Like most kids in who grew up in Ireland or the UK during the 1960s, filmmaker Richard Curtis got his first taste of rock music by listening to pirate radio. During a time when transmission schedules on Radio Eireann and the BBC were dominated mainly by politics, gardening, cricket and GAA matches, there were precious few places on this side of the Atlantic to tune into the emerging counter-culture sounds of the Age of Aquarius. For Curtis, and millions like him, those rusting vessels moored on the high seas beaming out Radio Caroline twenty-four hours every day became the only source to hear the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens and the sounds of a new generation. Catering to an audience hungry for Tamla Motown, Stax and the Delta blues, these floating jukeboxes filled the void and made household names of DJ’s like Johnnie Walker, Emperor Rosko, Tony Blackburn and Don Allen. For the man who had previously turned to his youth as source of material for a string of worldwide hit films like Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, the story of those legendary DJ’s and the sounds that defined a generation seemed a worthy topic to add to the Curtis roster of hits. Having already inserted the music of his generation into films like Love Actually, the story of the pirates who operated illegally outside of UK territorial waters became for Curtis a tale of revolutionary times virtually unknown by today’s iPod generation. Armed with the iconic sounds of his 60s youth, the writer-director began to flesh out the skeleton of his story with his usual inclination toward the emotional, and very human, lives of his characters. A boat with up to 50 men on board for weeks at a time – what happened with their girlfriends, who got lucky, how did romance blossom? “These DJ’s were the gods of their day, they were household names,” he wondered “How did the fans get to meet them?”
The story follows the exploits of Carl (Tom Sturridge), recently expelled from school and who been sent by his mother to find some direction in life by visiting his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy). However, Quentin is the boss of Radio Rock, a pirate radio station in the middle of the North Sea, populated by an eclectic crew of rock-and-roll deejays. They are led by The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – big, brash, American god of the airwaves and totally in love with the music. He’s faithfully backed up by his co-broadcasters Dave (Nick Frost) – ironic, intelligent and cruelly funny; Simon (Chris O’Dowd) – super-nice and searching for true love; Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom) – an enigmatic man of few words; Wee Small Hours Bob (Ralph Brown) – the late-night deejay, whose hobbies are folk music and drugs; and Angus “The Nut” Nutsford (Rhys Darby) – possibly the most annoying man in Britain. Life on the North Sea is eventful. Simon finds the woman of his dreams, Elenore (January Jones), and is married on the boat…only to be left by his bride the next day. Meanwhile, pirate stations have come to the attention of government minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), who is out for the blood of these lawbreakers. In an era when the stuffy corridors of power stifle anything approaching youthful exuberance, Dormandy seizes the chance to score a political goal, and The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act is passed in an effort to outlaw the pirates and to remove their ghastly influence from the land once and for all.
The downside of The Boat That Rocked is an often poor script with jaded jokes that don’t quite match the expectations built up for the man who made Four Weddings & A Funeral as well as Notting Hill. That said, the cast is about as good as it gets – despite the loss of Hugh Grant who pulled out of the project just before filming began. As a primer for the glorious age of radio piracy completely unknown to the current teenage generation, the film paints a reasonable picture of a three-year period in the 1960s when the Jolly Roger really rule the waves. With a sterling soundtrack and actors capable of making even a watery script bearable, The Boat That Rocked is a trip back in time to the last outlaw revolution.