Still Crazy
Director: Brian Gibson. Cast: Stephen Rea, Jimmy Nail, Bill Nighy, Juliet Aubrey, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Helena Bergström, Bruce Robinson, Hans Matheson, Rachael Stirling. Screenplay: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

Not quite a drama but not quite a comedy, Brian Gibson's Still Crazy follows the endeavors of Strange Fruit, a band who lapsed dramatically from its arena-filling glory days of the 1970s and now, twenty years later, wishes to make a comeback. The reasons for their resurgent interest in music-making and performance—all the more surprising a development since even their re-recruited manager Karen remembers that "you all hated each other there at the end"—are variously explained but never compellingly, and we are never sure precisely why these characters are doing what they are doing, or to what end the movie is taking them.

Stephen Rea has, I suppose, the starring role by virtue of being the most easily recognizable face in the cast. Strange Fruit is, however, a sort of Who's Who gallery of understated, uniformly amusing British actors who have appeared in some of the preceding years' most acclaimed productions. Billy Connolly of Mrs. Brown, Timothy Spall of Secrets & Lies, and Jimmy Nail of Evita are the sound technician, drummer, and lead guitarist of the band, respectively. There is not only an agreeable jocularity to their performances, but I felt an easy pleasure at seeing a bunch of second bananas pull out from behind all those Denches and Blethyns and Madonnas and finally take, literally, center stage. More than anything presented in the screenplay, it is this meta-filmic phenomenon of rooting for the underdogs that won my support for Strange Fruit.

Unfortunately—though Nail at least makes the most of his part with a tender and slow-burning performance—all three men are stuck in quickly-summarizable roles (the sour grape, the oversized clown, etc.) that do not demand much of their talents. It would have been nice if these capable actors were given work that took care to capitalize on their abilities, rather than just put them on screen for a sympathetic audience of arthouse viewers who are eager to see them flex a little.

Despite the broad, rambling nature of the screenplay—which never fleshes out the lives of these band mates, even though it has little else to be doing—two of its central roles are redeemed by strong performances by relative unknowns. First, Bill Nighy plays a combination David Bowie/Sammy Hagar, a replacement front man whose difficulty in erasing the legend of his predecessor is made more difficult by his own overly theatrical, weirdly ambisexual conduct on stage. The disparity between his glammy stylings and the standard-issue, Toto-type "classic rock" of the band is a constant sore point for all involved, in fact begging the question of a) why Nighy's Ray would ever have been asked to take over at the mic, and b) who exactly constituted these guys' audience, and therefore who are we anticipating will attend or enjoy the resurrection of Strange Fruit?

I never felt very close to many of these characters, except during a few of Nighy's sad/pitiful attempts to be "fabulous" for his fans, and during nearly every moment of the short, simple performance by Bruce Robinson as an affiliate of the band whose appearance comprises somewhat of a major turn for the story, and so I'll keep mum. Like Chris Cooper in this year's Great Expectations, though Still Crazy is hardly so wooden and forced as that picture, Robinson's elegant, moving work is stranded among a sea of aborted ideas, jumbled plot expositions, and clumsy clarifications of who this band is, what they want, or why their story should be of interest to us. The bright side of that problem on Robinson's side is that his turn is even more welcome and impressive than it might otherwise have been.

The downside for the rest of the picture and its players, however—though I suspect with some disappointment that this factor may actually help Still Crazy at the box office—is that the particulars and more concrete feelings suggested by this story are rounded out and diluted into a basic urge of middle-aged retired rockers to recapture a level of excitement and enthusiastic public regard that left their lives when they hung up their guitars. That broad emotional perspective, as the makers of that other shaggy-dog English import The Full Monty found out well enough—and believe me, this lesson is far from lost on the Still Crazy crew—makes the picture an easier sell to an entire demographic of folks who can relate to the frustration and gentle sadness of getting older.

Fine by me, but I also contend that people's memories and decisions are more poignant, both for them and for us, by their connection to specific moments and details, not to general themes. It is not sad just to age, but to fall out of touch with certain friends, to feel physically or psychically frail, or to not be able to do what you once could; I would like to know from the screenwriters of Still Crazy precisely what these men miss about being young, and what moments of the day make them sorry or scared or angry at middle-age. Rather than presenting a loose nostalgia for bygone days, Still Crazy would have done well to speak more particularly about what kind of music Strange Fruit produced, who were their fans, and what emotional satisfaction this music gave these five before time passed and made of their band days a rosy dream. Unless you know something's original meaning, it is hard to wait with excitement or emotion as that same thing is resought and recovered by characters on screen. "The flame still burns," sing the frontmen of Strange Fruit in their signature ballad. This film, though, emanates only a dim and flickering light that illuminates surprisingly little and never generates much of a blaze. Grade: C–

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Original Song: "The Flame Still Burns"

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