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, Singles, Jerry 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?