05 September 1999
National Bawdy old men on rock & roll road to ruin
At the Movies: Barry Ronge
THE British are back with Still Crazy, another splendid film in the tradition of Brassed Off and The Full Monty . This one is not going to have quite the same wide appeal as those two films because it is set in the world of rock & roll music and it has a loud, uncompromising music score.
That puts lots of people off. They bring all sorts of judgmental baggage to their encounters with rock music, and many people will allow their prejudices about loud sounds to put them off going.
It will be their loss because this bawdy, roistering tale of a '70s rock band who stage a comeback is an absolute joy, full of sly wit and knock-out performances.
A band called Strange Fruit, similar in many ways to The Who and The Stones, enjoyed a great success in the '70s and seemed poised on the brink of superstardom.
Then their lead singer died of an overdose, the choice of the new lead singer caused an ego war within the group and their various addictions to drugs and liquor finally broke up the band.
They all pretended they were going to pursue solo careers, but it never worked out for any of them.
At the start of this film Tony (Stephen Rea) is servicing condom dispensers in Spanish coastal resorts. Les (Jimmy Nail) is mending roofs and Beano (Timothy Spall) is on the run from the income tax investigators in search of money he never paid them when he was rich.
Only Ray (Bill Nighy) has kept some semblance of stardom. He still owns the Victorian mansion he bought, but it has bankrupted him. He's a recovering alcoholic who clings to his lost fame as if it were a dead child.
They are a sorry lot who have not spoken for years, but a rock festival promoter with a sense of history decides he is going to stage a come-back concert and he wants to get the band back together again.
The record company, scenting new profits from its old library titles, decides to send them on a try-out tour of the dingier clubs in Holland before they come back to the UK for the planned rock festival.
They team up with their old manager Karen (Juliet Aubrey) and their roadie Hughie (Billy Connolly) and, in a cloud of pot and nostalgia, they go in search of their lost glory.
They don't find it easily. It is a bruising re-discovery of the boredom and discomfort of life on the road and a realisation that the 20-year gap between them and the club audiences of today is as wide as an ocean. The old rivalries and tension spring up, but the resilience of youth that once made them easy to deal with, is gone. These are a bunch of grumpy old men with ulcers, stiff joints and a bad attitude. There isn't a chance that they'll ever be stars again, but each one knows they have unfinished business. They have a chance to go back and for one night re-claim the stardom and fame that eluded them.
Their journey is hilarious and Billy Connolly, sardonic and foul-mouthed as ever, is like an acidic Greek chorus, mocking, remembering and teasing them as they nurse their bruised egos and fight their fear of failure.
Jimmy Nail is just perfect as the brooding victim of the band and Bill Nighy is quite brilliant as the arrogant lead singer. This is a clever performance. It never shirks from showing any of the meanness and spite of the man, but connects to his fear and his desperate need to prove to himself that he is not a complete failure.
The script is by Dick Clements and Ian La Frenais, the guys who co-wrote the screenplay for The Commitments , and all their earthy, idiomatic verve and humour is on bright display.
I loved the music. It is a wonderful pastiche of the style and sound of the time, and the CD is like a time-capsule that takes you back to that fascinating transition from acid rock to glam rock.
It's played good and loud and there's a lot of it, so the film effortlessly captures the mood and texture of an era without losing its gritty grasp on the present.
As with Brassed Off and The Full Monty we are never in any doubt that they will make the final concert, but the script is able to slip in a couple of twists that make the ending warm and unexpectedly uplifting. You never imagined that the male menopause and the mid-life crisis could be so much fun.
Still Crazy is a full-on charmer, filled with star-turns and an especially impressive performance from young Hans Matheson as the new guitarist who joins the band for the ride.
He's star material for sure, and now that Ewan McGregor has moved on to mega-star glory, Matheson looks a likely choice to step into his shoes.