Not since the rockumentary "This is Spinal Tap" have the life and times of a rock band been better documented than in "Still Crazy." The difference between the two movies, of course, is that Strange Fruit, the 1970s erstwhile super-group in "Still Crazy," is fictional, while Spinal Tap is a real band. Right?
Actually, Spinal Tap and Strange Fruit would make a perfect fictional double-bill in the stadium tour of your dreams -- assuming your dreams run toward sweet, if slightly pretentious, poseurs whose idea of rock and roll runs to power chords, overwrought gestures and excruciatingly long, operatic yelps.
The thing is, Strange Fruit could have been contenders. In fact, they were about-to-be-legends at the Wisbech Festival in 1977 when a bolt of lightning aimed straight for the stage. (Think Isle of Wight, only as a natural disaster instead of a cultural one.) As their roadie Hughie (Billy Connolly) explains in the cheery narration of "Strange Fruit": "Divine intervention pulled the plug on the Fruits."
The band members went their separate ways. Keyboardist Tony Costello (Stephen Rea) became a condom salesman in Ibiza; bass player Les (Jimmy Nail) became a hard-working family man. Lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy) retired to his country estate with his Scandinavian wife, Astrid, and chief groupie Karen (Juliet Aubrey) channeled her people-pleasing skills into a career in the hotel-motel trade.
The Rolling Stones references are no doubt entirely intended by writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Between this effort and their earlier film, "The Commitments," it's clear that the team has an intimate knowledge of the unique exhilaration, esprit de corps, egotism and heartbreak that animate a rock band's life.
All of these elements come into play when the Fruits re-unite for a tour, culminating in a 20-year anniversary of the Wisbech Festival. Eager to re-experience the magic of "fame, fortune and fornication" that was almost theirs, they get back on the bus -- only to contend with ulcers, game knees and a wholly indifferent public.
Throughout a pathetic tour of the Netherlands ("Strang Froot," reads one sign), the Fruits bear witness to the hilarity and tender sadness of men trying to recapture the best in themselves.
Each member of this outstanding ensemble of British actors embodies this impulse in his own way. Rea is sweetly hangdog, while Nail, as the Fruits' ox-like bassist, seems on the verge of exploding with pent-up rage and frustration. But the scene-stealer here is Nighy, an acclaimed stage actor in London who plays the Fruits' vain lead singer like a moussed and mascaraed Ichabod Crane.
From the moment he's introduced on screen, growling "Hello, Wembley" into a microphone while giving a toast at his daughter's wedding, Nighy somehow manages to convey hilarious arrogance and heart-rending sadness simultaneously. (His attempt to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting conducted in Dutch gives an example of both extremes in one scene.)
"Still Crazy," directed with a light, knowing touch by Brian Gibson ("What's Love Got To Do With It?"), keeps up a pleasing patter of rock and roll in-jokes ("Queen Victoria slept here, and Steve Winwood!" Astrid exclaims when she's showing Ray's mansion to prospective buyers). But it's the way "Still Crazy" captures promise and disappointment that makes this comedy so rewarding.
"Still Crazy" has room in its heart for even its most flawed characters, which makes its corny, overblown climax so touchingly triumphant. Filmgoers will want to turn the volume up to 11 and raise their Bic lighters to the possibility of second acts.
Starring Billy Connolly, Stephen Rea, Jimmy Nail, Timothy Spall, Bill Nighy, Juliet Aubrey
Directed by Brian Gibson
Released by Columbia Pictures
Rated R (language, sexuality and drug content)
Running time 96 minutes
Sun score * * * 1/2
Pub Date: 2/19/99