March 31, 2009 / 5:23 AM / 10 years ago

Rock 'n' roll movie "Boat" just barely stays afloat

LONDON (Hollywood Reporter) - Richard Curtis’ new comedy “The Boat That Rocked,” about the pirate radio stations that sprang up briefly in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, is like a long, slow cruise where all the fun is in the exotic ports of call but life on board is pretty dull.

Writer and producer Richard Curtis accepts the Humanitarian Award at the 16th annual BAFTA/LA Cunard Britannia awards in Los Angeles November 1, 2007. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Many great pop songs from that era make up the stops along the way, and whenever an old favorite breezes along, the film draws on its energy. But the film is far too long, and between the tracks, the episodic adventures of a group of disc jockeys broadcasting rock ‘n’ roll from a rusty old clunker anchored just beyond the three-mile limit from the British Isles is heavy going.

An infectiously nostalgic soundtrack and likable performers — including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans — plus a sentimental, upbeat ending, will take the picture beyond the box-office shallows. It’s unlikely, though, to prove as bountiful as previous Curtis creations such as “Love Actually” and “Notting Hill.” The film opens Wednesday (April 1) in the U.K., and Universal Pictures releases it stateside August 28.

The film quickly sets the scene in the mid-‘60s, when British rock was exploding but the BBC was contractually bound to produce live music, so pop records barely got any play. Set almost entirely aboard the fictional floating broadcast ship Radio Rock, the comedy is drawn from the frat-boy relationships of the eclectic gang playing the records.

Nighy, as the station’s debonair owner, Hoffman as the token boisterous Yank known as the Count and Ifans as a superstar DJ named Gavin provide the film’s best moments with typical flair.

Young English actor Tom Sturridge does well as Carl, the owner’s godson. Some of the best moments involve arrivals on the ship, including Ifans’ and one featuring a cameo by a ravishing Emma Thompson.

There’s a bit of a plot involving Carl trying to find out which of those on board is his long-lost father, but mostly it’s a series of set pieces involving games sparked by various rivalries. One results in the Count and Gavin climbing aloft to see who chickens out first. Another has Carl falling for a pretty young visitor (Tallulah Riley) who promptly jumps into bed with disc jockey Dave (Nick Frost). Curtis likes the joke so much that he repeats it with another one of the team (Chris O’Dowd) and his sweetheart (January Jones from TV’s “Mad Men”).

It’s lame stuff, and not helped by Curtis giving the women names that play directly into hit songs — so cue Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” and the Turtles’ “Elenore.” Frequently, the film becomes simply a music video involving the whole cast. One London pub-crawl sequence looks like the cheesiest Fab Four frolic.

The vessel leaks each time it cuts to scenes of the delirious British public intoxicated by the miracle of rock ‘n’ roll. It starts to list seriously during several dry-land scenes in which Kenneth Branagh hams mercilessly as a prissy government minister with an assistant named Twatt who is determined to shut the pirates down.

The real pirate radio ships, whose days ended in 1967, wound up being towed away for salvage, but the film avoids that fate — like the best rock songs — with a rousing finish and a pleasing climax.

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