Tapped Out

What's age got to do with it? The grizzled rockers of Still Crazy

With everyone from Skynyrd to Sabbath embarking on reunion tours this decade, Rob Reiner's 1984 mock rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap now reads like a prescient primer for the current geezer-rock onslaught. They were just smart gags at first, but Tap's deceased drummers, free-jazz side projects, and amps set to 11 somehow prepared us for the sad spectacle of a 50-year-old Ozzy Osbourne, sober and bespectacled, trying desperately to rile up a Late Show With David Letterman crowd at the Ed Sullivan Theater in late '98. Nothing much funny about that, as anyone who saw the broadcast will attest.

Still Crazy finds director Brian Gibson (What's Love Got to Do With It) and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Commitments) trying to reinvent Reiner's cult classic as the big-hearted story of a British band rising from its '70s ashes to recapture the rock limelight. Bad idea? Well, with a skilled roster of beloved European actors on board--including Stephen Rea, Billy Connolly, and Helena Bergstrom--you'd like to think there's at least the possibility for some well-executed, timely satire. Alas, the final product is a tired, all-too-familiar dose of modern-day limey schmaltz without even the benefit of a salable soundtrack.

For starters, the band sucks. Bloated keyboardist Tony (Rea) sees not only dollar signs but a shot at redemption when an eager promoter suggests that he reunite his long-retired rock act, Strange Fruit, for a mammoth outdoor music festival. It seems the band burned out prematurely back in its heyday, losing its charismatic lead singer to a drug overdose and soon going the way of Mott the Hoople in the rock 'n' roll ranks. Now the record industry is skeptical, the star guitarist is presumed dead, and all the other band mates have fallen into low-income reclusion. Like a latter-day Blues Brother, Tony is nonetheless determined to get the band back together for one last glory ride; he quickly convinces groupie-turned-manager Karen (Juliet Aubrey) to help rally the troops. Never mind that the boys are all outsized, outdated, and sorely out of practice.

Thus begins the requisite 90-minute countdown to the Fruits' triumphant comeback. Like The Full Monty's hapless amateur strippers or The Commitments' soul-deficient underdogs, these grizzled geezers must struggle through laughter, tears, and shitty gigs in Belgium in order to get their act together before the Big Show. Naturally, each member of the group has his/her own tender epiphany along the way: the divorced ex-groupie (Aubrey) who lets go of her lovelorn past; the Prozac-prescribed singer (Bill Nighy) who finally gets his groove back; the bitter old bassist (Jimmy Nail) who buries his working-class hatchet. Actor Timothy Spall--bloody brilliant in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies and Life Is Sweet--is shamefully relegated to the role of the boozy, flatulent drummer who just wants to get laid and ultimately does so with minimal fanfare. So many plot threads, so little subtlety. It's tough to love these familiar caricatures, and even tougher to believe that they've ever really picked up an instrument.

The forced and plainly formulaic nature of the whole endeavor is only slightly worse than the music itself. Such real-life notables as Chris Difford (Squeeze), Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet), Mick Jones (Foreigner), and veteran producer Clive Langer all collaborated on the fictitious band's repertoire, and it's a pretty lackluster songbook. At least the Commitments had license to appropriate some proven covers; these blokes don't even have credible tunes to summon a semblance of real rock energy, let alone a focused script to give them a backbone. Watching Nighy's wrinkled frontman belt out a contrived set of Strange Fruit originals is about as engaging as seeing the aforementioned Ozzy raked over his own coals on national TV.

Perhaps if the filmmakers had borrowed Reiner's faux-documentary approach, they'd have been more free to poke some serious fun at stalwart rock relics both real and imagined. Instead, adhering to the suddenly abundant Euro-indie-comedy-with-heart format, they're bound by box-office trends to make this ragged band of has-beens achingly human and genuinely lovable--no easy task, as it happens. An otherwise reliable cast manages to produce some fleetingly funny moments on the tour bus and in the pub, but, in the end, this limp feel-good import falls well short of Robert Carlyle and friends dropping trou. Here's hoping U.S. distributors finally learn to stop some of this samey stuff at the border.


Still Crazy starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema; (612) 825-6006.

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