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Review: Can Cameron Crowe recapture ‘Almost Famous’ magic with ‘Roadies’?

06.22.16 1 year ago 27 Comments

In one of the many famous lines of dialogue Cameron Crowe has written, Dorothy Boyd says of Jerry Maguire, “I love him for the man he wants to be, and I love him for the man that he almost is.”

Dorothy is a dreamer, like most of Crowe's heroes and heroines – and, at this stage of his career, like many of his fans. We love Crowe for the storyteller he's trying to be, and almost is, even though we'd have to go all the way back to 2000's Almost Famous for a scripted project where Crowe actually lived up to his full potential as writer and director. With the likes of Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo, Crowe fans would look for even the faintest signs of the man who had given us Jeff Spicoli, Lloyd Dobler, Rod Tidwell, Penny Lane, and so many more, and hope for better the next time out. By the time we got to last year's Aloha, even the most die-hard Crowe cultists couldn't really defend – or explain – his latest work, even as they hoped he could at some point rekindle his '80s/'90s groove.

Now comes Roadies, a new Showtime series (it debuts Sunday at 10, though Showtime already put the premiere online) that lets Crowe – with help from My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman, and others – revisit the music world where his career started, and where his most personal (and arguably best) film, Almost Famous, was set.

In its strongest moments (I've seen the first three episodes, all directed by Crowe, with him writing two and Holzman the other), Roadies channels the passions and generosity of spirit that typifies peak Crowe, even if the dialogue's not him at his sharpest. (There is no equivalent to “I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen” here.) But it's also shaggy as all get-out, has trouble defining the stakes for its characters and the world they travel through, and its humor gets broader and clumsier the further it goes.

This isn't a period piece, though many of the show's characters long for bygone days of rock – the show's younger characters respond in awe whenever gravel-voiced roadie Phil (Ron White) shows off a present given to him by late Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant – when the partying was legendary and the money flowed as freely as the booze. In their world, though, no one pays for music, corporations run the industry, and everyone affiliated with the show's fictional Staton House Band is increasingly having to do more with less, especially after the band's management company has sent a jerk in a suit (Rafe Spall's Reg) to economize further.

The threat Reg poses to the road crew – led by Bill (Luke Wilson) and Shelli (Carla Gugino) – dissipates quickly, particularly as he transitions from smart and complicated antagonist to a bewildered, sputtering caricature after the first episode. Without that, the central conflict is… um… Shelli is a bit worried about her long-distance marriage to her counterpart in Taylor Swift's crew, and, well…  Bill has gone full mid-life crisis, sleeping with much younger women and worrying about the state of his ticker, and… see, lighting rigger Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots) is thinking of going to film school because the band has stopped inspiring her? These are issues that the characters wrestle with, for sure, but they seem barely capable of sustaining a two-hour film, let alone an ongoing TV show. The actors are all likable and deliver the material with zip (Gugino especially), but something usually seems to be missing. Other characters constantly suggest that Shelli and Bill are or should be a couple, for instance, yet there aren't any real sparks between the two leads.

“I have to be a fan of something, or I'm useless,” Kelly Ann announces at one point, to explain why she might walk away from her makeshift crew family. Crowe's own music fandom is clear throughout Roadies, and is the thing that most buoyed my spirits throughout these early hours. The soundtrack is expansive and impressively curated, and to give extra love to particular tunes, there's a device where sound engineer Donna (Keisha Castle-Hughes) plays a Song of the Day – identified as such by an on-screen chyron that includes the song title and artist so you don't even have to bother Shazaming it – during set-up for the next show. There's also a running gag that the tour has to keep changing its opening act, which means we get to see real artists like The Head and the Heart, Reignwolf, and Lindsey Buckingham appear and perform at length, usually while the actors all stop to listen and nod their heads approvingly. It's at once a self-indulgent device and an infectious one, capturing the characters' deep reserve of feeling for the music and the road better than any monologue Crowe or Holzman could pen.

We never (at least not in the ones I've watched) hear the Staton House Band itself play, which allows Roadies to sidestep the Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip problem, where the fictional show or band isn't nearly as good as the characters keep insisting(*). Yet in discussing the series, and its flaws, with other critics, I found myself defending it in ways I began to recognize as eerily similar to what the most devout Sorkin fans used to say to me (and sometimes still do) about Studio 60 or The Newsroom: acknowledging the validity of the complaints, but letting my faith in the platonic ideal of the creator's work, and the pleasure that comes even from a project of theirs that echoes greater glories from the past, override those concerns. Hell, there's an ugly storyline in the third episode featuring Rainn Wilson as a smug music blogger who suffers vigilante justice at the hands of the crew – he is, among other things, drugged and sexually assaulted, and it's played for laughs, perhaps because Crowe read too many of the Aloha reviews? – that I was ultimately able to shrug off enough to want to see the episode after.

(*) Though there's a pretty long tradition of fake bands that sound convincing enough as what they're supposed to be, including Almost Famous' own Stillwater, Roadies settles for establishing the Staton House Band's relative level of fame and respect via lots of name-dropping of artists – say, that Bruce Springsteen gifted the lead singer the microphone from the “Dancing in the Dark” video. 

Unlike Kelly Ann, I don't have to be a fan of something to be useful, but it can help. There are occasional moments where Roadies conjures memories of Crowe at his most vibrant, and others where it's genial and pleasant enough (and far more coherent than Aloha) that I'm willing to watch in the hopes that Crowe and Holzman can recapture his '90s magic, or hers, or some amazing combination of both.

At the end of Almost Famous, Crowe's young stand-in William Miller asks guitar god Russell Hammond what he loves about music. “To begin with?” Russell tells him. “Everything.” It's a love that Crowe himself shares, and one that's obvious throughout Roadies. Is that love enough to carry the new show over its many flaws until it settles on a tone and an actual story and character arcs? Maybe not, but like Dorothy Boyd, I just want to be inspired, and I'm willing to give Crowe and Holzman another seven hours to see if they can do it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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