A love letter to Cameron Crowe’s ‘Roadies’4 min read . Updated: 15 Sep 2016, 01:15 PM IST
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“Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture," Frank Zappa once said. “The air in the performance is sculpted into something." Imagine, if you will, trying to bottle that air.
Director Cameron Crowe is perfectly suited to play documentarian to a fictional rock band, yet the climb is a dizzying one. How do you depict a vibe? How do you encapsulate a band in its element, setting a stage and a million imaginations afire? How do you nail down the life-altering giddiness that accompanies the moment you fall in love—with a song, a singer, a group?
Roadies is, by no means, a perfectly crafted show, but may well be the one with the largest, most bass-heavy heart. It is an old-school series about music and hope, a show so free of edge you could call it a circle. That, in itself, sounds unnerving. Television is where we now look for our fix of complex emotions and moral ambiguity, and the very idea of a show about being unabashedly in love with music feels therefore like an immediate misfire. It also feels bloody good.
Roadies, ostensibly about a backstage crew touring with the fictional Staton-House Band, features many a character archetype shuffling around amiably, held together by their worship of the band. There’s a bushy-tailed believer (Imogen Poots), a hesitant tour manager who keeps nodding in sincere agreement (Luke Wilson), a bumbling British financial adviser with no baggage (Rafe Spall) and a brassy, stunning production manager who almost always knows what’s what (Carla Gugino). It is a sunnily picked ensemble of likeable folk. These people want to keep doing what they’re doing, all for the (nostalgia-tinted) adoration of the gods they’ve created—and now have to babysit.
One way to make a show about life on the road would have been to skin it bare, the way Darren Aronofsky pulled the curtain back in The Wrestler and broke our hearts. It is a darker, critically safer option—cable TV loves scummy decisions—but that isn’t Crowe. Crowe’s jam is, instead, expressed by the terrific Colson Baker—a musician better known by his rap name, Machine Gun Kelly—who here, shorn of all cynicism, plays a stagehand named Wes, handling guitars and espressos, and romanticizing rock with an all-conqueringly optimistic, starry-eyed sense of wonder. Wes feels the way we should all feel about a great new song—but rarely find the time or space to, any more.
This is schmaltz, certainly, and it’s no coincidence that Crowe—the Rolling Stone journalist who shadowed The Allman Brothers Band, and who later made Almost Famous—hits his stride most successfully in the episodes with the ensemble locked inside a tour bus, chasing deadline or superstition. The rest of the time, mileage varies. It’s a significantly flawed show, but as veteran tour manager Phil says, paraphrasing Ronnie Van Zant, “On any day, any band can be the greatest band in the world." And boy, does this one have its moments. Gloriously uncool ones.
It isn’t altogether easy to watch Roadies in India—you have to register on Showtime.com and use a VPN service to trick the site into believing you’re in the US—but it is well worth it to watch this cast debate a brutal lovesong. This song, called Janine—reminding me constantly of David Bowie’s intentionally indecisive Janine, which rhymes “You’re fey, Janine" with “So stay, Janine"—is a Staton-House Band classic about an eponymous girl who devastated founder Christopher House. “She broke his heart," says one. “And he wrote an insanely beautiful song about it," retorts the other, as if that matters more (which, if the song is indeed that beautiful, it does).
We never hear Janine. The first season is generously stuffed with brilliant acts old and new—from Jackson Browne to Halsey, their songs played almost all the way through, with a magnificent, episode-length Lynyrd Skynyrd salute—but we only get stray snatches of the Staton-House Band. This ineffability makes them sound better than most fictional bands.
Crowe is best at giving us a sense of what it feels like to care as much as he himself does. He lets us meet the band, but more than that, he introduces us to the people who, when they see their bass player looking lost on stage, make sure to yell out a consolatory “I love you" from the audience. Sometimes, as Roadies will have you believe, that is all you need.
Documentary to watch this week
Abhay Kumar’s fine Placebo, now streaming internationally on Netflix, is a riveting look inside the dreamy, deluded heads of the students of New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims). An educational institute suffering from suicide and misogyny, Aiims is explored probingly by Kumar and his incisive, intimately trusted camera, and the characters he discovers amuse and worry in equal measure.
Streams of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen