Man, can Cameron Crowe ever catch a break?
Known for creating highly acclaimed modern films like “Say Anything,” “Singles,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous,” the famed writer-director has been in a slump for a while now. Since 2001, Crowe’s filmography has mostly garnered mixed reactions, from the sci-fi disaster “Vanilla Sky” to last year’s panned romance flick “Aloha.” All of the smart writing and wonderful storytelling from his first few movies have gradually disappeared over time, trading in those elements for mawkish overtones, bland characters and humorless dialogue. Perhaps it makes sense then why Crowe has switched on over to television, creating and co-executive producing Showtime’s music-centric dramedy “Roadies.” But even with a move to the small screen, Crowe still has trouble making his thematic and aesthetic trademarks refreshing again.
Despite Crowe’s reliably tasteful soundtrack and a talented cast, “Roadies” suffers from stiff writing, unlikable characters and a grating sense of self-importance. Similar to “Almost Famous,” “Roadies” is another one of Crowe’s gooey love letters to the art and soul of music. But in contrast to “Almost Famous,” “Roadies” packs none of the film’s charm, wit or spirit. The hour-long show also tends to over-romanticize the reality of being a roadie, something that real-life roadies who watched the show have acknowledged.
These detrimental plot elements become quickly evident in the series premiere episode, “Life is a Carnival,” where we meet protagonist Bill Hanson (Luke Wilson, “Idiocracy”), the tour manager of successful folk-rock group The Staton-House Band. Following an apt Tom Petty quote in the opening titles, the show cuts to Bill in the first of three bizarre, gratuitous sex scenes of the episode in which he’s copulating with the 22-year-old daughter of a concert promoter rep. You would think this kind of situation would make Bill a sleazy character, but he turns out to be quite the opposite. Working alongside tour production manager Shelli (Carla Gugino, “The Brink”), Bill makes sure everyone does their job before the concert begins at a venue in New Orleans. This includes looking out for obsessive band stalker Natalie Shin (Jacqueline Byers, “Ascension”), removing any potential firecrackers that could appear and getting the stage ready for the band, which happens to be indie folk outfit The Head and The Heart.
There’s no denying that “Roadies” has an intriguing concept: following a group of people around the country on a music tour, where actual relatively popular bands perform. It’s also nice to have actual bands cameo and play music in “Roadies” instead of getting actors to do that. However, the execution feels off and underdeveloped, as Crowe’s craft is overshadowed by his attempt to boast his personal, somewhat defensive beliefs about music. That type of instance parallels to one particular tense sequence, where skateboarding lighting rigger and aspiring film student Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots, “That Awkward Moment”) challenges the corporate, cynical ideologies of stuffy British music financier Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall, “What If”). Ann’s passionate response to Reg’s condescension of her and the rest of the roadie crew is undeniably sharp, thanks in part to Poots’s standout performance. Yet its underlying message doesn’t reach “Jerry Maguire” level heights of emotional conviction, nor does it satisfy in making the case for Crowe’s root-for-the-underdog approach.
The rest of “Roadies” is generally underwhelming, in terms of the muddy dialogue and the occasionally awkward humor. There’s one really strange scene involving Natalie Shin fellating a microphone that makes you wonder what Crowe was trying to accomplish in writing that gross scenario. Within “Roadies,” there are some intermittent bright spots. Besides the sweet music interludes, Wilson and Gugino have great chemistry together, their characters trying to uphold a professional relationship while engaging in some fun bantering and even showing off their subtle romantic feelings for one another. But other than those small glimmers of hope, “Roadies” isn’t a drastic improvement to Crowe’s recent canon of mixed-to-negatively reviewed work.