Third Thursday Throwback – ‘The Boat That Rocked’ is a shipshape example of the pop music movie oeuvre thanks to an unsinkable cast

The Boat That Rocked is a 2009 British period comedy that offers a fun look at the largely untold story of “pirate radio” — the rebel DJs the 1960s who broadcast pop and rock music back to the UK from international waters. With its warm tones, its killer soundtrack, and its utterly jam-packed cast, this underrated gem is well worth revisiting for our Third Thursday Throwback.

Once again, it’s time for Subjectify Media’s Third Thursday Throwback. This monthly column offers our writers a break from the pesky present day as we take the chance to review a property from the past. Our Third Thursday Throwbacks may include popular older titles or completely obscure properties, and they might either be a first-time-for-us experience of the work of, perhaps, an actor or a writer who has currently captured the public’s attention, or they might be a look back at an all time favorite that still holds up. It may be a movie, TV show, book or even an album – but on the third Thursday of each month, you can expect to see an in-depth article here about something that is by no means current, but is still worth talking about.

This month’s Third Thursday Throwback is honestly a bit of everything. All of the above. I originally started kicking this one around due to the incoming star turn of Tom Sturridge in Netflix’s The Sandman. This film was my introduction to him, and I’ve been enamored with him ever since. But in the last month, as I’ve watched the internet go entirely feral for Rhys Darby on a boat, I was like “Hey, I’ve been watching Rhys Darby on a boat for like, thirteen years! Probably more people need to see this movie!”

The Boat That Rocked — repackaged for the US as Pirate Radio, but do NOT watch that version, please, it’s had over 20 of its better minutes chopped out of it — is a 2009 British comedy film written and directed by Richard Curtis. You know who Richard Curtis is. Co-creator of Blackadder, writer of seminal British rom-coms including Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Categorically incapable of not making things in that genre just a little bit heartbreaking. He wrote that Vincent Van Gogh episode of Doctor Who. But you’d probably know him best as the writer-director of Love Actually.

I’m a pretty big Curtis fan in general — Notting Hill is another film that has been extremely important to me, since I was 13 years old, for ever-changing reasons — but of all the movies Curtis has written, he’s only directed three. It’s Curtis all the way down on Love Actually, the excellent, miserable, beautiful time-travel dramedy About Time, and this one, The Boat That Rocked, a 1960s period drama about the era when, thanks to pirate radio stations, rock and pop music first began to dominate British airwaves.

Despite the popularity of Curtis’s other films, barely anyone I’ve ever met even knows this movie exists. They haven’t heard of it, or if they have, vaguely, they haven’t seen it. It was a commercial failure, and I’ve seen reviews of it that are so scathing I would go as far as to call them cruel. Some of the aspects that those reviews chose to tear down are actually some of the bits I personally love most about it, so, you know, it takes all sorts.

But I do love nearly everything about it, and have done since the moment I saw it back in April 2009. In fact, when rewatching The Boat That Rocked for this article, my partner reminded me that as soon as we walked out of the cinema, we turned around and joked “Let’s just go straight back in and go again.” We didn’t do it back-to-back, but we definitely revisited it again in the cinema (sidenote: today, April 21, is my birthday. I’m pretty sure on my birthday back in 2009, I was at the cinema seeing this movie, possibly for the second or third time) and bought the DVD literally the day that it came out. It is one of my absolute favorites.

I saw a meme recently on Twitter that was something like: “Post your top four movies you’re pretty sure you love more than anyone else does,” and The Boat That Rocked would definitely be in that category for me. It also holds the honor of being one of the most quoted movies in our house — in fact it would hold its own in another meme, that one where they tell you to post quotes or references or in-jokes that have become normalized within your family or friendship group, but are in no way universally understood. There are at least five of those from this movie for me. It’s a huge presence in my household.

Okay, okay, you get it. I love this movie. I’m a huge fan of this movie. I’m obsessed with this movie. Now let me tell you why.

I mean, where to start? The premise is a fucking cool one. If you know nothing about the rise of pirate radio, The Boat That Rocked helpfully explains this in the opening title cards, but in short: in the mid 1960s, at the height of British rock & roll, the BBC held a monopoly on broadcasting, and played less than an hour of new music a day, mainly focusing on jazz and classical. There were no dedicated pop and rock stations in Britain, and to combat this, medium-wave pirate radio stations — so called because they broadcast without an official license — were founded by passionate music enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, filling the demand. These pirate stations mostly operated from offshore boats or disused sea forts, and at the time, they were not technically doing anything illegal, as they broadcast from international waters.

The Boat That Rocked tells the story of a fictional pirate radio station, Radio Rock, situated, as most were, on a somewhat shoddy cargo boat, anchored permanently somewhere in the North Sea. In this film, Radio Rock is positioned as the biggest and most popular of the pirate stations — in real life, this was a station called Radio Caroline — and we’re told at the top of the film that the pirates attract a daily listenership of 25 million people, half the population of Britain. (Slightly inflated numbers, I believe, but in reality, it was 15 – 20 million, so still massive.) What follows is a cosy tale of camaraderie at sea, told mainly through the eyes of Radio Rock’s newest arrival, Carl, the teenage godson of the station’s owner. It’s, for the most part, warm, piecey, slice-of-life stuff, set to the most insane soundtrack (obviously) and featuring the most insane cast.

The casting is the main reason I’m surprised that more people haven’t seen it. Bill Nighy, a Curtis workhorse, is a huge part of this film, as station owner Quentin. Rhys Ifans, who, before this movie, I struggled to see as anything other than his cheerfully idiotic Notting Hill role, blew my expectations out of the water with his cool, slick ego, in this film. As mentioned, Rhys Darby is in this film, and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen Darby play a hapless pirate well out of his depth when disaster strikes, I’d have two nickels, which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it’s happened twice. (Renew Our Flag Means Death, HBOMax. Like, right fucking now.) British TV comedy aficionados? Nick Frost is in this film. Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Parkinson are in this film.

Jack Davenport is in this film. Emma Thompson is in this film. January Jones is in this film. Guys, Kenneth, and I cannot stress this enough, Branagh, is in this film.

And, most incredibly, the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman is in this film, giving as fine a performance as I’ve ever seen from him as the Count, the station’s star American DJ, very loosely based on Emperor Rosko from Radio Caroline. More on him later.

But our point of entry into life aboard Radio Rock is Carl, played by Tom Sturridge, a relative newcomer at the time of the film’s release. As the endearing 18 year old godson of Nighy’s Quentin, sent by his mother to live on the ship after being expelled from his final year at school, Carl is really the film’s protagonist, and it’s through Carl’s point of view that we discover all the characters, and I do mean characters, of the “quite a” variety. In certain ways, the movie lives and dies with Carl — if you don’t care about him, you don’t care about his relationship with these people — but luckily, he’s very easy to like.

I’m not going to sit here and claim this movie is like, a profound character piece. It’s not. It is, quite simply, not that deep. And yet, that’s why Carl interests me so much. He feels incredibly whole — like that if you wanted to turn the lens in another direction and do that deep dive, it would be possible. He’s an interesting one. Although he’s been expelled for his naughty behavior at school, I can’t see him as having been a troublemaker — it was apparently smoking (cigarettes and weed) that did him in. He’s into photography. He’s not at all cocky, or particularly outgoing. He seems meek at first, but he clearly knows his own mind, and, in my opinion, he’s a relatively good portrayal of a self-regulated, mature, clever young boy raised by a strong, open-minded single mother — that’d be Thompson, who blows in and out of the film like a very glamorous hurricane.

Despite being quiet, awkward, young, new, and a pre-established fan of some of the DJs, he’s not inherently subservient to these people. He’s actually a little sassy, and that makes for some very fun, naturalistic moments in group scenes. Carl easily could have been all one thing or all the other, a rebellious, pissed off, showboating teen, or a naive, bland flop with no spine. But instead he’s spicy, without any swagger, and it is utterly charming. He truly had me going “Who is this kid?” and Sturridge has a fan for life in me — I’ve rarely been so taken with the first time I saw a young performer.

Sturridge holds his own against giants in this movie — his one-on-one scenes with Hoffman, Nighy and Thompson are genuinely great — but he bonds with everyone, connecting especially with the younger crew members — his station staffer roommate, Thick Kevin, played by Tom Brooke, and Chris O’Dowd’s energetic top 40 morning DJ “Simple” Simon Swafford. The boat definitely has a hierarchy among the DJs and crew, and while “Young” Carl obviously sits at one end of it, the film thankfully avoids exclusionary behavior or hazing. There’s teasing, but no bullying, and he does what the big boys tell him to, but he isn’t cowed as he finds a place to call home on the ship, and, eventually, embarks on a quest to discover if one of the DJs might be his biological father (at first, he suspects it’s Quentin, but it isn’t, and in general, this sounds like more of a plot than it actually is.)

Probably the most moving element of The Boat That Rocked is the dedication to broadcasting. The first thing the movie does is tell you why this matters, and I think that’s probably why it’s so affecting. They see it as providing people a service, and truth be told, they are. Something that has struck me even harder over time is the relationship between the broadcasters and their listeners. Before we meet them, we get a scope of how important that is. In fact, the film opens not on the boat, not on the point of view of Carl (our soon to be main character) but in the home of a listener, a young boy, excited to go to bed and listen to the Count’s night time show, on his portable radio, through his pillow, after lights out.

As the Count’s programme begins, we pan out into a montage that includes not only a camera on Hoffman himself, bashing around his booth and singing along in joy, but a look at many listeners from all walks of life, showing the scope of people around the UK who are tuning in. It might be my favorite opening from any film, though I am easy to impress — give me a bit of The Kinks and you’ll win me over. But it really strikes me that we don’t hear anything from the world of Radio Rock until a listener chooses to flick on a switch. It’s only after this that we achieved that we are permitted to meet our plot.

Well, plot is a loose term. The Boat That Rocked is very disjointed, but I kinda like it that way. It knows when to just sit in the music and honor it, so it includes a fair few montages covering the passage of time via broadcast life. The way it’s done makes you feel right in the middle of it.

A small ship is, by nature, very close quarters, and The Boat That Rocked makes the most of this, applying warm, yellow cabin lighting and a lot of bobby, jerky hand-held camera work (which, shockingly, does not make my partner get sea sickness, unlike many other movies that replicate motion this way.) And it’s close-quarters emotionally, too. What even happens, when a dozen people are isolated on a moored boat in the middle of the North Sea, manning a pirate radio station? At any given hour, someone is on the radio and everyone else drifts together to make their own fun. Hanging out, eating and drinking (Parkinson as Felicity, the ship’s lesbian cook, is a highlight), playing games, arguing about music, or watching and “helping” the current broadcaster.

The film doesn’t try to craft plot out of these scenes, not really. In fact, as soon as Carl is introduced to everyone, we smash into a lively, choppy montage of various DJs in the booth doing their shows — honestly, a great glimpse of their unique energies — and come out the other end of it into a Tuesday games night. From there, it rolls along with a series of the most loosely connected moments. Incidents very slightly beget others.

Most of these moments are fun, and warm, and kind, but some of it doesn’t hold up — nay, some of it should have never been written, even for 2009. There’s some sex joke stuff that is incredibly iffy, including a rapey incident which never should have been included (Nick Frost’s boorish lothario, Doctor Dave, drags the virginal Carl into a plan to switch places in the dark, giving Carl the opportunity to have sex with Dave’s girlfriend) but which, in the film’s slight defence, Carl knows is morally wrong, says is morally wrong, and is ultimately doesn’t go through with before any harm is done.

The Boat That Rocked is, at least, equal opportunities sexually exploitative — there’s also another incident where a female groupie seduces and marries a naive DJ in order to get closer to one of the more famous ones. As problematic as that all is, the performances in said scenes are still very fucking funny and sweet, and they don’t tend to leave as bad a taste in my mouth as they might have in a different film.

There’s another loose (actual) romance arc for Carl, but The Boat That Rocked is at its best when it sits in the moments of male friendship and intimacy to be found in this rock and pop foxhole. Carl’s drama with Quentin’s niece Marianne (Tallulah Riley) is fine — it’s perfectly fine. But it’s nowhere near as amusing or clever as the totally dialogue-free aftermath, when the movie points a relatively still camera at the studio lounge coffee table and just sits on that shot for a full two minutes as moddish weatherman John (Will Adamsdale) and production assistant Howard (Ike Hamilton) sympathetically bring a miserable and fuming Carl tea and chocolate biscuits, end up eating the biscuits themselves, cajoling him into laughter and cuddles. All soundtracked by — what else — Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne.”

Pretty much everyone aboard the ship has at least one really great one-liner or god-tier delivery, and everyone has at least one really nice moment with Carl, as well as a focus some other important dynamics, like the Count and Gavin’s rivalry. And although Carl and Simon should obviously build a life together, weirdly enough, this film about a bunch of boys on a boat does not feel particularly homoerotic, and weirdly enough, I like that about it? I know! I’m shocked by myself as well.

But okay, listen. Here’s the thing. In general, I think that media struggles with defining or delineating forms of male intimacy. If films and tv want to show us men who love and care about each other, they tend to lean on — regardless of family relations — “like a father,” “like a brother,” or, honestly, “like a lover,” peppering in the kind of tropes that, if one of them was a woman, no one would doubt that they were looking at some sort of obsessive love story.

It’s not that I think the concept of male friendship is particularly lacking in media — not at all. I just don’t always vibe with how they choose to represent it. It isn’t something that’s particularly well defined as its own thing, it’s always “like” something else. But I feel like the way that The Boat That Rocked represents various levels of meaningful male bonding, cross-generational or otherwise, quite deftly shows us that it can be done, without resorting to any of those usual patterns. It’s a workplace bond, sure, but it’s also more than that, and they find a really nice, genuine niche with it.

To be clear, I fucking love homoerotic shit, but, as a queer person, I am tired of those obviously lover-like portrayals being made, knowingly or unknowingly, with a heteronormative lense and then denied vehemently when a queer person points out that it feels like a queer love story. This movie, in some small way, proves that making men be nice to each other doesn’t have to look like that, and so creators who do fall back on those kind of nasty reductive denials can go to hell. Anyway. Stream Our Flag Means Death.

So, as mentioned, there’s no real plot to The Boat That Rocked, until there suddenly is.

I’ve always loved the movie’s many — some, but not me, would say too many — transitional song montage scenes, that show not only life on the boat but life on land too, a colorful parade of listeners tuning in, but honestly it was only when sitting down for this review and really thinking about it, why it matters, that I realized why.

Throughout the film, we keep touching back to them, the Radio Rock audience —- schoolgirls, office workers, cafes, nurses, stoners, celebrities, loved up couples, drivers, shop keepers, and fishermen, all connecting to the music, and connecting to the DJs themselves. Everyone listened to the pirates. It was a completely normalized part of their daily lives, and the end result was not just the station’s huge popularity, but the audience’s personal investment in the voices on the air.

This idea is rather simplistically represented, but it is there. These listeners have no point of view, exactly. We don’t hear from them about what this means to them. Instead, as mentioned, they mainly feature in scenes when the movie will let a song do the talking — dancing, enjoying themselves, letting Radio Rock be the soundtrack to their lives. At other moments, they’re seen crowded around the radio, tuning into the latest news in the lives of the Radio Rock DJs — including a particularly funny moment when the Count brings his mic to Carl’s door to report, to the station’s reported 20 million people, on Carl’s long awaited big night with Marianne.

I’m a huge believer in the BBC broadcasting model, at least in the format it’s taken during my lifetime. As a corporation with no government affiliation and no commercial advertising allowed, it has been able to freely create diverse content and offer something for everyone. But in the pirate radio days, the BBC was not like that. Commercialism was winning out, creativity wise. The pirates could — and did — get advertising revenue, and because of this, they had this freedom to do what they want, act how they want, play what they want, because of it. And this is pivotal.

Throughout the movie, Davenport plays an uneasy government official tasked by his superior, Branagh, with finding a way to shut the pirates down, for reasons that pretty much amount to “we just don’t like them.” There’s a lot of “it’s technically not illegal,” “then find a way to make it illegal” stuff that kind of hits a bit close to home, like haha, you joke, but this is literally what happens, and it’s kind of jarring to see the quiet part said out loud in this movie of all places. But, from fairly early on, this is the film’s dramatic throughline, even if the DJs on board don’t realize how serious it is until it’s too late. Her Majesty’s Government is listening, and it’s trying to find things to catch them with.

This initially escalates from trying to penalise the DJs for saying “fuck” on the radio, to making it illegal for companies to advertise there. Radio Rock’s way of pushing back against that hiccup is to bring the legendary Gavin Kavanaugh (Ifans) home — his popularity and reach meaning that advertisers are willing to pay their bills from America — and while onboard this results in a struggle with the Count for top dog position, the government’s failure to deliver a death blow regarding advertising spurs them on to dig deeper.

They find another angle: in this case, the introduction of the Marine Offenses Act, the real Act of Parliament that did eventually deem the pirate stations to be illegal. In part, the law claimed that the radio boats were a danger to shipping and that the broadcast signals could interfere with aircraft, emergency services and distress calls. The last hour of The Boat That Rocked is dedicated specifically to this law passing, and the crew not abiding by it and carrying on.

Jack Davenport is ordered to take a task force out to the ship and arrest them, only to find the coordinates now occupied by another boat — Quentin has ordered the Radio Rock ship’s actual captain to start the engine and move the boat. At first, they sail away happily, but quickly, the rusty and unmaintained ship hits trouble: the engine explodes and it begins to sink. As these problems arise, the DJs broadcast the unfortunate updates back to shore, share their coordinates, and ask for help, continuing to spin records all the while.

At first, the unflappable Quentin is unbothered — “Don’t worry,” he assures them. “The government won’t actually let us die. They’ll have to send out boats. They’ve heard every swear word we’ve ever spoken. They’ll have to pick up a Mayday.” — but the blood pressure is raised for the audience, because we know that no official rescue is coming. Davenport’s character, the unfortunately named Twatt, begs Branagh for permission to turn the task force boats around and save them, but Branagh’s Sir Alistair refuses to justify “the expenditure.”

“They might die, sir,” Twatt cries in disbelief down the phone. “Happens to the best of us, Twatt. Happens to the very best of us,” is all Sir Alistair has to say to that.

What happens next is a Titanic-lite situation — a lot of corridors filling up with water, a lot of trying to get to one another across the ship, a lot of trying to keep each other’s spirits up, which obviously devolves into doom-yelling. But when the Count realizes that they’re all holed up together — that no one’s on the mic, and that the station’s waveband is, for the first time, silent, he makes his way unsafely, back to his booth, planning to broadcast until the signal cuts out. It becomes apparent that he intends to make good on his promise — “I intend to broadcast from this ship 24 hours a day until the day I die,” spoken when all they were facing was a legal ban, not actual death — and go down with the ship.

Now’s probably the moment to mention that if you don’t want to watch this movie for any other reason, you need to watch it for Philip Seymour Hoffman. A sort of successor to his Lester Bangs portrayal in Almost Famous, his turn as the Count, is, in my view, better, and it’s as subtle and as moving a performance as any I ever saw from him, and it’s especially lovely because this is such a nice movie. The man was a genius, but a lot of his movies are hard work to watch, you know what I mean? You don’t watch The Master or Synecdoche, New York or Doubt to have a good time. The Boat That Rocked is, above all things, I think, a damn good time.

Hoffman’s death in 2014 leaves a void in the acting world that has yet to be filled, but this is my PSH movie, and it always will be. I hope he had fun making it. It really looks like he did.

The Boat That Rocks finds gravitas in the Count’s sense of honor throughout, whether in quiet, moonlit moments on the deck of the ship with Sturridge (“These are the best days of our lives. It’s a terrible thing to know, but I know it.”) or overblown yet earnest deathbed proclamations regarding the higher calling of his profession (“All over the world, young men and young women will always dream dreams and put those dreams into song. Nothing important dies tonight. Just a few ugly guys on a crappy ship.”) So of course, it’s his life truly at risk that The Boat That Rocked hangs its major dramatic tension on.

The climax of the film comes in the early hours of the morning, when most of the Radio Rock residents are clinging together on the semi-upright bow of the ship and it truly looks like the end is nigh. (It’s at this moment that Darby delivers a manically incredulous line read that gets repeated in my house maybe once a week.) But as dawn breaks, they’re saved, in a Dunkirk-like rescue: a fleet of many small privately owned boats, manned or borrowed by Radio Rock listeners, coming to help their blorbos. The rescue turns into a little bit of a farce — various posters and banners calling out to various DJs and rejecting others — but the first properly readable sign simply says “we heard you,” and readers, I cry every single time.

The “blorbo from my radio shows” thing is realistic, and it hits me harder now than when I first saw the film, I think. When the station is about to go off the air legally, we cut back to the grieving audience, who are elated by Radio Rock’s psych-out and continuation, but watching them listening in horror as the boat actually goes down is painful. It’s a really unusual version of a celebrity/fan parasocial relationship, because it truly is about that personal connection, and aboard Radio Rock, nothing was kept private. The listeners felt like they knew them — they cared as if they knew them — and in large part, they did. The DJs didn’t just give listeners their music, they gave them their lives, and sometimes, feeling like you’re a part of someone’s life, even from far away, is a lifeline. Radio is, I think, more so than TV, closest to the internet, in terms of making your world smaller. But really it’s its own thing, and although radio’s golden age is gone, it still endures.

I spent the last nine years or so sporadically listening to Nick Grimshaw on BBC Radio 1, first on the Radio 1 Breakfast show, and then on his move to the drive time slot until he left the station in August 2021. I say sporadically, because I am no longer based in the UK, so the time zones were off, but there were numerous long chunks of time over the last decade where Nick and his team — not just the DJs bracketing his slot, but a gaggle of on-mic producers as well — would keep me company when I really needed it. And through him, I’ve come to appreciate the medium so much more, not least because he’s explained the power of it as a collective experience many times, and he’s explained it well.

It’s personal, radio. It’s a totally unique way of engaging. Radio was, and is, about the ability to connect in real time with an audience. It’s a completely different way to experience music — and in fact, it’s my preferred way — but it isn’t just the music. And I’m not comparing it to talkback. This is still inherently because of the music. Good pop radio personalities don’t overpower the music — they’re passionate about it, and they should want to be warm and welcoming, a friend to all, and let me tell you, I would probably take a bullet for Grimshaw, not because of the tracks that he played, but because of what he gave of himself, the things he bared, the stories he told, and the way he communicates with everyone from celebrities to callers. I plan to block out several days in October later this year in order to cry over his upcoming book. If he was in mortal peril due to his dedication to broadcasting, the North Sea would present no obstacle. So I don’t find the heightened end of this movie infeasible at all.

Speaking of BBC Radio 1 — that station, and that style, only exists because, despite the law being passed, the pirates’ ethos effectively won. A huge part of pirate radio’s appeal was the casual, conversational manner of the DJs vs the traditional and rigid through-the-nose BBC formality. Today, BBC radio is where I’d go to find those loosest, most companionable shows, and that is because, in reaction to the pirates’ popularity, BBC radio got a restructure in 1967, establishing BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4. Ironically, or perhaps not, many of Radio 1’s first slate of DJs were pirates, hired on due to their popularity on the unlicensed stations, including Emperor Rosko, and legends of British broadcasting like Tony Blackburn and John Peel.

50 years later, the BBC’s response to pirate radio carries on, broadcasting with a sense of fun and familiarity that feels recognizable and relatable to me when watching The Boat That Rocked — which, 13 years since its release, still keeps on rocking.

Access The Boat That Rocked however you see fit. But make sure you get the longer UK version, clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes. I highly suggest obtaining the DVD.