Directed by Brian Gibson
By Rick Mosher
The brilliant satire This Is Spinal Tap took the stuffing out of cock rock’s codpiece with such a vengeance that even now, 15 years later, every filmmaker who dares approach the subject faces the same harsh choice: make the next Spinal Tap or make the movie Spinal Tap destroyed for all time.
The drooping phallic guitar on the poster notwithstanding, Still Crazy ain’t the next Spinal Tap. It’s a feel-good movie, and the good feelings it generates are scattered high points in the competent execution of a well-worn formula. The guys get together, they fight, they nearly fall apart, they realize what they mean to one another, and they come through when it counts to score a huge moral victory in front of the cheering fans. If it sounds familiar, it should–it’s The Blues Brothers, it’s The Bad News Bears, it’s Stripes. Like the commercials say, it’s The Full Monty, right down to the bleary male bonding and scruffy-but-cute male leads. But in The Full Monty, a lovable bunch of regular joes strove to take off their clothes, and their heartwarming triumph was as welcome as it was inevitable. That movie got by on charm and novelty–after all, how many heartwarming movies about regular joe strippers are there?
A lot fewer than there are bad movies about rock bands, that’s for sure. Spinal Tap ridiculed not just the boneheaded lyrics, the plodding music, the fat asses crammed into tights, and the junior-high squabbling but also the countless humorless documentaries that miraculously managed to overlook those things. But despite a few Spinal Tap-esque gags, it’s painfully obvious that Still Crazy director Brian Gibson (also responsible for the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It and Poltergeist II) still thinks all that stuff is kinda cool. The members of the improbably named Strange Fruit are lovable old duffers on a mission to prove they can still rock. Shepherded by a doe-eyed former groupie and a cynical roadie from the glory days, they hit the road, and after an extremely brief tour of European shitholes, they manage to resuscitate the old magic at a 20th-anniversary redux of the same outdoor festival where they self-destructed in 1977. Along the way the boys must overcome rusty chops, old grudges, skeptical record execs, and disinterested club kids. And along the way we are asked to root for them on their own terms.
At first it’s not too much to ask. The band members have all gone their separate ways by the time we meet them, and none of them is thriving financially or spiritually. A jolt of the old cash and chaos appears to be just the thing to ward off their looming midlife crises. The cast is almost uniformly appealing: Stephen Rea as the catalyst and keyboardist is wry and patient in his pursuit of the reunion, and Bill Nighy, gaunt and yellow maned with a voice just this side of the crypt keeper’s, is perfectly cast as the decrepit lead singer. Jimmy Nail as the bitter bassist towers over the proceedings, grimacing as though his shoes were too tight, and the drummer, Mike Leigh stalwart Timothy Spall, is appropriately hairy and jovial. The original guitarist, who we’re told was the band’s bright light back in the day, is presumed dead, so he’s replaced by sweet young thing Hans Matheson. And Billy Connolly is especially effective as the shaggy Scottish roadie–when the guys dig up plaster casts of their schlongs from a trunk full of mementos, he’s the one who holds them to his head like horns.
The Fruits’ first gig, on a tugboat somewhere in the Low Countries, is a total disaster–the stage is so small they’re stepping on toes in addition to egos. But they’re lean and loud, and the band’s big rocker, constructed for the occasion in part by Foreigner’s Mick Jones, sounds enticingly like Thin Lizzy. We begin to look forward to their next show.
Offstage the guys become less compelling as the film puts them through the usual exercises. There’s some good-natured hazing of the new kid, some excusably predictable reminiscing. But there’s also a far-too-predictable scene in which the drummer, whose name happens to be Beano, farts in a cramped dressing room. That’s it, that’s the joke: a loud stinky fart that makes all the other people in the room hold their noses. No one seems to think a fart joke involving a 50-year-old man might say something about the pathetically arrested development of washed-up rock stars.
The problem that slowly reveals itself is that Gibson wants us to laugh with the Fruits, not at them. Any real critique of the band or its mission is explicitly off-limits–the loyal roadie actually gets called on the carpet for not being supportive at one point. In the first half of the movie the fellas hear an old Strange Fruit tune wafting across an ancient Stonehenge-esque druid circle and identify it as “Tequila Mockingbird”–a sub-Spinal Tap joke, sure, but at least it indicates a basic awareness of the ridiculousness of 70s rock. But later Gibson tries to move us with a shot of the bassist sitting alone on the bus, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing “The Flame Still Burns,” a ballad so cheesy it was nominated for a Golden Globe. The camera creeps in close to Nail’s stricken face, inviting us to feel his pain. This time the parody is unintentional. Spinal Tap was so uproarious because everyone was in on the joke except the band. Well, now they have company.
There’s a point at which you realize this movie can’t be redeemed, and it comes to you like the whiff of a drummer’s fart in a cramped dressing room. About halfway through the movie, the Fruits are rocking out for yet another bunch of dour, overpierced twentysomethings when they finally begin to jell. Anyone who’s seen even one episode of The Partridge Family knows what happens next: Heads begin to turn. Close-ups of a few faces, intrigued. Toes begin to tap. The musicians exchange meaningful nods. A few more kids smile, and the next thing you know they’re all swarming into the pit, grinning and dancing like fools.
Shortly thereafter, the dead genius turns out not to be dead after all–just in time for the big festival gig! The groupie finds the still-handsome angel, played by the appropriately weathered Bruce Robinson, tending a rock garden in a mental asylum. But wait–he just works there! He’s really OK! The stage is set for the real comeback! But wait–he’s traumatized by an insensitive journalist and can’t go on! It’s not gonna happen! The Fruits take the stage without him. But wait–the lead singer stops right in the middle of the song, inexplicably stricken! A heart attack? Not in this movie. Never mind, the bassist is going to cover. He’s going to haul out the power ballad! But wait–the fragile guitarist has had a change of heart! He’s strapping on his ax! He’s ready to rock! The crowd is going wild!
And I’m longing for the infinitely more affecting strains of “Sex Farm.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Still Crazy film still.