Review: The Boat That Rocked

© Working Title / Universal Pictures

The Swinging Sixties will forever fascinate the movers and shakers of the modern world, as they were unquestionably the biggest period of cultural, sociological and artistic shift the western world has ever, and most likely will ever face.  Countless films have been made about the period, all desperately trying to cling onto the golden days when the Fab Four ruled the charts, the Mini was one of the trendiest cars you could buy, and Doctor Who was scaring children up and down the land – yes, the sixties are closer to the modern day than some would like to admit.

The Boat That Rocked is no exception, telling the story of the fictional pirate radio station, Radio Rock, which ruled the airwaves across the nation at a time when the BBC devoted less than 45 minutes per day to ‘rock n roll’.  Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost and Rhys Ifans lead a powerful ensemble as the motley gang of radio djs, technicians and hangers on who populate the station and captivate the nation, whilst Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport are the ministers desperately trying to shut down what they see as nothing more than perverse filth.

Along the way, there’s time for young Carl, sent to the ship by his carefree mother (a brilliant cameo from Emma Thompson) to ‘cure’ his dabbling in illegal substances (not a wise move), to learn valuable lessons about life, get his leg over and understand the true beauty of rock n roll.  Meanwhile the rest of the gang face a wedding, the inevitable stag party, a foolish game of chicken and genuine danger when the boat starts to fall apart.  It’s a rollercoaster ride of parties, groupies, and incredible rock songs – and it’s easy to get swept up into the fantasy.  When Hoffman’s character, The Count – whom its hard not to just adore – tells Carl that these are the best days of their lives, you believe it because a part of you wishes you were on that boat with them.

One of the downfalls of our modern world is that we, the consumer, have become so demanding.  Not only do we expect quality entertainment, but we expect it fast, and as close to free as possible.  On the surface, this means that after just a few months in stores at full price, its remarkably easy to pick up an item at a reduced rate, regardless of how much these reductions threaten to weaken the actual value of the product.

© Working Title / Universal Pictures

Such is the case with The Boat That Rocked – a film which clearly had all the hallmarks of a blockbuster hit, but had the poor misfortune to be released against some of the biggest blockbusters in recent years last summer.  Unfairly maligned by some critics, clearly expecting something closer in style to previous films from writer/director Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually, Four Weddings…), the film was then hastily re-edited (read: cut to ribbons) and sent on its merry way across the United States under the terribly dull moniker of Pirate Radio.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it again sank without a trace.  And as such, when the dvd release failed to set the world alight, it rather quickly found itself in the bargain section, being sold off as cheaply as possible in an aim to claw back some profit after its international gross only just about covered its £30million budget.

Yet The Boat That Rocked deserved better, at the very least because of its top drawer cast which has to be one of the finest ever thrown into one slice of celluloid let alone in a British production.  Leading the way, of course, is award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as the aforementioned disc jockey known only as The Count.  He’s got a heart of gold, morals of concrete and steel, and is determined to entertain whoever he can till the day he dies… and for a couple more days after that.  Countering this approach is the reckless wonder of Rhys Ifans glorious Gavin Kavanagh – a Jagger-esque, uber-preened stud who seems to ooze rock n roll from every pore, and who can’t resist a gorgeous gal – even if she happens to be married to one of his companions.

© Working Title / Universal Pictures

Around them, Nick Frost plays the arrogant ‘Doctor Dave’ with a nice twist on his standard persona, and the magnificent Ralph Brown (best known as Danny from Withnail And I) is early morning ‘Dawn Treader’ dj Bob.  Also on hand is The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd as sweet, naïve DJ ‘Simple’ Simon Swafford – who seems to be the unluckiest character in the film, but provides a belting mime-a-long to a 60s ballad that has to be seen to be believed.  And talking of The IT Crowd, Katherine Parkinson is also on hand as ‘lesbionic’ ship’s cook, Felicity – and furthering the Velvet Onion connection is a deleted scene featuring none other than Rich Fulcher (and the sight of him wrestling James Corden is something I never thought I’d witness in a million years).

Also of note is Flight Of The Conchords star Rhys Derby as hapless comedy dj Angus ‘The Nut’ Nutsford – forever the butt of practical jokes and never the object of desire, bless him. Sure, his character isn’t so far removed from that of Murray Hewitt, the hapless manager in Flight Of The Conchords but that’s hardly the point…   This is a great ensemble, with several of the main cast providing a variation on what they’re best known for: and when that includes people like Bill Nighy just being… well Bill Nighy, then the result is effortlessly cool and very very funny.

© Working Title / Universal Pictures

And that’s the real sincher here – The Boat That Rocked is funny, though coming from the writer of Blackadder and The Vicar Of Dibley it’d be shocking if it wasn’t.  Yet Richard Curtis’ background as a master sitcom writer has surprisingly led to the film feeling more like an omnibus edition of a tv sitcom than a movie in its own right at times.  That’s not to say it isn’t filmic – Curtis has a great eye for a shot, and the cramped sets enforce a tightness to most of the picture that helps you feel more and more like a part of the action, whilst the big budget wasn’t just spent on paying that sprawling cast list, but on some stunning effects work as the film reaches its, perhaps inevitable, climax.

No, the reason this feels like a sitcom is that, whilst there is an overall narrative strand in place, it acts as a clothes line upon which a series of smaller set pieces are hung out to dry… some of which work much better than others, and that includes some truly sublime deleted scenes that even Curtis himself suggests only ended up on the cutting room floor because something had to.  Somewhere out there in another dimension, perhaps, The Boat That Rocked is a multi-award winning, highly respected and much loved BBC sitcom, and each of these set-pieces on the boat form the basis of an episode, in which, each week – Kenneth Branagh’s slimy minister Dormandy and his aid Dominic Twatt (Jack Davenport) try to put an end to pirate radio once and for all.  As much as I enjoyed the film, and will do so many, many times in the years to come… one can’t help but feel envious of that alternate reality – because if this were a series, it’d be an unrivalled masterpiece.


About Paul Holmes

Editor of The Velvet Onion since 2010, I also work in arts marketing and digital content producing, writer for a few things, listen to a lot of vinyl and watch lots and lots of Doctor Who.

Posted on October 8, 2010, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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