’d have to have been absolutely bloody-minded, clueless, or a bit of both to ignore what was going on, but the old BBC excelled in that. (As local snooze-fest NHK manages to do even now.)

There were those, however, to whom state control of broadcasting was an insult, for whom radio could be all music, all fresh, and sans lectures, gardening advice, or granny’s favorite all-banjo version of “Listen To The Mockingbird.” These people, driven by that old entrepreneurial spirit (and, frequently, cash from Britain’s former colonies), took advantage of a legal loophole, setting up transmitters offshore on old trawlers and coastal-defense installations, outside the reach of the law, but within broadcasting range of the mainland. Soon more than 20 million U.K. residents were tuning in.

The Boat that Rocked
Director Richard Curtis
Run Time 135 minutes
Language English

The actual story of U.K. pirate radio is a wild one, with Radio Caroline’s founder leading a campaign to unseat Prime Minister Harold Wilson (in revenge for his crackdown on the pirates), and Radio City manager Reg Calvert getting himself shot dead by a rival. One can easily imagine a great “Boogie Nights”-esque pop history of the era, but what Curtis’ film gives us is rather more silly, like an episode of “Benny Hill” with turntables, condom jokes and nasty government bureaucrats named Twatt.

“The Boat That Rocked” is set aboard a run-down ship moored in the North Sea, home to Radio Rock and its many DJs. There we meet Carl (Tom Sturridge, in the Hugh Grant role), a shy teenager who was expelled from boarding school for smoking the evil weed. For reasons unclear, his mother has sent him to stay with his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), the libertine owner of the pirate station, who immediately offers him a spliff. Quentin initiates Carl into the boat’s frat-house atmosphere of all-male camaraderie and substance abuse, enlivened by the occasional visiting tugboat full of dollybirds.

Meanwhile, a dour government minister (Kenneth Branagh, sporting a little Hitler mustache, in case we didn’t get the point) looks for any way possible to shut down the station, which he describes, not inaccurately, as “a sewer of loose morals.” The next scene has one DJ slip out of a dark room with a girl in his bed, and send Carl back in his place, so that the teen can lose his virginity. Date rape is not necessarily the best argument in favor of sexual liberation. But gloss that over and remember, it’s rock ‘n’ roll vs. the establishment, man!

The supporting cast of DJs is well-stocked, with U.K. TV talent like Chris O’Dowd and Nick Frost adjusting their usual types slightly, Rhys Ifans as a louche DJ pitched somewhere between Rod Stewart and Howard Stern, and Philip Seymour Hoffman resurrecting his Lester Bangs impersonation from “Almost Famous” to play an irascible “long live rock!” obsessive. The “Almost Famous” comparison is a telling one, though; that film, while also being quite entertaining, had the feel of real, lived experience. “The Boat That Rocked,” on the other hand, has the feel of real, poorly imagined tripe.

The scenes of the DJs at work are one sign: They shamelessly mug for the camera, when in fact, radio DJ-ing is a solitary artform. Another is the anachronistic dialogue; nobody said “think outside the box” in the 1960s, to cite but one example of mistaking now for then. Yet another is the horde of DJ groupies on offer; with barely an exception, the DJs I met never looked as good as they sounded, and girls certainly weren’t beating down their doors. (Anyone that good-looking was surely in a band.)

Phoniest of all is the film’s central love story between Carl and Quentin’s niece, Marianne (Talulah Riley); Curtis asks us to believe in their last reel happily-ever-after, while forgetting that, earlier in the film, Marianne couldn’t wait even 10 minutes for Carl to find a condom, so she slept with Dave instead. Yes, DJs — even porky ones — are that sexy. And girls like Marianne make such wonderful partners. In some world, perhaps.

Curits’ cunning — as shown in “Love, Actually,” “Notting Hill,” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” all of which he wrote — is that he always makes sure to include one character to appeal to any given demographic. His films are the type you can go to with a bunch of workmates or cousins, and though you may all have very little in common, everyone will recognize their “type” up on the screen. “The Boat That Rocked” attempts that trick as well, but with more reliance on cliche than before, the results are disappointing.