Executive Producers J.J. Abrams, Winnie Holtzman and Cameron Crowe
Created by Cameron Crowe
June 26, 2016-August 28, 2016
Dear readers, it was a terrible movie season this summer. Truly terrible. Aside from one documentary, Thorsten Schuette's "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words" and one indie comedy/drama in Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice," the summer of 2016 delivered one of the weakest times at the movies in recent memory. But truth be told, this entire year so far has not been one to write home about regardless of any shattered box office records.
What we are seeing at this time is everything that I have been writing about over and again upon this site and that is precisely the preponderance of all things related to big budget sequels, prequels, remakes, reboot, re-imaginings, franchises and anything that potentially possesses a built in audience from comic book characters to toys and video games and all at the expense of not only just creating films with honest to goodness characters and stories but films that are indeed wholly original or ones that represents a filmmaker's personal point of view with how they view the world in which we co-exist.
As weary as I get with the assembly line nature of these massive budgeted films, I do still take my hard earned money to see them and yes, for some, I do remain a fan. When the films are good, as with the ones that have been coming out of the Marvel Comics arena or what J.J. Abrams achieved with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015), the results can often be as exhilarating as ever. but, those films typically are not made to that high standard and more often than not, are simply designed to just take the money quickly and run, films that are completely disposable and guaranteeing sequels that no one but the Hollywood bean counters asked for.
I have also and often lamented the fact that some of my most favorite filmmakers seem to be having more difficulties than ever with getting their movies made from the likes of Terry Gilliam and Spike Lee, for instance, making the positions of other idiosyncratic filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson as anomalies. For Cameron Crowe, in many ways, his films have never been easy ones to necessarily classify as they do tend to stretch themselves between genres, but at least, there was a climate within Hollywood that allowed films like "Say Anything..." (1989), "Singles" (1992), "Jerry Maguire" (1996) and even "Almost Famous" (2000) to get made in the first place. Nowadays, as Crowe himself has expressed in interviews, a film like "Almost Famous" would never be able to find itself made within this current cinematic climate that stresses box office over originality and personal statements more than ever.
Crowe has indeed had a tough go at it in recent years, especially with his long gestating and critically crucified "Aloha" (2015) existing as his latest Hollywood wound. But, undeterred and forever intrepid, he carried onwards to the medium that may be more suitable for his specific storytelling needs, the world of cable television, where he teamed up with none other than J.J. Abrams and "My So Called Life" creator/writer Winnie Holzman to bring his first television series "Roadies" to vibrant, vivacious life this summer.
"Roadies" takes the audience on the cross country adventures of the behind the scenes road crew for the fictional arena rock group The Staton-House Band, currently embarked upon their "Capture The Flag" tour in promotion of their latest album "Consider The Stars." Under the leadership of Tour Manager Bill Hanson (Luke Wilson) and Production Manager Shelli Anderson (Carla Gugino), the roadies, which include, the brittle and caustic soundboard operator Donna Mancini (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the insecure and unkempt bass guitar tech Milo (Peter Cambor), gruff tour bus driver Gooch (Luis Guzman), the legendary Phil, the beloved King of The Roadies (Ron White), the self-described master of "guitars, people and coffee--in that order," Wes Mason (Colson Baker a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly) and finally, his twin sister, the self-conscious yet fearless skateboarding lighting rigger and hopeful photographer/filmmaker Kelly Ann Mason (the wonderful Imogen Poots) among others.
When The Staton-House Band's record label brings in a financial adviser to crunch the numbers of the tour in the person of Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall), his constant presence represents yet another threat to the purity of the music within an ever changing industry that rapidly reduces art to product while also consistently devaluing the very product they wish to sell--a conceit that troubles Kelly Ann greatly.
Over the course of 10 episodes, we follow the crew that follows the band from city to city with all manner of experiences along the way from hysterical to tender, triumphant to tragic, the romantic and ribald to the blissfully bittersweet all the while becoming deeply involved with the familial bonds between them, not forged through blood but through the shared love of music.
For me, Cameron Crowe's "Roadies" was the very best "feature film" I saw this entire summer--that is, if you thought of this series as being a 10 hour film divided into one hour installments each week. I felt "Roadies" represented Crowe's artistic vision at its peak, easily matching the specific heights when he embarked upon the amazing run that produced "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" and "Vanilla Sky" (2001).
The television format served Crowe beautifully and brilliantly, as the extended time frame allowed him to delve into his characters, their respective stories, sub plots and sub-sub plots with aplomb and a level of ingenuity that one two-hour feature film may not be able to house as strongly. It was a show that set the stage, so to speak, wonderfully as a companion piece to "Almost Famous," most certainly, in its premiere. But soon, "Roadies" demonstrated how it was a series that would continuously reveal itself, characters and therefore, its soul over time, resulting in a conclusion that was enormously effective and undeniably emotional as my heart simply pounded urgently and achingly and this world brought me to my feet and reduced me to tears--often at the very same time.
"Roadies" created a richly designed and staggeringly detailed multi-layered universe filled with running jokes and all manner of visual and conceptual accouterments that ensured the world created within "Roadies" was as complete as possible...a world that even extended itself outside into the real world (or the real world as presented on-line).
We were given wonderfully detailed recurring characters like Natalie Shin, the 21st century "band-aid"/stalker (as warmly portrayed by Jacqueline Byers), as well as Staton-House Band superfan Mike Finger (an engaging Ely Henry), creator of the fansite "The Blue and the Black" (incidentally a website fully created in the real world complete with band memorabilia, full discography, concert and album reviews, fan art as well as a link to the 'official' SHB website). We were given an insight into road superstitions and their supposed cures, most specifically introduced in episode 4 entitled "The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken," yet the aftershocks continue to play out for the remainder of the series. We were even given a show within the show entitled "Dead Sex," a fictional cable series starring David Spade (and apparently now in its third season), a series all of the characters are obsessed with.
But then, there was, of course, the music, and as always, Cameron Crowe showcased his impeccable taste with a lovingly curated soundtrack which ran wall-to-wall for each episode (and just so you are all aware, each episode's track list can be found on the official Showtime site as well as Crowe's website "The Uncool")! Furthermore, each episode of "Roadies" featured a "Song Of The Day" selection. And even moreso, we were given the running joke of The Staton-House Band being unable to keep a consistent opening act for the longevity of the tour, a tactic that allowed the series to not only showcase artists like Reignwolf, Lucius, Lindsey Buckingham, The Head and The Heart, Halsey plus others, it served as a means to allow the characters and the viewers at home to luxuriate in the act of listening to music!!
This was just one of the elements that flew directly into the center of my wheelhouse as I feel that for all of the music we are inundated with in society (on the radio, television, movies, clubs, ringtones, etc...), the act of just listening feels like an archaic act. It is as if the Crowe and his show are arguing that the entire listening experience has been lost and that people aren't connecting to music as people once did in the past as music has become nothing more than a fashion accessory. In fact, one character expresses in the series that at concerts, even applause is completely different because in one of everyone's hands sits a smartphone. Where is the space and the place where the music is able to flow so freely that it could possibly change someone's life? "Roadies" celebrates the people, all of whom whose lives have been changed by some song in their past, some song that has indeed led them to their chosen profession, a life on the road and ultimately to each other, this rag-tag rock and roll road warrior family.
And even then, there was the truly genius move on Crowe's part to not ever hear a Staton-House Band song or to ever see the band perform even once within the show, even though the songs, especially the track "Janine," are weaved into, and at times, propel the full 10 episode narrative. In doing so, Crowe was wise enough to leave what "Janine" sounded like to the imaginations of each and every viewer instead of running the risk of composing a real song that just may not fly, like the completely underwhelming symphony that concludes Stephen Herek's "Mr. Holland's Opus" (1995). Besides, this is yet another aspect which runs with the overall theme of the series about people connecting to the music and what that experience means rather than just hearing the song itself.
Even with all of these elements that I loved so very much, the critical response to "Roadies," however, was mixed at best with many reviews being widely negative and nearly all housing criticisms that the show was too shallow, to uninformative about the life of roadies, and shockingly, a series that possessed underdeveloped characters and a condescending tone that was insufferable. For some of those criticism, I can easily bat them away, especially the ones that bemoaned any sense of informativeness "Roadies" could have offered or presented about the life and occupation of a roadie. To that, I say this: "Roadies" is not a documentary. Case closed.
Yet, for the remainder of the criticisms...I just do not know and truthfully, I really don't get it. Its strange but I feel that here is where the cable television format has also succumbed to its own trappings, ones that make a creative figure like Cameron Crowe a difficult fit.
We can easily see how the motion picture industry is currently caught at a crossroads and is creatively stagnated because of it as the Hollywood execs do not seem remotely interested in making films about...well...people. I think cable television, as often brilliant as it is these days with programming that is deeply character driven and more visually stimulating and artful than most movies (Sam Esmail's stunning "Mr. Robot," for instance), the medium is also caught at a certain crossroads as nearly every show feels to be strictly tethered to its own specified darkness and collection of anti-heroes, villains and ever deepening levels of bad behavior. It makes me wonder if there is even a place in the visual medium for a artistic sensibility like Cameron Crowe's anymore, one that is unashamedly, unabashedly and unrepentantly earnest, sincere and means every single word of which his characters speak and believe, solely because it feels as if Crowe believes every sentiment himself.
Cameron Crowe's "Roadies" is truly an anomaly on cable television as it is a show of such warmth and generosity as well as a profound lack of cynicism and self-congratulatory hipster irony. In fact, and even for all of the sex and drugs that go with the rock and roll--this series returns Crowe to the R-rated raunchiness of his own "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" (1982)--"Roadies" is actually quite innocent, unlike say Martin Scorsese's now defunct rock and roll series "Vinyl" (which I thoroughly enjoyed as well but for completely different reasons), which gleefully wallowed in the graphic, dark, violent, sexually explicit excesses of bad behavior...again which is now a cable television normality. I find it more than admirable that Crowe will remain "uncool" as much as possible just so he is able to tell his stories in the way he wishes them to be told. And to provide a sense of joy in an increasingly dark world so passionately to the point that it is a Quixotian act, makes his specialized brand of integrity so appealing and for me, heroic.
At its core, "Roadies" continues the classic Cameron Crowe theme of discovering and retaining one's integrity in a world where integrity carries increasingly less currency and respect. The roadies on this series are very much in line with past Crowe heroes as they are passionate believers in their chosen occupations, feeling that true success arrives through a certain spiritual deliverance that occurs when one finds their life's purpose, be it a love struck kickboxer, a sports agent struggling to live up to his own self-written mission statement, an aspiring journalist, rock musicians in 1990's Seattle or on tour in the 1970's, a grieving Father and zookeeper, a suicidal shoe developer or a rich playboy on a psychedelic odyssey through dreams, death and beyond.
In the series premiere episode entitled "Life Is A Carnival," we find The Staton-House Band in the middle of their "Capture The Flag" tour which is creatively stagnated. Their set list has not changed since the previous tour, which leads to some emotional stagnation for Kelly Ann, enough so where she is ready to abandon the rock and roll life on the road altogether for film school. It is within an early scene between herself and the roadie legend Phil, where she sadly expresses in a heart-to-heart moment that "I don't hear the music the same way. I don't feel like it's mine anymore...I don't know if the band is feeling it either....I have to be a fan of something or I'm useless. I'm worker bee on bus #1...My whole belief...thing...is just starting to crack."
The power of belief and the purity of one's intentions. Really, dear readers, who can honestly find fault with a sentiment of that sort? Of course, whether we may or may not reach that belief system personally or individually in our own lives, what Cameron Crowe continues to present are characters where it is not enough to just perform a job. The belief in what one is doing fuels the belief in the self yet Crowe understands that such a journey is fraught with confusion, contradictions and all manner of tribulations.
By the conclusion the first episode, Kelly Ann's remarks do find their way to the band who reciprocates by expressing that she was indeed correct and they would begin to change up the concert set lists and now include the infamous and long unplayed "Janine," inspired by the very women who broke Christopher House's (played by Tanc Sade) heart years ago. This one act not only convinces Kelly Ann to remain on tour as a roadie but it also spirals into a myriad of directions, affecting the lives of the entire crew and musicians.
We have Bill Hanson, a lifelong friend to Christopher House, a recovering addict, and one who habitually engages in promiscuous sex with younger women across the country all the while masking his own heartbreak from a failed relationship plus his own increasingly budding romantic feelings towards Shelli Anderson, who is married yet may carry the same feelings in return. Speaking of Shelli, both she and Donna represent two women who feel more at home on the road than in their real homes with their respective families. And even within the band, Tom Staton (played by Catero Alain Colbert) has his young angry son Winston (Ethan MIchael Mora) on the road with the band yet never spends time with him whatsoever, leaving him in the care and guidance of the wildly unorthodox Wes, the guitar tech.
Even greater contradictions revolve around the crew and the band's relationship towards Kelly Ann, who is often criticized for being too self-serious and navel gazing, yet it is more than obvious that she is admired for her impassioned stance and integrity against the initial corporate presence of Reg Whitehead, whom Kelly Ann admonishes for "not understanding the brand that you're trying to sell." Certainly the initial tension between Kelly Ann and Reg leads to a romantic attraction, but even their dance informs the larger story about Red himself, who also reveals himself to be a much deeper, honorable, misunderstood and wholly endearing character than initially thought to be.
Much praise must be delivered to Crowe's wonderful cast, from top to bottom, for embodying these characters with such depth, humor, nuance, heart and soul with the stunning Imogen Poots as the series' rock solid center. I really do not believe that I have ever found Luke Wilson to be so soulful before and his seamless chemistry with Carla Gugino has been the first love story in quite some time to not only move me but one that truly has some heavy stakes at heart. Rafe Spall transcended what could have been a one-note character and beautifully portrayed his evolution to heartbreaking perfection.
And I cannot say enough good things about Ron White as Phil, truly the series' constantly held aloft flame to rock and roll. White's Hoyt Axton styled folksy humor, gravelly charm and demeanor gave way to a shattering gravitas on two of the series strongest episodes, "The All Night Bus Ride" and "The Corporate Gig," and leaving an astoundingly poignant presence upon the final episode "The Load Out," an installment that simultaneously functioned as an elegy to rock and roll as well as to the triumph of its everlasting spirit.
But somehow, for some viewers and definitely the critics, all of this (and so much more) was just not enough and the critiques just kept coming throughout the season, which ultimately, I began to feel said more about the critics than it did for the show itself. Yes, "Roadies" received some harsh knocks for its depiction of two archetypal villains representing the "new way" of the music industry vs. the purity of the old.
In the episode "The Bryce Newman Letter," Rainn Wilson portrayed the titular character, a highly influential yet enormously arrogant music blogger who is truly an agent of the "industry of cool" as he writes reviews for albums he never listened to and concerts he never even witnessed. He is a blowhard of the utmost degree and when he visits The Staton-House Band tour, he receives his comeuppance. Frankly, for all of the criticism launched against the character, I easily saw him as being representative of the aspect of internet music writers (i.e the staff of Pitchfork) who are clearly not writing for any audience other than the writers they are wishing to impress themselves. They are so obvious with their vitriol and for whom they would launch it against on some misguided set of principles, that you can really know precisely what they will write about an album or band before you even read their reviews.
Another antagonist arrives in the episode entitled "Carpet Season," where Rosanna Arquette guest stars as Abby Van Ness, a world famous photographer whom Kelly Ann has cited as an inspiration, arrives on tour to shoot the SB for the cover of Vanity Fair. This would be a great thing if not for the fact that Van Ness is truly reprehensible and also deserving of her own comeuppance. Again, she represents the figure who has bought their own hype for so long in their career and life that they have completely forgotten what inspired them in the first place, what made them fall in love with their chosen medium of expression, never treating their talent as a gift but their level of celebrity as a right.
While both characters are portrayed in broadly comic fashions, this does not mean that Cameron Crowe has nothing to say through them regarding his themes of integrity and purity. Yet for the critics, they offered nothing constructive. Only snide remarks and insults, therefore fully proving all of the points Crowe was attempting to make! Of course, I wouldn't expect everyone to fall in love with this series as I did but if there is nothing pure within the criticism, then what is the purpose other than to tear something down? And with "Roadies," for all of its sincerity, it is the easiest target in the room, making the supposed cynicism and sanctimony the property of some of the program's detractors and not Cameron Crowe in the least.
Regardless, now, the series has concluded leaving a gigantic hole in my Sunday nights as I have grown so accustomed to hopping on that tour bus and venturing to a new city with a collective of characters who now feel like friends. For all of my confusion with precisely what critics and some viewers may have wanted from this series, Cameron Crowe's "Roadies" delivered to me more than I ever could ask for with the precise amount of dedication, fandom, appreciation, artistry, and of course, the very integrity and purity that has defined Crowe as an artist for decades. While Showtime, as of this writing, has not yet announced whether they will renew or cancel the series, I am deeply hoping they will allow the band, and especially this crew, to have one more go around.
If not, "Roadies" was a series with a definitive beginning, middle and ending that left me shouting "BRAVO!!!!" Of course, I want that encore but you know, maybe the very best encore would be to just watch this beautiful series all over again.