By Michael Gray
The quest for the next "Full Monty" continues. We’ve already been offered "Little Voice" and "Waking Ned Devine" this year as underdogs likely to go the distance and match the "Monty" take at the box office. The next contender for the title is the rock Monty, "Still Crazy." Director Brian Gibson’s film is a weak stab at comedy, about a bunch of aging musicians trying to get their band together for a 20th anniversary comeback tour. It comes with solid music credentials — Gibson previously directed "What’s Love Got To Do With It" and "The Josephine Baker Story," and the screenwriters, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, wrote the script for Alan Parker’s "The Commitments."
But take away the drive and energy of Parker’s direction, the sharp characters of Roddy Doyle’s original novel, and the exuberance of youth, and then replace them with a fictitious band named Strange Fruit that slots in somewhere between Uriah Heep and Blodwyn Pig in the rock pantheon, and these old lags struggle to find a groove.
Strange Fruit doesn’t rock; neither does it roll. On their first go-round, shown in psychedelic flashback, the band members dressed like glam rockers and played like prog rockers, long after both fads had passed. In their revamped comeback version, they seem as talentless a bunch of idiots as ever strapped on a Stratocaster or stood brooding behind an electric keyboard. At no point in the film do the actors ever seem likely to convince themselves that they’re in a real band, and the cinema audience will have similar trouble.
It doesn’t bear thinking about that the scriptwriters took the band name from the title of a Billie Holiday song that stands as a searing indictment of racism in the American south. But they can’t make up their minds whether Strange Fruit is a joke band, mediocre in its heyday two decades previously, and embarrassingly bad on the reunion tour, or a serious group of musicians whose turgid tunes we’re supposed to appreciate in the lava lamp glow of 1970s nostalgia.
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How nostalgic can we really get about a fake band playing phony, bloated reheats of 1970s progressive rock? At least with "The Commitments" we already knew all the songs.
"Still Crazy" falls between the cracks that separate sincerity from irony in filmmaking, and can only remind us how perfectly Rob Reiner’s "This Is Spinal Tap" skewered the rock dinosaur band-bio 15 years ago, making any subsequent attempt to do so redundant.
But a strong cast still manages to produce sporadic flashes of humor from Clement’s and La Frenais’ sub-standard material. Billy Connolly adds much-needed insanity as the Scottish roadie and chief morale booster for the dismal band members. Fully recovered from his performance as the sycophantic servant in "Mrs. Brown," Connolly even has his old hair back. He plays the roadie decked out in a lavish wig that matches the unruly, skunk-striped mane that was his trademark in the ’70s, when he reduced standup comedy audiences in Britain and Ireland to tears of laughter before Hollywood claimed him, and he stopped being funny.
Connolly’s character drives the malodorous tour bus, firing off snappy one-liners ("I love the smell of vomit in the morning!") and devising daft games to keep the band upbeat on the long journeys between gigs. But he’s got his work cut out. Band member Tony Costello (Stephen Rea) starts the film with a modicum of swagger as the keyboard player-turned-condom salesman who pushes the whole reunion idea. But life back on the road, and reminders of love lost, reduce him to a doleful shadow as he mopes about after their manager Karen (Juliet Aubrey). She, in turn, mopes about her lost love, the lead singer Brian (Bruce Robinson), who disappeared 20 years before and is presumed dead . . . or is he? Of course he’s not dead, and of course he’s going to show up. We’ve been to the cinema before.
As the lead singer who replaces the missing-presumed-dead Brian, Bill Nighy acquits himself with a kind of shattered dignity. He plays a fragile narcissist struggling with multiple addictions, and hanging on to delusions of stardom long after his bandmates have given up on rock and gotten normal jobs. But despite his best efforts, his tormented character is played mostly for cheap laughs — and they don’t come much cheaper than in this fake rock doc.
When Ray goes to an AA meeting while they’re on tour in Holland and gets up to say his piece, he finds out that it’s actually an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. When a pizza delivery boy asks for his signature on the delivery ticket, the addled singer mistakenly interprets this as a request for an autograph. His ex-groupie Nordic girlfriend, Astrid (Helena Bergstrom), forgets her English and rants in her native tongue every time she loses her temper with the bickering musicians; but it was much funnier somehow when the Swedish chef did it on the Muppet show.
Further down the comedic food chain lies that butt of all band jokes, that chap who hangs round with musicians: the drummer. Played by Timothy Spall, the rotund rhythm machine Beano Baggot is stuck with one of the worst running gags in the film. Beano has a fear of tax people, and a poor track record when it comes to picking up women, so the writers condemn him to spend most of his screen time fleeing from a lusty groupie in a suit whom he mistakenly believes to be from the Revenue.
If you’ve ever wished you were in a rock band and never got around to doing it, this film will make you glad you never bothered. The vicious arguments, sore eardrums, and the nether halitosis that follows a touring band’s fast-food-and-beer diet as surely as night follows day, are all laid predictably before us to little comic effect. But the upside of being on tour with a band is virtually absent. The film conveys almost none of the rush that musicians get from playing live onstage, and never makes you feel that being in a band is much cooler than being a roofer, a gardener, or, in the case of Rea’s character, a condom salesman in Ibiza.
"Still Crazy’ serves as a reminder of why The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols were so necessary back in the ’70s, to excoriate sonic dross like this from real life Strange Fruits. And if you go to the video shop anytime soon looking for "This Is Spinal Tap," you may find it’s already been rented by a music fan who wants to see, one more time, how to do this kind of film right.