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TBTS Reviews: The Boat That Rocked (US Title: Pirate Radio)

December 8, 2009

Richard Curtis’ 2003 holiday epic Love Actually featured a who’s-who-in-the-UK ensemble cast, a host of engineered tearjerking moments, and roughly 49,000 different subplots. And I’m going on the record as being on of those who thought it was great. After all, gathering a huge group of people together for something that’s just fun — even if it is a tad superficial — is, in many ways, what Christmas is all about.

In The Boat That Rocked (the British cut, which this review is based upon — the U.S. iteration is known in theaters now as Pirate Radio, and the film has been shortened), Curtis is at his crowd-gathering best again. The result, much like Love Actually, is a mishmash of characters running around bumping into one another — and though sometimes it doesn’t fully work, the film’s never anything less than a great big party of a movie. There’s actually something to be said for that, I think.

The storyline is based around a true story of a pirate radio station which broadcast rock and roll to the United Kingdom in the late sixties from a dilapidated freight ship anchored in the chilly waters of the North Sea. And truth be told, there’s probably a much better film to be made on this subject, which is admittedly a rather interesting and underheard tale. But few could have made the movie as downright enjoyable as Curtis has, a valentine to rock and roll itself with a soundtrack rivaling any in the past ten years.

When young Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent by his mother  — played in a brief, swinging cameo by Emma Thompson — to live onboard a the broadcasting ship of the title under the tutelage of the aging mod Quentin (Bill Nighy), he falls in with an motley crew of DJs and under the influence of rock music.  The DJs themselves include Rhys Ifans as a womanizing broadcasting legend, Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) as the resident comic, Chris O’Dowd (BBC’s The IT Crowd) as a lovelorn milquetoast and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) as a portly cassanova with no body issues whatsoever. Leading the pack is Philip Seymour Hoffman as American ex-pat The Count, who reveres music above all else in life.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the cast, but you get the picture. We’re all just here for the hootenanny. It’s somewhat understandable why it’s performed marginally less successfully in the U.S. than in the U.K., despite a reportedly hokey re-editing which serves to depict Hoffman more of a “leader” who brings rock and roll to Britain and the omission of several clever musical jokes (removing a recurring gag about The Seekers, for instance, is just insulting the same audience this film hopes to lure). It’s more of a series of vignettes than a cohesive story, with only about a third of the storylines carrying any weight, but that doesn’t matter. Sometimes a movie like this is what it is, and an ongoing background soundtrack featuring everyone from The Turtles to Skeeter Davis is unbeatable — even if the overall message of “rock and roll will never die” is one you’ve heard plenty of times before, in much stronger films.

Long story short, The Boat That Rocked isn’t going to win any awards. It may not even be remembered widely the years to come. But with an infectious spirit and a general goodwill that’s hard to dislike, it’s at the very least charming surprise that’s worth a look. It may be all over the board, scattered, loose and somewhat uncohesive — but sometimes, in a weird way, that works.

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