The Boat That Rocked
Sunday Times, 5 April 2009
There is nothing as un-cool as the spectacle of a middle-aged, upper-middle-class white man such as Richard Curtis banging on about the joys of 1960s pop music. It’s like Prince Charles on the Goons: a cringe-inducing experience. Curtis’s new film is a love letter to the music and rebellious spirit of the 1960s. He has given us what he imagines to be the era’s Dionysian cocktail of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll — but he’s turned it into something as cosy and comforting as a sweet cup of tea.
The action is set in 1966, on board Radio Rock, a pirate-radio ship anchored in the North Sea and loosely based on Radio Caroline. The film begins with a little bit of social context, pointing out that the paternalistic party poopers at the BBC were only broadcasting 45 minutes of pop music a day and that the government was determined to close down the pirates. Thus, the stage is set for a battle between the great and the groovy.
I know that there’s no point complaining about the film’s lack of social realism or historical accuracy, but Curtis’s vision of 1960s Britain is a Disney-like theme park, where young and old, poor and posh, white and black, are forever ecstatically frugging and flapping their arms to the records the pirates play. There’s also one other interesting detail the liberal-leaning Curtis has left out.
Younger viewers would never guess from Kenneth Branagh’s performance as Dormandy, the government minister out to silence the pirates, that the campaign in question was a Labour one, led by the postmaster general, Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Dormandy, with his little Hitler moustache and talk of “filth” and “pornography”, evokes a stock figure associated with the right and uptight Tories.
But what about the film’s music? Yes, it was the soundtrack to the lives of us oldies but goldies, but Curtis’s film is all soundtrack and no lives (more of this later.) It makes the typical baby-boomer boast, in its opening credits, that their decade was “the best ever for British rock’n’roll”. But his is the safe, Radio 2, Brian Matthews side of the era’s music — the Kinks, Small Faces and Beach Boys. Hardly a note of psychedelia or guitar distortion is let in.
The film is mostly content to cruise along on a mood of good times and zany japes by the jocks. For a story, there’s the tale of Carl (Tom Sturridge), a cute 18-year-old who has been expelled from boarding school and sent to spend time on the boat with his godfather and boat-owner, Quentin (Bill Nighy). There he finds friends, loses his virginity and searches for his lost dad. But Carl’s story gets lost among the vignettes and comic set pieces. The film is driven along by the exterior threat of the government and the internal battles between the jocks themselves. Yet as soon as Curtis sets up a dramatic story line, as when Carl finds his father, he quickly loses interest and takes it no further.
The film sets out to celebrate the sunny and silly hedonism of the 1960s, but even Curtis knows there was a dark side to the personal liberation. It’s shown in the way the jocks will “shag” anyone, be it Carl’s love interest or Eleonore (a radiant January Jones), the new wife of Simon (Chris O’Dowd). But the consequences or emotional fallout of such actions are never explored; the characters just mope for a bit, then get back to the fun.
'The Boat That Rocked' could have worked as a silly, funny and fast romp, but it is sunk by three big flaws. First, the film is far too long. There’s a good 45 minutes that could have been dispensed with — mostly thanks to a ridiculously grandiose Titanic ending that is pointless.
Second, though Curtis has assembled a fine cast, he doesn’t use them well. This is the first film in which I’ve seen Philip Seymour Hoffman totally miscast, as the Count, a character loosely based on Emperor Rosko. Once again, Nighy is the master of lovable loucheness, and Rhys Ifans’s improvisations offer the film’s funniest moments.
Third, Curtis has failed to give us characters we can really like. This is a group of leery, lecherous, bearded, boozy and bloated, overgrown, sex-mad schoolboys. We see boatloads of women being shipped in to service their egos and libidos. There’s only one thing worse than thinking about your parents having sex, and that’s thinking about Dave Lee Travis (aka the “hairy cornflake”) — the inspiration behind Nick Frost’s DJ Dave — having sex. Alas, Curtis’s comic talent has been infected by a gruesome laddism that makes his film resemble a gross-out American teen comedy, complete with shag gags and diarrhoea-based comedy. Euuch. There’s also a “comic” scene involving Dave setting up a dolly bird (Gemma Arterton) for Carl to “shag” in the dark that is so sexist, it would have made Sid James blush.
Ultimately, 'The Boat That Rocks' offers a mix of British pop and patriotism, an alternative myth of what it means to be British for the pop generation, with Nighy as the John Mills of louche living. Curtis is celebrating the plucky, eccentric underdogs who fought the baby-boomer battle of Britain: your right to party and pig out on pop. Too bad those brave bad boys are so badly served by his film.