Some movies just never manage to sell themselves to me. It can have a great cast, a respected director, an interesting concept and everything else going for it, yet for some reason, I can never force myself to pay it any attention. The Boat That Rocked has a great cast. The Boat That Rocked has a respected and proven director. The Boat That Rocked has a really interesting concept. Yet The Boat That Rocked never caught my attention when it came out a few years ago. And, now that I’ve finally seen it, The Boat That Rocked never managed to keep my attention while watching it either.
It’s 1966 in England. The BBC fills its airwaves with classical music, even though the country is gagging for a bit of bloody rock and roll. They get their fix from pirate radio stations broadcasting from boats just outside the jurisdiction of English law. Carl (Tom Strurridge) is the kind of floppy haired, narrow shouldered, wet sad sack with no confidence who exists only to be in English movies about floppy haired, narrow shouldered, wet sad sacks with no confidence. He’s sent to stay with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), who happens to run one of the flagship pirate stations, Radio Rock.
Aboard Radio Rock, Carl meets a cookie cutter batch of misfits, played by a heap of great British (mostly sitcom) talent. There’s Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd. There’s Rhys Darby from Flight of the Conchords. There’s Nick Frost from Spaced and various Edgar Wright joints. There’s also Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Iffans as the clashing alphas, both trying to assert their dominance.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, Kenneth Branagh plays a stuffy old fashioned politician, determined to shut down the pirate stations and put an end to the rock and roll music that the kids love so darn much. He’s pretty much John Lithgow from Footloose, just with less religious zeal and more terribly English stuffiness. His offsider is the hilariously named Mr Twatt (Jack Davenport from Coupling). Sorry, did I say the hilariously named Mr Twatt. What I meant to say was, the eye roll inducing named Mr Twatt.
If you’ve seen Caddyshack, or Animal House, or dozens of other lesser takes on the story, you know the slobs versus snobs plot that rolls out over the laborious 130 minutes of The Boat That Rocked. The good guys are misfits, but they love each other, and they’re loyalty will see them through. The bad guys are selfish and egotistical, and chances are the main bad guy’s underling will probably turn to the good side at the end.
I don’t even know where to start with what I didn’t like about The Boat That Rocked. How about the characters? Well, there’s too many and none are nearly as interesting as the movie thinks they are. The movie constantly tells us about these people, but never shows them living up to these descriptions. And I never figured out if these guys were supposed to be cool, or sad, middle aged men refusing to let go of the old days when they were cool.
Here’s another thing that really sucks in this movie, Bill Nighy. Why do people love this guy so much? I just don’t get it. The first time I remember seeing him was in Shaun of the Dead. His constant sour face, deadpan delivery and unflappable demeanour were so perfect in that movie. Now, I wonder if he was intentionally acting, because he seems to do the exact same thing in every single movie. And the more I see, the more I start to suspect that his thing is to do nothing. It’s like he just stands still and recites dialogue he’s learned phonetically with no idea of what the words actually mean. I don’t think a single muscle in his hangdog face moves at all.
How do you take this many great actors, put them in a story that has so much potential, and end up with something so bland? Pirate radio is a fascinating story. Even when I was a kid, watching that episode of The Goodies where they start their own pirate station, I didn’t get the reference, but I found the idea intriguing. There’s an amazing story to be told about British pirate radio stations in the 60s, The Boat That Rocked just isn’t it.