Cameron Crowe’s Roadies is Basically a Baby Boomer’s Fantasy

John Colpitts (Oneida, Kid Millions) finds the show to be nostalgic, pandering and disingenuous about its core: anxiety about the boomer’s relevance.

The first episode of Showtime’s Roadies (Showtime did not supply us with further episodes for review), written and directed by Cameron Crowe, is a baby boomer fantasy about the power of music to transcend the cruel and artless capitalism that’s become that same generation’s most cherished object. While I’m steeped in boomer nostalgia myself, I’m suspicious of a show that hangs this stuff on yet another generation of fans.

The episode’s narrative arc encompasses a single day in the midst of a short tour by fictional rock group Staton-House Band (#worstname). It’s ostensibly a deep-dive backstage look at the Herculean trials that accompany getting a beloved band to the stage each night.

The show is at once nostalgic, pandering and disingenuous about its true core: anxiety about the boomer’s fading relevance in areas of culture, politics, ethics and aspirational goals. The opening scene perhaps best demonstrates this: the protagonist, middle-aged tour manager Bill (played by Luke Wilson), is in flagrante delicto with a (much) younger woman. Her gratuitous orgiastic screams and bare breasts are played against Bill’s age; following the deed he smiles slyly at himself in the mirror, proclaiming that he’s still got it. At the end of the scene, it’s revealed that the woman is the daughter of an important promoter. It’s the perfect setup for the fatuous episode that follows.

We’re introduced to a number of characters who hold dearly to boomer icons and touchstones. After getting fired from Pearl Jam’s tour, Wes (Machine Gun Kelly), a peripatetic barista and jack-of-all-trades, arrives backstage and ingratiates himself by pulling remarkable espressos and passing around burned DVDs (who does this, btw?) of the Replacements from 1987 and Sleater-Kinney from 1996. Here Crowe creates an authenticity shorthand and frames the action with it. We’re meant to understand that these DVDs represent choice moments of an indelible musical past that’s being denigrated and disregarded by the contemporary form of capitalism.

There’s lots of this leaning into a fantasy era when rock & roll mattered, the groupies weren’t crazy, and passionless corporate suits did not make decisions about putting on a show.

Wes’ twin sister, lighting tech Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), represents a kind of naïve moral compass for the show. When we first meet her, she’s planning to leave for film school; her high school art film is a running gag. She’s put together a collage of scenes of characters running in movies including The Graduate and Forrest Gump that no one on the tour really understands. She sits rapturously with the members of the touring community’s old guard: a bus driver (Luis Guzman as “Gooch”) who waxes poetic about his overnight chats with Bob Dylan, and a pickled ex-tour manager of Lynyrd Skynyrd who regales her with tales from the road. There’s lots of this leaning into a fantasy era when rock & roll mattered, the groupies weren’t crazy, and passionless corporate suits did not make decisions about putting on a show. To be fair, the streaming era has generated a lot to feel anxious about if you’re someone who creates art for a semblance of a living, and it’s writ large throughout Roadies.

Cynical capitalism gets its full voice in the character of Reg Whitehead (played by Rafe Spall dressed up in a “bad guy” three-piece suit), an English bean counter who is sent down by the band’s management to fire some deadwood on a tour that is “stuck in the old ways.” The show has aligned these old ways with integrity and a kind of raffish and dissipated charm wherein standard bearers from the bygone era carry loaded pistols, party rigorously and sacrifice their sanity and stability for music that was meaningful to an entire generation.

When corporate stooge Reg gives the touring staff a big “we’re a brand” speech to try to get everyone to understand some clichéd nightmare of profit-driven culture, the Kelly Ann character explodes: “Maybe the brand isn’t a brand, maybe it’s a feeling. Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix didn’t die to become a crop top in Urban Outfitters. I live to destroy everything you stand for and that is all I have.”

Leaving aside the unintentional comedy of the lines, the problem with this statement is that the music industry has been packaging and selling feelings from the get-go. But packaged feelings are not immune to capital, and Roadies disappears up its own ass in a sea of music gear product placements (on T-shirts and backline) paired with a dull cameo by the real band the Head and the Heart. The show ends up standing in for the thing Kelly Ann rails against.

Basically, this is a show that seeks vindication of a passé taste and philosophy through the eyes of the next generation, and since it’s scripted and presumably pays its actors, they can be made to say anything. I don’t buy into the integrity equation. The show still unreasonably romanticizes musicians, and the roadies are barely distinguishable from the fawning audience that streams into the stadium for the concert set piece. But while the band’s staff buys into the bullshit, the viewers don’t have to.

This show is similar to Downton Abbey, where the British class system is romanticized, passive acceptance of “the way things are” is sentimentalized, and the servants are portrayed as satisfied with their station to an almost spiritual degree. Perhaps a more interesting angle would be that the people backstage see the artifice for what it is. Instead of waxing poetic about late-night talks with Dylan, how about a weird commentary about how it’s showbiz after all? Showbiz is worthy of attention and can produce great art, but it’s artifice and the crew is there to uphold the illusion. Perhaps they could see the illusion for what it is, even as they still execute their jobs passionately and with integrity. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Although he’s portrayed as a complex character who is ambivalent about corporate penny-pinching, when the British character Reg says, “I’m more familiar with the world of sports and real estate” during his branding speech, we’re meant to scoff along with the assembled roadies. By the way, what’s so different about sports? How is big entertainment in the form of music any better than the same amount of people filling the same seats for a hockey game?

Kelly Ann becomes energized, running back into the stadium to catch the show and rejoin the tour, tossing aside her personal dreams to prop up some middle-age dudes’ idea of integrity.

In interviews related to the show, we learn that there are many aspects of Cameron Crowe represented in the Kelly Ann character. She’s a music fan and an aspiring filmmaker. But her taste is indistinguishable from a man in his mid-fifties. Does it have to be?

During the course of the episode, Kelly Ann expresses her concern to an old salt on the tour that the Staton-House Band has started to phone in their sets. Without the great performances every night, she can’t find meaning in her job. But in an absurdly horrifying turn of events, as she’s running to catch her flight to film school, one of the Staton-House Band members rolls down the window in his limo and thanks her for her honest criticism. He tells her the band has revamped their set list to include some old, long-unheard classics. Kelly Ann becomes energized, running back into the stadium to catch the show and rejoin the tour, tossing aside her personal dreams to prop up some middle-age dudes’ idea of integrity. Sound plausible?

(Photo credit: Showtime)

John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions, is the drummer and founder of Oneida and Man Forever. He has performed with Royal Trux, Boredoms, Spiritualized, Akron/Family, Marnie Stern and Yo La Tengo. The new Man Forever album, Play What They Want, is out now on Thrill Jockey. Follow him on Twitter here.