Sunday, August 14, 2016

MOR: Showtime's Roadies

The Showtime series Roadies is an ensemble comedy set amid the barely controlled chaos surrounding a tour by a successful, veteran stadium-rock group, the Staton-House Band. The series was created by Cameron Crowe, who directed the first three episodes and wrote the pilot, and it represents his return to conquered territory after a string of projects—the pretentiously vapid Vanilla Sky and the theoretically more audience-friendly Elizabethtown and Aloha—that bombed with critics and audiences alike. Although Roadies is set in the present day, its set-up and tender, hagiographic attitude towards rock and roll as a cultural force hearken back to Almost Famous (2000), Crowe’s semi-autobiographical ‘70s nostalgia trip about a 15-year-old rock journalist (played by Patrick Fugit, currently driving out demons on Cinemax’s Outcast) coming of age while on the road with a band called Stillwater.

In Almost Famous, the hero was mainly focused on the rock stars, and their groupies; this time, the central figures are those wonderful people working behind the scenes to make sure the fans get to see their musical heroes. But even if you’ve never seen a movie about the music business before, you’ll be familiar with these characters. Carla Gugino is Shelli, the perpetually over-worked production manager who’s always dashing from one crisis to the next, who’s just enough older than most of the people working under her for her sexy warmth and glowing smile to have a faint maternal tinge. The one-man fireworks display at the center of it all is the veteran tour manager Phil, a grinning, all-embracing bear of a man who dispenses advice and anecdotes in a way that tells you that he’s the spirit of the music incarnate. The “Blue Collar Comedian” Ron White has a firm handle on his character and has no trouble communicating Phil’s self-image and infectious love of his own bullshit, but Crowe doesn’t have much faith in the audience’s ability to figure anything out for itself, so White is required to growl, “When you’re lookin’ at me, you’re lookin’ at rock and roll in America!” (He is, someone says, “being paid a lot of money to hug people and make them feel good about the old way.”)

The younger generation is represented by Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), an aspiring filmmaker who provides a semblance of action by whizzing around backstage on a skateboard while the camera speeds along behind her, dodging and weaving to keep up. Rafe Spall is Reg, the efficient emissary from the front office who cares more about profits and keeping the trains running on time than lighting a rock and roll fire in anyone’s heart, but who, in quiet moments, reveals traces of sensitivity and vulnerability: he’s not one of the gang, but he’s not a bad fellow. And Luke Wilson plays Bill, a fortysomething hanger-on who is an old friend of the band’s principal songwriter and was present at the creation. Bill, we’re told in another barrage of overly explicit dialogue, is a good guy but has never recovered from the breakup of his last real relationship and needs to cut it out with the one-night stands with cuties who are half his age; he needs to grow up. What he gets is an abrupt promotion when Reg arrives and immediately fires Phil, a shock to the system that means that it’s now Bill who has to walk the band to the stage every night and make the name-dropping speeches to the assembled members of the road crew about the importance of the sacred work they’re all engaged in. Other characters are defined solely by whatever charm the actors (such as Keisha Castle-Hughes at the sound board) can provide themselves, or by some quirk that even the show itself can only tolerate for so long. (Peter Cambor plays a guitar tuner who, though American, speaks in a phony English accent until Reg arrives and tells him to stop it.)

Imogen Poots and Colson Baker in Roadies.

The problems with Roadies run deeper than stale, half-baked characters, and connect to Crowe’s earlier work, including Almost Famous. That movie is one of those special cases that drive some critics a little nuts, because they see it as an honest and intelligent entertainment that’s also such an obvious crowd pleaser that its commercial failure makes them despair for the future of popular art, in a way that they don’t over the limited audience for more challenging movies even they would concede are much better. Writing in The New York Times, James Poniewozik quotes from a scene in which the legendary renegade rock writer Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who helped the young Crowe break into the business when Bangs was the editor of the Detroit-based magazine Creem, counsels Patrick Fugit: “You cannot make friends with the rock stars. These people are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it. They’re trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb.”

Poniewozik adds, “How did the same man who wrote and directed this unforgettable scene create Roadies?” This would be more of a puzzler if that scene were the only surviving footage from Almost Famous. But even though the movie presents Lester Bangs as a fount of wisdom and a mentor worth listening to, the whole picture is a refutation of Bangs’ words. Crowe respects the sound of them, but in the way that, say, George W. Bush respects the truism that war is a terrible thing to be avoided if at all possible: he wants credit for knowing they’re “true,” but he doesn’t see that they apply to him. The stand-in for the young Crowe does make friends with the rock stars. He charms them with his ingenious adoration of them and his willingness to talk straight to them, and at the end, he’s well on his way to becoming the one writer that Rolling Stone could always get a monster band like the Eagles—powerful, superstar bands that were wary of journalists and never would have allowed Lester Bangs within three feet of them—to consent to have embedded with them on tour. As Greil Marcus wrote, “the notion that Crowe did it by means of warts and all is absurd. Crowe’s ability to convincingly portray rock stars as thoughtful, honest, fun-loving, caring, decent — and nothing else — had a great deal to do with changing the magazine he worked for from a journal that could throw the realities of Altamont in the faces of both its readers and its namesake to a magazine that would let cover boy Axl Rose pick his own writer and photographer. I don’t doubt that Crowe wrote what he saw — or, rather, that he wrote about what he found most real — but there’s more to reality than the belief that, as Anne Frank didn’t put it, people are basically nice.”

Roadies creator, writer/director Cameron Crowe. (Photo: Charles Sykes)

Crowe has made some fine romantic comedies in his day, and his sweetness and humor and intelligence run through his work. So does part of what made his “journalism” epic feats of show-business puffery: his deep and affectionate feeling for what it means to be a fan. (Kelly Ann, who is about to quit working for the Staton-House Band when her speech about how they’re just going through the motions inspires the musicians to try to get back in touch with their own rock and roll hearts, says, “I have to be a fan of something, or I’m useless.”) That feeling is present in his script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the iconic image of John Cusack holding his boombox aloft to serenade his girl in Say Anything, even in Jerry Maguire’s need to feel that the sports stars he represents aren’t just numbers on a spread sheet. But it began to take on a corrupted, self-glorifying quality in Vanilla Sky, where Tom Cruise’s romantic ideal is to take the place of Bob Dylan and his girl in the cover pose of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Roadies continues Almost Famous’s weirdly sentimental attitude towards groupies, with a fresh-faced young stalker whose efforts to evade restraining orders and sneak backstage to masturbate with the band’s gear is treated as both funny and kind of lovable; the women members of the crew treat her like a pet who irritates the hell out of them but who they know, deep down, is part of the family. Maybe the Penny Lane character in Almost Famous—a little girl swaddled in expensive clothes with a line of fancy patter about what a privilege it was to be used as a consort to grown men bearing guitars—could be explained as a partial figment the teenage hero’s point of view, but there’s no excuse this time. (Crowe can be incredibly out of touch when the mood strikes him. Phil is relieved of his duties during a tour stop in New Orleans because he’s been dealing in stolen goods appropriated from storage rooms owned by dead and displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina, a transgression that we must be meant to see as the act of a lovable rogue instead of a depraved vulture; no one can believe that management would be so tight-assed as to fire a great guy like Phil over a tiny thing like that.)

The actual music made by the Staton-House Band, like the music made by Stillwater, seems to be your basic, generic, faceless-band rock. (When the band hits Atlanta, Bill’s pep talk to the crew includes mentions of OutKast, Childish Gambino, and Kanye West, a moment that comes across as Crowe announcing that, while he’d prefer that music hadn’t changed since 1978, he is aware that he has, so cool your jets before trying to herd him onto an ice floe.) Which is fine, except that it makes the fandom of Kelly Sue and the other roadies seem generic too; it’s fan devotion for its own sake, which makes it seem more narcissistic than passionate. The will-they-or-won’t they romantic relationships at the core of the show aren’t even that. Watching two people fall in love can make for compelling series TV, but Shelli (who’s married, but to another manager of a different touring artist who she never gets to see) and Bill are introduced as being powerfully connected emotionally but in denial about it, and the less obviously matched Kelly Sue and Reg fall for each other as soon as they meet and begin having misunderstandings; once again, Crowe has the characters surrounding them immediately start pointing this out, to make sure no one misses it. It’s too bad that the writing is too lazy to show the characters warming up to each other by subtle degrees, because it might have given the actors something to do besides shuffle their feet and heave dialogue at each other. Carla Gugino, who could probably manage to be the best thing about a show that gave her a little competition, has no trouble bring the best thing here; if you feel a powerful need to pretend there’s something going on in Roadies, your best bet is to watch her face as she takes in a room and try to imagine what she’s reacting to in her head, which sure must beat what’s going on around her on-screen. But Luke Wilson is draggy and dolorous beyond the call of duty for a man whose phenomenal sex life is meant to be seen as a cry for help, and there are times when it looks as if Bill is so down in the mouth because he can’t stop thinking about poor Luke Wilson’s career doldrums.

Carla Gugino and Luke Wilson in Roadies.

Crowe’s big problem isn’t that he has soft taste in rock music. (That is a problem for someone determined to make audiences feel the life-changing power of the music, but it’s hardly an insurmountable one.) Nor is it that he’s a bit or a cornball, an affliction that he can be self-aware about, in a halfway amusing way. (Kelly Sue’s big student project is a supercut of scenes of people running in movies, which she intends to provide an ironic comment on film’s ability to give the viewer a rush of emotion over a physical action that expends a lot of energy but doesn’t really mean anything. Guess what she does at the end of the episode when she’s quit her job and, halfway out the parking lot, denies that she wants it back.) His big problem is just what Greil Marcus said it was: his refusal to allow that not everyone is “basically nice,” which has kept his work increasingly low-stakes and prevented him from developing past the high-water mark of Jerry Maguire, when it looked as if he might be on a roll. The worst episode of Roadies so far is the third one, “The Bryce Newman Letter,” which he wrote. But in a funny way, it’s also the most heartening, because it reveals that there are certain people Cameron Crowe doesn’t believe are all that nice. These are the people who spread opinionated invective on the Internet, writing about music and musicians in ways that are very different from the way Cameron Crowe did as a star reporter for Rolling Stone, though perhaps not always so differently than Lester Bangs sometimes did, back in the days when a writer who didn’t fit so easily into the show business-puff piece mold had to move to Detroit and work at a struggling magazine instead of start a blog. (These people might be cousins of the same people who, when a hard-working, Oscar-winning writer-director whose new movie about a bunch of people who are basically nice finally opens after some embarrassing delays, fail to show proper respect and appreciation for what the filmmaker was trying to do and instead make fun of him for casting Emma Stone as a character of Asian-Hawaiian descent.)

“The Bryce Newman Letter” guest stars Rainn Wilson, giving everyone the laser death-ray stare and masticating the scenery in an affected-asshole voice, as an “industry analyst and critic”—blogging, he says angrily, “is what amateurs do when they type”—who has had the effrontery to write dismissively about the Staton-House Band, based on their dad-rock dinosaur vibe and lack of “relevance” rather than anything he’s heard them play. Bryce Newman sums up everything that Cameron Crowe probably finds alienating about the contemporary music scene, and in the way he rushes to side with what’s trendy with no thought to what might actually be good, he definitely represents what Crowe hates about contemporary pop-culture coverage. “We’re living in an age of spectacle, not music,” he jeers. “Everything you’re looking at is dead or dying, because baby, if you even have to ask that question, you’re an oldster, and you’re dead.” (Feeling sassy enough to name names, he adds that “Nicki Minaj picks her teeth with Bono’s bones!”) Bryce Newman sets an impossible standard for honest craftsmen like the Staton-House Band, or Cameron Crowe, to be able to meet: “I want only the very best,” he says. “I don’t waste my time with the mediocre, or even the very good,” and he continues to use the word “mediocre” to such a degree that it seems likely that it’s a word that really gets up Crowe’s nose, in the same way that the word “bankruptcy” probably gets up Donald Trump’s. (Bryce Nelson’s good twin is the Staton-House band historian, who selflessly keeps a meticulous archive of everything to do with the band, but doesn’t want to trouble them by actually meeting them. “They live here,” he says, pointing to his head, which is draped in a distinctive haircut very much like the one that adorns the noggin of Cameron Crowe. “That way, they’ll always be perfect.”) The real Cameron Crowe touch is that Bryce Newman is really just an insecure little boy whose desire to be seen as with-it drives him to act like a meanie and deny his true feelings. Dosed with hallucinogens and tripping hard, he storms the stage and tells the crowd, “I am a fraud! I don’t even listen to the music I review. I listen to dad rock in the car and switch over to hip hop if someone cool pulls over next to me!” The episode ends with Bryce, having been well-treated by the band, writing a sweet article taking back all the mean things he said, showing that it only took someone being nice to him, and surreptitiously feeding him mind-altering chemicals, to remind him that he, too, is basically nice. The best hope for Cameron Crowe to make something of his talent again might be for him to get in touch with his own inner, pre-reformed Bryce Newman. I’m not sure that’s a likely development for a man who has had so much success by ignoring the advice of Lester Bangs.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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