Published on August 23rd, 2016 | by Dave Scaddan0
Cameron Crowe’s new music show, Roadies, plays on his ideas from Almost Famous, but it often comes down with a case of The Newsroom Syndrome.
There are so few great films about rock music, probably because there are so few filmmakers who understand what makes great rock. When Hollywood makes a rock n’ roll movie, it usually does it by dressing up a bunch of handsome actors to look like a well-loved band and having us watch them perform, record, live, love and struggle using a script that tells a story we already know. This story is usually half-true, dramatic, and designed to idealize a band or performer that the audience already idealizes anyway, making the whole thing — in classic Hollywood style — fun, loud, glitzy, and ultimately meaningless.
A rare exception to this trend is Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, a film that captures something more enigmatic and mystical about rock n’ roll by focusing less on the story of the performers. Almost Famous uses the perspectives of those who follow, admire and support rock bands to tell a story about why music has so much sway over how we feel, think, and act, making it far more interesting (and important) than any biopic. It also captures the dilemma of working in support of a thing you love, especially when that thing is part of an ultimately cold and loveless business model. These perspectives are what make Crowe’s new Showtime series, Roadies, such an intriguing prospect. One of the only filmmakers to ever master the rock movie formula has now given it another go, this time on television, with a story about the road crews that make rock tours run.
Roadies follows the tour of the entirely fictional Staton House Band from behind the stages, soundboards and amplifiers, focusing on the managers, handlers and tech crews that work outside of the audience’s focus. The members of The Staton House Band are relegated to minor-character status, while the road crew members become the leads that really drive the story.
While there’s a lot to like about Roadies, there are also plenty of reasons why it’s not a great series, and why making it through to the tenth and final episode airing at the end of August might be trying for admirers of Almost Famous. Roadies suffers from a disorder that several of us connected to The Feedback Society have come to call The Newsroom Syndrome. Named after Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series, this disorder occurs when an otherwise interesting and enlightening piece of drama becomes mired in hackneyed romance plots, forcing the viewer to endure hours of pointless and repetitive will-they-or-won’t-they? carrot wags to get to what made the story truly intriguing in the first place.
The last time I cared about whether two fictional characters on television would ever get around to “doing it” was when I was a pre-teen viewer of Moonlighting starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd and when I used the words “doing it” to refer to sex. Now, when a film or series uses romantic drama to fuel a story that has nothing to do with romance, I feel insulted, like the writers think I won’t be able to remain interested in the story unless I get to watch two people falling in or out of love in some familiar and protracted way. Roadies is insulting in exactly this manner. By the fifth or sixth episode, the story of a road crew that makes a live concert work mostly becomes a story of various members of this crew crushing on each other.
Of course, The Newsroom Syndrome wouldn’t be so disappointing if there weren’t other truly fascinating aspects of the story for the little-hearts-in-eyes effects to detract from. I’ve eaten some really great pizzas that had toppings I hated on them, surviving the slice by picking off the offending ingredients. This doesn’t work as well with entertainment media, where we’re more or less forced to either eat the whole slice as-is or forego the meal entirely. Roadies has the gourmet crust, sauce, and cheese in its mythology about live rock ‘n’ roll and the powers behind the great gigs that music fans live for, in its questioning of the corporate thrust behind modern-day tours, festivals, and boxed sets, in its analysis of the delicate egos and legacies that bands must balance to continue working together. Roadies (like Almost Famous) is also historically informed, treating rock’s past like a spiritual text that we can follow and learn from, so it’s an excellent show for music fans to connect to using their own histories as lovers of music and performance.
There’s also a lot of good music in this series, as performers like Lindsey Buckingham, The Head and The Heart, Phantogram, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket all weave into the tour and actually perform entire songs (something The Staton House Band never do).
But the real strength of this series is in the stories the characters tell about their experiences on the road, at concerts, across tours. In other words, there’s a lot of good content in Roadies about what Cameron Crowe knows best: the history of rock told through the eyes of an obsessed writer, follower, and fan. When the eighth episode puts much of the mind-numbing romance bait on hold and delves almost entirely into an episode-long flashback about the early days of Lynyrd Skynyrd on tour, the refreshing and invigorating effect on the series is undeniable. But as a fan, it’s hard not to have a what-took-you-so-long? bitterness about all we had to go through to get there.
So if you are a fan of great non-documentary shows about rock music like High Fidelity, Spinal Tap, or Almost Famous, Roadies might be a series you can get behind, especially if you don’t mind (or are thrilled by) romantic tropes that dumb the intricacies of love down into shots of pillow talk and first-kissing. Rock-in-film’s expert-in-residence has had another go at bringing his experiential expertise to bear on screen. I only wish there were a way I could reach into that screen to pick off the toppings I find offensive.