Even though rock 'n' roll had found its way to the United Kingdom in the late Fifties and by the early Sixties there were hundreds of home grown rock groups, BBC Radio played only about 30 minutes a day of rock and pop music in the early to mid-Sixties. If British subjects wanted to listen to rock and pop music, they had to tune into Radio Luxembourg. To fill the demand for rock and pop music among the British, in 1964 pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline, Radio Atlanta, and Radio London began broadcasting from ships off the British shore. Since the pirate radio station broadcast from ships located in international waters (Radio Caroline broadcast from an old Danish ferry anchored off the coast of Essex), they were in violation of no laws. The Golden Age for these pirate radio stations would effectively be brought to an end in 1967 by the passage of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, which banned unlicensed stations from broadcasting off the coast of the United Kingdom. The Boat That Rocked (2009) is the account of a fictional, pirate radio station (Radio Rock) during this time period. It was released in a shortened version in the United States as Pirate Radio.
The Boat That Rocked begins in 1966 and centres on seventeen year old Carl (Tom Sturridge), who is sent to stay with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy) who runs the pirate radio station Radio Rock. The film then follows Carl and his experiences aboard the boat as well as those of the disc jockeys and staff of Radio Rock. While I admit I do not know what life was like aboard the pirate radio stations in the North Sea, The Boat That Rocks feels as if it is a genuine, if comedic portrayal of life aboard one. Life on Radio Rock is a mixture of excitement, frivolousness, recklessness, and desperation. The DJs range from the mildly eccentric to the egomaniacal to those who are hardly there at all (mentally, that is). The end result is that The Boat That Rocked is a very fun movie. It is episodic in its structure, with very little in the way of plot. Perhaps for this reason it takes some time to get started. It is also a bit uneven, with some episodes playing better than others. Regardless, it is enjoyable over all, and hits very few bad notes. My only real complaint with its plot is the climax, which seemed a little bit contrived to me.
Of course The Boat That Rocked is a period piece, which brings up the question of how well it captures the era. From what I know of mid-Sixties Britain, it does this very well. That having been said, the film does have several anachronisms in the form of songs appearing well before they were released. The example that comes to my mind is "Elenore" by The Turtles, which appears about a year and a half to two years before its release. In reality, "Elenore" was released in 1968, about half a year after the passage of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act. For anyone with a working knowledge of the music of the era (or who was alive in that time and place), this can be somewhat jarring. Another problem I had with the music was not so much an anachronism as an omission. Radio Rock plays no Beatles songs, nor are there any references to them. From those who are old enough to remember, on both sides of the Atlantic, radio stations (licensed or otherwise) were constantly playing The Beatles in the Sixties. It was virtually impossible to escape them.
Another anachronism, or perhaps it is better described as an error, is that Radio Rock's signal seems to come in remarkably well on the mainland. From what I have read by those who listened to the pirate radio stations, it might take some fiddling with the radio dial to get them to come in, and even then the signal might not be particularly strong. Of course, I guess it can be argued that director Richard Curtis may have taken some artistic liberties here--it wouldn't do to have people fiddling with radio dials for half the movie! Another problem is that I think the film may have oversimplified the political situation surrounding the pirate radio stations in the Sixties. That having been said, I am not sure one would want to sit through parliamentary debates on the subject for half the film, which one would if it had been portrayed more accurately!
While The Boat That Rocked has its flaws, over all it is an enjoyable movie. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who loves the music and culture of Britain in the Sixties. Indeed, the film works so well that one sometimes forgets that Arthur Brown's "Fire!" wasn't released until 1968.