Cameron Crowe’s ‘Roadies’ Is An Almost Winning Mix Of Sincerity, Music, And Awkwardness

About halfway through the pilot of Showtime’s Roadies, a new series set amidst the road crew of the popular, fictional Staton-House Band, a corporate suit named Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall) shows up to deliver some bad news. The music industry has changed and, though popular, Staton-House Band is not an efficiently run operation and will need to tighten its belt. His arrival doubles as an announcement that that’s about to change. What’s more, he continues, the crew should treat the band like, he says with an apology, a brand. And brands need tending lest fickle fans move onto the next big thing. “Everything feels like it will last forever,” he says. “And then. Suddenly…” Then he mimes dropping dead to drive his point home.

He’s not entirely wrong, but the show itself doubles as an illustration that some things — bands and filmmakers, for instance — have a way of hanging around after they’ve reached their peak. They also have a way of keeping the loyalty of fans who hope they’ll once again reach the greatness of the past.

Roadies is the creation of writer/director Cameron Crowe, the latest filmmaker to explore the possibilities of television. It’s no secret Crowe’s been having a bit of a bad run since at least the 2005 film Elizabethtown. In films like Say Anything, SinglesJerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, Crowe found a careful balance of sentiment and wit, and set it all to the beat of the music he’d grown up loving as a teenaged rock journalist. (I’d extend the winning streak to the odd, divisive Vanilla Sky, too.) But that balance hasn’t been as easy to find of late, in films that ranged from the forgettable (We Bought a Zoo) to the borderline disastrous (Aloha).

Yet for those who love Crowe, it’s been tough to let him go, especially since his unwavering sincerity, probably his defining quality, has been evident even in his weakest efforts. He may have become something of a directorial equivalent of a musical legacy act, but like many legacy acts he’s retained enough of the original spark to keep those who love his earlier work returning in the hopes he’ll get it together again. Neil Young spent the ’80s in a funk then made Freedom and all was forgiven. Is it too much to hope the same of Crowe?

Roadies isn’t Crowe’s Freedom. If anything, it’s more like his Prairie Wind, a pleasant enough return to familiar territory, but good luck remembering any of the song titles after it’s done. Luke Wilson stars as Bill, a veteran tour manager seen, in the series’ first scene, bedding a young hanger-on who turns out to be the daughter of a major promoter. (The nudity and moaning provides a reminder that we’re watching a premium cable show.)

Bill works closely with Shelli (Carla Gugino), a production manager whose husband is many miles away and who has an undeniable chemistry with her professional partner, even if the two of them keep insisting there’s nothing between them. There’s not, but Roadies makes a running gag of the fact that everyone else on the crew sees there should be. But does acknowledging a predictable will-they-or-want-me dynamic make it less of a cliché?

Imogen Poots plays Kelly Ann a skateboarding roadie whose passion for the gig has started to waver. She’s been accepted into film school, after all, and her passion for the music has started to waver. Crowe surrounds that central trio with other colorful characters, including Luis Guzman as a passionate driver (who disappears after the pilot) and Ron White as a veteran roadie who wears a necklace given to him by Lyrnyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant and who at one point claims “When you’re looking at me you’re looking at rock and roll and America.”

It’s a solid foundation, but the show doesn’t seem to know how to build on it. Wilson, Gugino, and Poots make for charming leads, but there’s nothing particularly dynamic about their characters. They’re enjoyable company but it’s hard to care what happens to them next, even if the show treats their lives as being as dramatic and, oddly, as high-profile as the band they serve. (At one point Shelli threatens to shame a promoter who doesn’t want to surrender backstage space by posting about the confrontation on Facebook as if the whole world was watching in concern about whether Staton-House Band has the dressing rooms they deserved.)

That Roadies tends to lean on broad humor to spur the action, doesn’t help. There’s a long sequence involving a stalker making erotic use of a microphone that’s embarrassing and a few supporting characters edge into caricature.

There are signs of life. Crowe’s visual skills have only gotten stronger over the years. A fluid sequence following Kelly Ann on her skateboard doubles as an introduction to the day-to-day routines of the crew as they set up for a show in New Orleans. Then there’s that sincerity. Crowe can be corny, but he’s never phony, and when the characters here drop into reveries about why they do what they do it’s easy to buy them as passionate people who live in service of art. And so, obviously, is Crowe, even if his latest project has a ways to go to live up to his best work. Maybe it’ll get there further down the road.

Roadies premieres on Showtime this Sunday at 10 p.m. Its first episode is available to watch free at Hulu now.