Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, plus a heavy dose of Swinging ’60s nostalgia, fuel “The Boat That Rocked,” Richard Curtis’ hymn to the wild days of U.K. pirate radio. More reminiscent of his eccentric TV comedies (“The Vicar of Dibley,” “Mr. Bean”) than his bigscreen romancers “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” Curtis’ second outing as writer-director throws together a large cast of wackos on a boat off the east coast of Blighty. Pic generally stays afloat on the strength of its characters but sometimes threatens to sink under its overlong running time and vignettish structure.
Heavily promoted retro laffer, which launches April 1 in the U.K., and thereafter Down Under and across Europe, should do OK based on Curtis’ name, though it lacks the universal appeal of his first helming outing, “Love Actually.” Very Brit-specific item is likely to do more modest biz when it sails Stateside Aug. 28.
Though it had been around for a while, British pirate radio — a direct result of pubcaster BBC’s government-sanctioned monopoly on broadcasting — mushroomed during the mid-’60s following the explosion of Britpop/rock, which the conservative BBC Radio hardly played. Operating from boats outside British territorial waters, pirates beamed a 24/7 diet of popular music to as many as 25 million listeners (half the U.K. population) before the government effectively crushed the pirates with legislation in August 1967. Many DJs migrated to BBC Radio, which gradually bowed to popular pressure, but only six years later was its broadcasting monopoly officially ended.
It’s 1966 as the film opens, and the Beeb is still airing less than 45 minutes of pop each day. But on Radio Rock (based on the famous Radio Caroline), which operates from a rusty old fishing trawler in the North Sea, the party is in swing around the clock. On board, upper-class twit Quentin (Bill Nighy) rules a raggedy bunch of dope-smoking, sex-starved DJs who are national idols, in defiance of government minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), who’s bent on shutting down the “sewer of dirty commercialism and no morals.”
Among the vinyl-spinners are the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a grizzled Yank who wants to be the first person to broadcast the F-word on British radio; tubby Dave (Nick Frost, “Hot Fuzz”), who fancies himself a ladies’ man; seriously spacey Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke); melancholy Irishman Simon (Chris O’Dowd); unloved Kiwi Angus (Rhys Darby, “The Flight of the Conchords”); silent lothario Mark (Tom Wisdom); and the boat’s sole distaffer, Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), “a lesbian who cooks.”
Standing in for the audience is Quentin’s young, fresh-faced godson, Carl (Tom Sturridge), who arrives on Radio Rock one stormy night. Awed by the laddish atmosphere on board, Carl is gradually accepted by the team.
Pic shifts back and forth between the boat, where Dave is doing his best to relieve Carl of his virginity, and London, where the fanatical Dormandy bullies his assistant (Jack Davenport) into finding loopholes to sink the pirates. Curtis also cuts in dozens of tiny snapshots of ’60s Britain — teens, secretaries and the like listening to the outlawed radio — expertly designed and garbed by production designer Mark Tildesley, costume designer Joanna Johnston and makeup/hair designer Christine Blundell.
Curtis’ background as a sketch writer has never been clearer than here: The nearest thing to a throughline is Carl’s sentimental education and the growing suspicion that one of the men on the boat may be the father he never knew. This strand is resolved near the end by a classy cameo from Emma Thompson as his airy mom, though by then, it’s almost lost amid a number of smaller narratives, including the rivalry between the Count and star DJ Gavin (Rhys Ifans, in the pic’s wackiest perf).
After a lively opening hour, the pic starts to lose its sparkle as Curtis tries to develop the subplots at the expense of the script’s comic buoyancy; the film could easily lose a half-an-hour, to its benefit. Though the tempo picks up again in the final 40 minutes, the movie’s fragile sketch structure almost breaks under the mini-“Titanic” setpiece of the final reels.
For a script that relies more on character-driven than situational comedy, it’s the perfs that count, and these are thankfully strong. As the devil-may-care Count, Hoffman melds well with the Brit cast, though it’s Nighy who predictably steals the show with his uniquely dry delivery. Branagh, every inch an old-style, stiff-upper-lip Brit, starts as a caricature (“We have their testicles in our hands, and it feels good!”) but later adds a touch of genuinely menacing ballast. Amid a colorful cast, young Sturridge is excellent as Carl.
The soundtrack overdoes the Little England parody at times, but more successfully deploys a host of ’60s pop/rock classics, laid over musical montages in which Emma E. Hickox’s antsy editing cleverly makes the cast almost seem to dance. TV d.p. Danny Cohen’s mobile widescreen lensing of the tiny, claustrophobic boat is far from the warm vistas of “Love Actually” but fits the edgier subject matter.
Though it positively reeks of the ’60s, “The Boat That Rocked” lacks the sheer grit and darker underbelly of Michael Winterbottom’s ’70s equivalent, “24 Hour Party People.” It also isn’t quite the timely, anti-establishment comedy it promises to be at the start, but it’s as close as any comedy by a middle-class entertainer like Curtis is likely to come.
A recut version of the film (19 minutes shorter than the 134-minute U.K. version) was released Nov. 13 Stateside by Focus Features under the title “Pirate Radio.”