Before one talks about Roadies, one needs to talk about Cameron Crowe.
After a distinguished career as perhaps the youngest professional music journalist in history, Crowe broke into Hollywood by adapting his high school expose, Fast Times at Ridgemont High into the Amy Heckerling-directed feature film. He followed this up by writing and directing such modern day classics as Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Since the turn of the century, however, times have been tough for Hollywood’s go-to, feel good auteur, with many of his subsequent productions—Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo, Aloha—dramatically underperforming with both audiences and critics. And so, like many before him, a filmmaker of Crowe’s caliber has made the move to television. Roadies finds Crowe partnering with super-producer J.J. Abrams and returning to the milieu he knows best: rock music. Per its title, the series follows a ragtag group of roadies led by tour manager Bill (Luke Wilson) and production manager Shelli (Carla Gugino) as they deal with the day-to-day hassle of running a rock band’s tour, all while facing down the mounting pressure of a changing music industry.
As with all recent Crowe productions, the pilot boasts its major strengths and weaknesses. Below is a breakdown of the most promising elements of the new show as well as some issues that might require some addressing going forward.
Given Crowe’s background as a Rolling Stone journalist, the brilliant mind behind Almost Famous and a helmer of behind-the-scenes documentaries featuring Pearl Jam and Elton John/Leon Russell, it’s probably safe to say he’s more privy to the inner workings of backstage concert chaos than most other narrative filmmakers. Moreover, with a good deal of TV now either recycling older properties or serving as shameless regurgitations of more successful formulas (whether it be network or cable), it’s a nice change-of-pace to have a series that dives into a unique world that doesn’t have a billion imitators. After all, if we’re in the midst of peak TV, better to be shown new, previously unexplored areas than ones we’ve seen dozens of times already in different iterations. Moreover, in witnessing the various characters and the ways in which they approach their unorthodox occupation, it’s hard not to draw a parallel between the function of the roadies and that of a film crew, which obviously makes the intersections with Crowe’s world all the more blatant.
While Crowe and J.J. Abrams are the big marquee names here, the show has also enlisted Winnie Holzman to serve as showrunner. For the uninitiated, Holzman’s credits include Thirtysomething, Once and Again and the book for the smash Broadway musical, Wicked. Perhaps most importantly, she was the creator of the seminal teen drama My So-Called Life, one of the greatest—if not, the greatest—coming-of-age stories ever to air on TV. Needless to say, Holzman has an excellent grasp of character and while it’s not clear if she had any influence whatsoever on this pilot, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better navigator for your heartfelt, character-centric dramedy than her.
Looking at Luke Wilson’s filmography, I’m baffled he’s never before been featured in a Cameron Crowe production. His shaggy haired, laid back screen persona makes him seem like a natural fit for the filmmaker’s brand of idiosyncratic characters. Likewise, Carla Gugino—one of film and TV’s greatest personalities—is always a welcome presence in any project. Moving to the younger crew, Imogen Poots, pulling a big 180 after her role in this year’s Green Room, effortlessly embodies the role of Kelly Ann, the crew’s driven, yet naïve junior member.
Then there’s Ron White. Playing Phil, the grizzled veteran of the road crew, White is probably one of the least experienced actors in the cast, but you would never know that watching his performance here. Not only does he muster up a sense of paternal warmth and wisdom in his scenes with Kelly Ann, but he also manages to come across as appropriately threatening in the latter half of the pilot. Perhaps White’s decades as a touring comedian has lent him insight into the mindset of someone like Phil, but if there’s anyone who walks away as the first episode’s MVP, it’s him.
As far as I can discern, the general premise of the show involves the crew accompanying the band to different tour stops and dealing with various logistical obstacles, all while contending with an assortment of internal personality issues (romantic or otherwise). It’s the kind of malleable format that opens the door to cool new locations and potentially great one-off guest stars, much like Starz’s catering comedy Party Down.
When discussing the love affair of rock music and filmmaking, perhaps Crowe’s only rival in this realm is Martin Scorsese (who, incidentally, also produced a rock-centric drama series this year). This love of music and the power it holds permeates almost every moment of the pilot. If absolutely nothing else, the pilot boasts a lovely soundtrack filled with the kind of heartfelt rock music that has come to define Crowe’s aesthetic, including Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam, a live performance from The Head and the Heart and a cut from Frightened Rabbit (which is given a specific chyron of “Song of the Day” as if to say to audiences, “go buy this now”).
Making a pilot is never easy. You have to introduce the premise of the show, establish the lead characters and their personalities/motivations, clarify conflict and conclude it in such a way that entices audiences to return. Oh, and you need to do all this in around 60 pages, for an hour-long series. And try to not make it feel too rushed. There is a reason pilots are sometimes the weaker episodes of otherwise great shows. This is all to say that whenever you are constructing an ensemble of characters, it’s essential to make sure the audience both recognizes and gets invested in each of their stories. This can often backfire when a character becomes defined more by an odd quirk than a legitimate characterization. In Roadies, for example, one crew member is defined solely by the fact that she’s a lesbian. Another roadie named Milo is a New Jersey native who is masquerading under a British accent for… reasons? Besides this and the fact that he’s in love with Kelly Ann, that’s all we really get. Speaking of Kelly-Ann, at the beginning of the pilot, we learn she plans to leave the tour for film school. Her thesis film is basically an extensive montage of people dramatically running in films (a fairly easy concept that people seem strangely baffled by). In other words, she exemplifies a breed of character typically seen in Sundance-friendly quirkfests and, despite Poot’s immense charms as an actress, the character comes across as inherently contrived. To be fair, high pressure situations such as setting up a stage show in a specific area of time is not the best scenario for deep character exploration. I only hope subsequent episodes quickly establish further layers.
Last year, both Crowe and actress Emma Stone got put through the ringer over the film Aloha, wherein the clearly Caucasian Stone was cast as a character of mixed Asian/Hawaiian heritage. And while there’s nothing nearly as egregious as this in Roadies, there are moments that are nevertheless worth mulling over. By and large, the series central cast is overtly white, with minority characters either pushed into minimal roles (one African-American crew member has a line or two, Luis Guzman is wasted as a worldly driver, Oscar-nominated actress Keisha Castle-Hughes plays the aforementioned lesbian character with about four lines), or else they are given questionable characterization—i.e. Bill’s recent paramour is an absurdly ditzy Asian girl, while the venue’s head of security is a man named Puna who, in one notable sequence, is shown taking in the vibes of the venue as if he’s some kind of stereotypical Native American tracker. Now, as with the previous point, I’m hoping these characters are given more shading beyond basic tokenism, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t raise the tiniest of red flags.
In a landscape defined either by bleak dramas or cynical comedies, Crowe is a filmmaker who always chooses optimism and humor over any notion of gritty realism. There’s a reason none of his films have featured outright, overt villains (with the possible exception of Jay Mohr in Jerry Maguire )—Crowe is a filmmaker who likes to see the best in people. I respect him for this and wish there were more people like him.
That said, there’s always the risk that his heart-of-the-sleeve sentiment can too easily slide into the overtly saccharine. And though nothing in the pilot veers too wildly over-the-top, there are moments that one wishes had been a bit more downplayed. At one point, Kelly Ann comments to Phil that she doesn’t “feel the music the same way” because it’s not “hers” anymore. It’s the kind of blunt, on-the-nose dialogue that no twenty-something has ever spoken and exists solely to be blown up by an epiphany 40 minutes later. This revelation is catalyzed thanks to the arrival of Rafe Spall’s Reg, the kind of business-minded bean counter character that feels as though it died away with ‘80s movies and the occasional Adam Sandler joint. Kelly Ann promptly dismisses him with an impassioned monologue about authenticity and how you need to “either love what you do or you get the fuck out.” If I’m being honest, however, I’d be hard-pressed if I didn’t find some validation in Reg’s argument about the fickleness of the music-consuming public, even if the show has him deliver this in the most dick-ish way possible (involving weird pantomime, of all things).
Look, I’m no prude. I’m well aware we live in a TV landscape where every premium cable show is required to feature at least half a dozen moments of gratuitous nudity per season. And, sure, a show centered on a traveling, rock n’ roll-adjacent lifestyle that does not depict the standard hook-up culture and general debauchery would feel dishonest. All that said, an opening scene in which the show seems determined to break the record for quickest onscreen nudity does not seem like the best representation of the its aesthetic. Likewise, a later scene in which a stalker breaks into the stadium and hooks up with a guard to confiscate his backstage pass feels essentially like a premium cable version of a broad sitcom gag. All in all, even if the scenes were always planned, they can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in, for the sake of hitting a quota.
The pilot wisely cuts to black before we bear witness to The Statson House Band’s opening number, but in fixating this series around a fictional band, the creative team has written themselves into a bit of a corner. Unless the show plans on having the band’s music be a completely absent, off-screen concept, it will probably need to actually construct songs for the band to play. This is always a tricky road. With the possible exception of Empire, few dramas have succeeded in creating “great music” that is actually, you know, great music. Moreover, because the band is supposedly reaching a middle-age period, they supposedly have accrued several hits and celebrated gems along the way. Because of this, the onus is on the creative team to craft songs that don’t just sound like someone’s vague, watered-down idea of “celebrated rock music.” It’s one thing to have a music show that features wall-to-wall preexisting music. It’s quite another to have the integrity of your show rely on some poor supervising musicians, who have a limited amount of time to crank out the sort of songs that could justify the characters’ passion for the band.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.