Friday December 11, 1998
"Still Crazy," an irresistibly uproarious and heart-tugging tale of a British rock band attempting a comeback 20 years after breaking up, offers the warmth, humor and wisdom of "The Full Monty." It also recalls the endearing 1991 film about an Irish rock band, "The Commitments," which in fact was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who serve as "Still Crazy's" writers and executive producers.
Instead of the pretentiousness and incoherence of "Velvet Goldmine," "Still Crazy" offers a screen full of engaging, sharply defined people, abundant broad comedy set off by incisive wit and keen, knowing observation. Brian Gibson, who did such a superb job with HBO's "The Josephine Baker Story" and the Tina Turner bio, "What's Love Got to Do With It," is the perfect choice as its director.
Gibson is an impassioned storyteller who knows how to integrate musical numbers deftly into the plot and how to get socko performances from a wide array of actors. He knows how to go for broke in the big emotional scenes and when to pull back for those crucially quiet, subtle moments. In contrast to Gibson's two earlier pictures, "Still Crazy" is a comedy, and what makes this film work so well is that he and his colleagues never forget that it is--despite wrenching revelations along the band's rocky comeback trail.
Stephen Rea's Tony Costello has the condom concession in Spain's Balearic Islands, and has dropped by a posh restaurant on a service call when he is recognized as the keyboardist of the seminal '70s band Strange Fruit. He has been discovered by a young man whose father presented the Fruit at a legendary open-air rock festival in 1977, a gig that proved to be the tempestuous group's catastrophic final performance.
The young man offers a chance for a comeback--if Tony can round up the band members for a Holland tour as a warmup for a splashy return at the same festival. (The idea for the film was inspired by a reunion tour of the Animals.)
To be sure, Tony has his work cut out for him in simply locating his bandmates, let alone in persuading them to reunite. Tony first tracks down the Fruits' personal assistant Karen (Juliet Aubrey), considerably younger than the band members and still very attractive. As it turns out, her temporary job is about over, and she's willing to sign on as the band's manager.
The other former Fruits are Jimmy Nail's Les Wickes, a singer-guitarist who felt he should have become the lead singer when its original lead burned out and OD'd. Les, the only Fruit still on his first marriage, has built up a good business as a roofer in a town in Northern England. Ray Simms (Bill Nighy), who became the lead singer, has tried to sustain a semblance of a musical career, although he's not quite the happening guy his ferociously, hilariously humorless and possessive second wife, Astrid (Helena Bergstrom), insists that he is.
Boisterous drummer Beano Baggot (Timothy Spall) has become a portly nursery worker evading the tax collector, and the Fruits' songwriter-guitarist Brian Lovell is believed to be dead. Hughie (Billy Connolly), a cynical veteran who serves as the film's narrator, is willing to return to satisfy his "terrible urge to chronicle human folly." The younger generation is represented by Bruce Robinson as a guitar wizard recruited to fill in the gap left by Brian, and Rachel Stirling as Karen's teenage daughter.
The big question is not merely whether the Fruits still have what it takes--or whether the group really ever did--but also whether they can put aside considerable losses and grievances and pull together for what is all too clearly a last and decidedly dicey chance to make a mark in the ever-changing world of rock 'n' roll. The Fruits are barraged with the unkind reality that they are no longer young and must find a way to connect with audiences too youthful even to have heard of them.
The film offers ensemble performances of breadth and depth, overflowing with both spontaneity and nuance. Nighy has perhaps the most challenging role, as a still-handsome but ravaged-looking man, his Ray never regarded as talented as the band's original singer. He's now decidedly fragile and often loopy yet tries to tell himself he's still a champ who "takes no prisoners."
One of the miracles of the movie, and crucial to its success, is the music itself, with some of the songs deliberately pretentious and dated, others possessing a timeless power to connect. Mick Jones of Foreigner and Chris Difford of Squeeze wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, with Jeff Lynne contributing additional songs. Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet coached the cast as well as serving as the film's musical director.
Another film "Still Crazy" recalls is Rob Reiner's awesomely spot-on mock-rockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap." But whereas that 1984 film skewered the pretensions and excesses of its Brit rockers, this film takes an affectionate rather than satirical view of human foibles.
The look and feel of "Still Crazy," as well as its music, seems exactly right, and it offers such hearty yet wry fun that you hope it will connect with the young audiences that Strange Fruit itself is trying to reach.
Still Crazy, 1998. R, for language, sexuality and drug content. A Columbia Pictures presentation with the participation of the Greenlight Fund of a Marmot Tandy production. Director Brian Gibson. Producer Amanda Marmot. Executive producers-writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Cinematographer Ashley Rowe. Editor Peter Boyle. Score by Clive Langer. Principal songs by Mick Jones and Chris Difford, and by Jeff Lynne. Costumes Caroline Harris. Production designer Max Gottlieb. Art director Sarah-Jane Cornish. Set decorator Rebecca Alleway. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Stephen Rea as Tony Costello. Billy Connolly as Hughie. Jimmy Nail as Les Wickes. Timothy Spall as Beano Baggot. Bill Nighy as Ray Simms. Juliet Aubrey as Karen Knowles. Helena Bergstrom as Astrid Sims.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun