A Showtime-backed, Cameron Crowe-and-J.J. Abrams(?)-produced show about the life of roadies on a rock tour starring Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino? You’d have to come packing a lifetime supply of Almost Famous nostalgia to be anything other than deeply skeptical of such a venture. The fact that its logo of an amp-filled backstage area became everyone’s Roku background this weekend didn’t help; it suggested, perhaps, an uncomfortable level of desperation for success.
Crowe’s project seems especially dangerous, since it’s a study of present-day tour culture at a time when rock is no longer the same genre that Crowe loves and built his reputation writing about. It’s also, more definitively, cause for alarm, given that his taste has proven to be — time and time again, for the past 15 years — questionable.
Even just 20 minutes in, one realizes that Roadies is completely watchable nothingness. It’s a deathly on-the-nose show about exactly what it purports to be about — that is, people who earn their living by making a band’s show possible every night. During the first half of the pilot, the characters’ basic archetypes are explained to you, along with their titles, in typically pop-culture-reference-filled Crowe speak. First and foremost, there is Luke Wilson, the middle-aged tour manager with a debilitating coffee addiction – and a lothario with groupies –and his former lover and righthand played by Carla Guigno.
But more so than the characters and the linear logic of their relationships to one another, it’s about the ensemble cast’s collective Love of the Music, and what they will do to Keep It Alive. Yes, the show spends a lot of time trying to spoon-feed us the personalities of its motley cast of players, yet they never feel wholly palpable, or anything other than vessels for Crowe’s script and plot points — admittedly competent and sometimes chuckle-inducing.
Cameron Crowe’s work has always contained a slightly doe-eyed, idealistic, oddly specific view of music fandom, even if just in the form of an overbearing, expensive soundtrack. On Roadies, the song remains the same: The member of fictional band Staton House’s tour crew are in their line of work entirely out of a deep love for the music. Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots) is the most idealistic of the bunch: an amateur filmmaker on the verge of defecting to film school, who is morally scandalized by her beloved band stooped to unvarying set lists and the use of a teleprompter.
The idea of a cynical, jaded roadie — for as much as Crowe tries to make his characters seem broken down and troubled in various ways — is not possible in this universe. The tour’s employees watch bands soundcheck practically on the verge of tears. Wesley, Kelly Ann’s brother — played by (let history never forget) rapper Machine Gun Kelly — ingratiates himself to the crew of the tour with burned bootleg CDs from famous tours and lost studio sessions. Every episode has a “Song of the Day” — the roadies’ pump-up song during setup — and the first one is Frightened Rabbit (Crowe spells this out on screen).
Moments like this illustrate the egregious, often poorly-timed soundtrack’s propensity for feeling about four to six years behind the times. Crowe, we get it, my dude: You love music, and you worked for Rolling Stone. It’s a dated soundtrack for a dated concept: a show about an epic rock’n’roll tour. It threatens to revert to the outright ridiculous at every turn, only avoiding it very narrowly, mostly thanks to adept comic acting. The show does, in the form of Rafe Spall’s hapless financial advisor character, deal with the fact that the times are a-changin’ — that all sectors of the music industry are scrambling to assure their own future. But there is still the concept that the Real Roadies judge those who are working happily on the immensely profitable Taylor Swift tour negatively — that everyone isn’t just trying to make ends meet however they can.
The actors ability to sell the farce saves the venture, at least for the most part. Like Vinyl before it (why all these fucking rock music shows this year?), Roadies makes the mistake of effectively axing the best character on the show after the first episode: Blue Collar comic Ron White in Gary Busey mode as legendary, Southern-rock-cowboy tour manager Phil, a convicted felon who wears a cowboy hat with his name on it cries when he talks about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie van Zant.
When the over-the-top comedic elements arent embracing other-ing in the mode of Crowe’s whitewashing flop Aloha, they generally work. Ron White is actually quite funny here, Rafe Spall is charmingly doddering, Machine Gun Kelly is ludicrous and hard to look at, but bless him for trying his hardest. Just try to forget about the Native American shaman who predicts whether anything will go wrong with the show, and the mystical Luis Guzman bus driver, who offers cryptic words of wisdom to the existentially conflicted Poots.
So Roadies isn’t DOA — at least, if you overlook the anachronistic snobbishness lurking somewhere beneath the surface, and the implications of the credits song for each episode (all directed by Crowe) being obscure alternate takes of very famous songs. It’s cool you love that downtempo “New York Sessions” take of “Tangled Up in Blue,” Cameron, my droog. Too bad I don’t have a medal to give you for being into it! All I can offer is an accommodating piece about your show, perhaps the most unlikely high-profile TV venture of the summer. It seems you’ve slid by once again, Crowe, Big Star references and all.