Rock ’n’ roll movies are surprisingly few and far between, given our obsession with the lifestyles, excesses, inspirations, and potentially galvanizing and mass-connective musical power of the culture. For the latest addition to the slender genre, head to the living room for a voyeuristic visit to an all-important behind-the-scene: Roadies, a new Showtime series, teased curiosity seekers online and now makes its actual television premiere on Sunday, June 26.
Who better to bring us backstage, on the small or big screen, than Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the pilot for the 10-episode series? Crowe, almost famous as a boy wonder rock journalist for Rolling Stone in the ’70s, moved into film with varying success, first following up and looking back on his own rock-lined past in the 2000 film Almost Famous, and dipped into the rock doc biz with Pearl Jam 20 in 2011. Along the way, Crowe also developed a reputation for creating weirdly awkward (and, oddly, perversely enjoyable) lemons, such as Elizabethtown and Aloha.
With TV’s Roadies, we are offered a fresh, if hardly realistic spin on the world of rock ’n’ roll mythology in which the actual rock stars in the mix are mostly left out of the narrative picture except as vaporous Godheads. Working his dramatic designs within this work force ensemble — from management to stage setters, equipment luggers to fixers — Crowe’s bad-boy, feel-good touch may have found a new medium for which he’s suited. He seems more than comfortable in this setting and mobile microcosm, creating an ensemble piece which wavers between the easy banter and trivial conflicts of traditional television drama and the more probing communal overview and human tragicomedy of Robert Altman’s Nashville — but more the former than the latter.
As if to alert us that this is the more open-minded and censor-free-ish New Television while stoking an old cliché about concert life outside public view, the action opens with sexual action. It’s an old ploy for immediately seizing an audience’s attention, as in Y Tu Mamá También and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. This is how we meet our protagonist, Luke Wilson, a middle-aged road manager, and his temporary bed friend, a twenty-something groupie and student of paleontology, making fodder for wink-y jokes about her knowledge about the bones of dinosaurs.
This carnal how-do-you-do in the show, and series, comes after a tender opening blast of The Band’s wistful theme to “The Last Waltz” and a Tom Petty quote that sets the stage (so to speak) for this adventure in the working and scheming quarters, in back of the backstage: “People don’t know what roadies do. Bless them. I just play the songs. They make the show happen.”
In one of its unique twists as a series and dramatic piece, the “show” factor of this saga about putting on a show — by fictitious arena level band The Staton-House Band — comes only briefly, and in the periphery, just before the end credits roll. The spotlight is on the facilitating crew, and their sometimes soap-operatic intrigues. Carla Gugino appears at the tour’s problem-solving production manager (who we first meet as she is interrupting Wilson’s coital encounter, informing him of such problems as the rock stars’ nanny hassles), and Ron White puts in a game performance as the grizzly, emotionally fuzzy but gun-totin’ veteran of the game, who may be more dangerous than his avuncular Southern-hippie/sage image suggests.
Young Imogen Poots has an interesting, connective role in the ensemble, zooming around the empty backstage area of the Daquiri Queen Arena in New Orleans on her skateboard — caught in GoPro-esque subjective shots — and acting as a confidant and innocent party taken on as a mascot and goddaughter of the team. But she’s planning to leave this fantasy reality for a more practical life plan — film school. “I don’t hear the music anymore,” she says of her decision to cut bait from the roadie life.
From the realm of the new, corporatizing face of the concert business comes a cool British manager, who informs this old-school crew that “There is no middle anymore. You either make no money or you make a lot of money… The old way is gone. I’m looking for the new way. I’m here to protect the brand.”
There it is, in an overused contemporary-culture word, the “b”-word. Will excessive attention to branding sully the integrity of the rock ’n’ roll “art”? Will the tour manager pick on females his own age? Will the wolf survive? Stay tuned.