There’s a right way to go about making a film centring on nostalgia, and Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked goes about it the right way. Casting aside the shackles of romantic comedy that have burdened him for so long, Curtis has produced a funny, largely plotless, broadly charactered examination of a period of time plainly dear to him accompanied by an excellent soundtrack.
In 1966, radio in the UK broadcast only 45 minutes of pop and rock music per day. The only thing for it is the existence of Pirate Radio, 24 hour broadcasts of music estimated to be listened to by 25 million Britons. The Boat That Rocked frames the existence of pirate radio and its struggle against governmental authorities around the fictional “Radio Rock” boat, captained by Quentin (Bill Nighy), and Curtis has opted for the “innocent abroad” approach in introducing the audience to the world of (fictional) Pirate Radio: Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin’s godson, is exiled to the boat and we get to meet its cast of characters, a rag-tag team who get funny lines and anaemic development.
That’s the sort of thing you can easily criticise movies for, and it looks like The Boat That Rocked has been drawing fire in the UK for its incoherence and its length. I think that’s probably a large part of the charm, because it’s very difficult to tell where the movie is going. It feels a lot of the time that elements of the story have been inserted because they’re normally regarded as essential for the development of a film; what you’ll find in most of the episodes, such as the ridiculously anti-climactic “who is my father?” storyline is just that they’re stuff that happens. The conclusion to the wedding plot is just weird, and Kenneth Brannagh’s governmental “crush pirate radio” storyline frequently gets buried in the antics.
I think that the film’s shortcomings as a story are all that important because it manages to be entertaining and to have a great cast. I was also surprised that, while the third act’s drama was ridiculously literal, that it managed to be legitimately tense, unpredictable and dramatic like so many comedies frequently fail to be (remember back in the late eighties and early nineties, when every comedy had weird forced mobster drama where someone was held up at gunpoint and the characters learned the true value of their love for each other? Every movie back then was Look Who’s Talking and Three Men and a Baby, in this analogy). I was worried about these broad strokes of characters, and they paid off for me in the end.
I don’t think that The Boat That Rocked is really about anything so much as it is about a zeitgeist. Curtis has evoked the spirit of the age that he had such an obvious fondness for, and he’s made it funny at that. It’s got big names and, in Sydney at least, it’s all over buses. I think it deserves to do well, if only because it’s not about neat little packages of love with the women left wanting, and it has a cameo appearance by Emma Thompson. In the case of Curtis, the public are always the ones to decide – and I think this is potentially a truly infectious example of his work.
Americans in the audience, take note: this film reaches your fair shores on August 28. Good luck remembering its existence until that time!