If there’s such thing as hope, 2009’s The Boat That Rocked is what it looks like!
The Boat That Rocked — known in some countries as Pirate Radio, or The Radio Wave, or another one in a slew of varying dumbed-down versions of the original title — is a British music dramedy set in the 1960s. The movie had a cast of British all-stars and the writer/director Richard Curtis, known for several commercial crowd-pleasers, attached, which may be what eventually made it a cult classic, despite its shocking initial failure at the U.K. box office. TBTR for short, actually had 20 minutes of its runtime cut for the release in North America, including a long but striking flashback sequence, accompanied by The Rolling Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud”, which, for better or for worse, accurately represents the character of the movie as a whole.
The Boat That Rocked‘s entire soundtrack album speaks for itself — in volumes! Packed to the brim with the best hits of The Kinks, The Who, The Turtles, The Troggs, The Beach Boys, and half dozen more bands that predominantly start with “the”, its grasp of the 60s rock culture is quite all-rounded and flattering. The movie has managed to produce its share of note-worthy, music-dependent moments: Richard Curtis’s fairly inexplicable montage techniques matched with Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”; an underwater sequence, playing out to Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” that is almost more poignant than the song itself; and the oddly natural employment of the severely overused and so often confused “Nights in White Satin” and “Whiter Shade of Pale”. Although the movie, supposedly set in 1966, occasionally jumps quite far ahead of its time, using era-inappropriate songs, its musical choices (so crucial to the plot) have served it well, making it almost unconditionally loved by any classy rock n’ roll fan.
On the other hand, one thing that nobody could bring themselves to deny even upon the initial release was how legendary the cast ensemble. The movie features Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, January Jones, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, a Bond Girl Gemma Arterton, Elon Musk’s future wife Talulah Riley, a Tony-nominee Tom Sturridge, and the entire main cast of a popular British sitcom at the time, the IT-Crowd, including Katherine Parkinson, Chris O’Dowd and Will Adamsdale. Several of the names were criticized for giving much less than their best film performance; however, playing against ten more stars of the same caliber, everyone in the ensemble surely stood their ground.
It’s 1966 — one of the banger years for rock n’ roll — we’re off the East coast of Great Britain, where the 17-year-old Karl, who was just kicked out of school, meets his godfather Quentin, who works and lives on the boat called “Radio Rock”, along with a dozen other colorful characters. The boat is a full-time radio-station that plays rock n’ roll “all day and all of the night”, which makes them ‘pirates’, because at this time in Britain rock n’ roll on the radio is limited to just a few hours a week by law. Flashing sideways, we meet a group of government officials who intend to completely outlaw rock n’ roll on the radio…presumably, because people enjoy listening to it too much, as we find out from numerous cheerful montages throughout the movie; they are soon after “Radio Rock” specifically.
The Boat That Rocked does not aim to be a full blown-period piece, however, the true background behind it is to be mentioned. The British government really did prefer to keep rock n’ roll off the radio in the 60s; there were boat-radio stations that broadcasted rock n’ roll in the country at the time, and a real anti-piracy act actually was passed in ’67. Along with getting most of the historical context right, The Boat That Rocked also depicts at least one realistic historical personality — Emperor Rosko — and is certainly true to itself about several specifics of the time period, such as class and gender inequality. It successfully manages to say something serious and real about the time, and the place, and the circumstances to its viewer, despite being an unapologetic, obnoxiously British, and oftentimes obscene comedy.
With themes such as sexuality, freedom of speech and expression, family relationships (both with the family you are born into and the family you choose for yourself) discussed, the movie brings several important points home. Its poised cast fully submerge themselves in the feel of the 60s’ rock, consistent with Curtis’s semi-historic screenplay — the spirit, freedom, and appeal of rock n’ roll is on full display beginning to end. Compared to the significance of the message and the intensity of the vibe, the masterfully-crafted humor is really just a cherry on top.
Hope comes in later — after the history, the brilliant music, the cast of legends; after you are entirely convinced that you have never heard a more hilarious joke about Brits in your life; after it is already taken away…But for what it’s worth, that hope stays with you long after the movie is over. And isn’t that all we need right now: a little rock n’ roll, a bit of British humor, and a whole lot of salient, unsinkable hope?