Throughout Vinyl’s first—and now final—season, my opinion changed ever so slightly from when I first wrote about its debut episode. Vinyl remained absurd, overly nostalgic, ahistorical and evenly lionizing of men, but at the very least, the effervescent Juno Temple got to shine a little and, even better, the “getting high on cocaine” scenes became unintentionally funnier as they went along.
Vinyl’s cancellation transpired by no fault of its cast, which is individually excellent under more fortunate circumstances. Though a second season was initially on the slate, on Wednesday, HBO announced that the company had changed its mind after taking stock of its public and critical reception, which was as cold as if the snowman had delivered it himself. The collective fever-dream nostalgia of Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and executive producer Mick Jagger for a 1970s music industry that only sort of existed in their own recollections simply did not translate to viewers.
Fictional concerts have been depicted effectively hundreds of times in film and television, from Diane Lane’s steely-eyed bops in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains to Ethan Hawke’s snarling Violent Femmes cover in Reality Bites to Zac Efron’s triumphant fist-pumping crowd in We Are Your Friends, up to and including the near entirety of Nashville and Empire. But one of the many reasons Vinyl did not work is the way it leaned on that experiential conceit; its concert scenes had an emotional flatness to them, particularly when pitted against its more surrealist, sometimes enjoyable musical montages, and it seemed to expect the audience to rear up in reverence. There was an entitlement that we would kneel at the altar they presented simply because the specter of rock ‘n’ roll music was evoked—the failure of the show itself.
Can premium cable rockists please have some mercy on our poor souls? This weekend, Roadies will debut on Showtime, a present-day series with a ‘90s spirit about the real-life, behind the scenes work done by real roadies, a thankless job in general. A Tom Petty quote begins the series, reminding us that without roadies, the show could not go on, and so begins what will surely be a riveting odyssey about the interpersonal dramas of the crew for the fictional Staton-House Band, interspersed with workaday shots of employees communicating on walkie-talkies and setting shit up in various arenas across America.
Roadies is the creation of Cameron Crowe, a man whose nostalgia for purity in rock music is well-documented, through films like Almost Famous and Singles as well as documentaries about Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam (whose singer, Eddie Vedder, provides music for the trailer). The question is, will the average viewer be compelled by the minutiae of the work—how the pianist in the band won’t play if there’s a smudge on his baby grand, or that the opening act (in Episode 1, played by real-life band The Head and the Heart) gets mad if they’re running late on their soundcheck? I have spent my life in the music industry around situations such as these, and maybe there’s magic in the mundanity, but I’m not sure the typical viewer will be very compelled by it.
But then, maybe that’s the point. Crowe’s got a pet project in capturing the reality of rock ‘n’ roll, but some of what made 1992's Singles work—its basis in the then-present day—doesn’t find the same spark in a tour rom-com like this one. We open with Bill (Luke Wilson), a divorced production head, boning a very young woman who turns out to be the daughter of one of the biggest promoters in the concert game; he’s interrupted post-coitus by his coworker Shelli (Carla Gugino), who’s all business and gruffness but, as is later revealed, is also a romantic foil amid his bumbling midlife crisis.
In its first episode, Roadies plays for laughs with an inveterate tour manager who won’t shut up about Ronnie Van Zant, and for empathy with Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), a young, idealistic assistant who’s ready to quit this tour life and go to film school because she simply doesn’t feel the magic of the music anymore. These two characters are supposed to represent opposing forces of keeping the rock dream alive, and in the middle we’re supposed to see ourselves, but it’s all too trite and cliché to even entertain the idea; there is, for instance, a groupie/stalker character who, at one point, masturbates with a microphone supposedly gifted to the Staton-House Band by Bruce Springsteen.
We can see versions of these archetypes, blown out and fetishized as they are, in Almost Famous, as well as Crowe’s interest in the behind-the-scenes of the music biz; his semi-autobiographical film about music journalism worked, though, because it was viewed through the eyes of a teenager, who idealizes ‘70s tenets of sex&drugs&rocknroll before he truly realizes what it all means in full. In Roadies, Crowe seems to be gesturing towards those same tenets, but with a sense of desperation; I’ve only seen one episode, but I’d bet money there’s a monologue somewhere down the line about how autotune killed real music. As with Vinyl, the actors are thus far individually good—Gugino and Poots are doing what they can with the material, though it’s finally hitting how far Luke Wilson’s fallen to end up in this role—but whether it will be able to sustain itself is shaky if debatable. We’ll see how it pans out—maybe it will improve—but we’ll do so with the knowledge that we’ve gotten this lecture before.
Image via screenshot/Showtime