It’s unfair to compare Roadies to Vinyl, when the former’s only fault (at first glance) is its unlucky premiere the same year rock ‘n’ roll attempted to take on the small screen. However, it would also be too kind to say director/fanboy, Cameron Crowe actually managed to present it in a way that was sincere without trying too hard. Much like the dead horse Vinyl beat into submission, here we have another show that tries so hard to communicate the raw, emotional heart of an entity mere words can’t capture, yet spends the entire pilot trying to do just that. It comes off as unoriginal, repetitive, and frankly, a little condescending.
The pilot episode introduces us to the crew of the Staton-House Band. They’re kind of classic, bluesy rock probably modeled after the Allmann Brothers because Cameron Crowe loves the saga of musical egos with an obligatory tilt of the (cowboy) hat to Almost Famous and the “I’m the front man, you’re supposed to be the guitarist with mystique!” words of truth. It’s basically dad rock on the way to becoming dad rock, although not quite there yet, with elitist fans and batshit groupies piling nicely along the way. Tour manager Bill (Luke Wilson) embodies the tall, dark, and talking-out-of-the-corner-his-mouth nice but infuriatingly vanilla guy Cameron Crowe is so fond of putting in the spotlight, which makes me believe that’s exactly who he is and now we have to suffer for the days he was friend-zoned. So of course, the show opens with Bill getting ridden by a babe half his age.
This is what we expect, nay demand, of the show, right? Perhaps to an extent, but luckily for us, it’s 2016 and we don’t have to watch statutory rape from the glory days of the ’70s. That’s actually a great detail in Roadies‘ favor, and nice bit of distance from that other show we’ll now stop mentioning. Bill navigates the band through the various crises on the road while juggling his own midlife. It’s not his fault that while he keeps getting older, the girls just stay the same. Shelli (Carla Gugino) is the Waldorf to his Statler as the tour’s production manager. She’s the problem-solver, from soothing the irate promoter whose daughter Bill just had sex with to finding a nanny for the lead singer’s devil spawn. Gugino seems to have recovered from her previous rock ‘n’ roll foray, too, when her man was not only tempted by the charms of her sister, but then proceeded to set fire to a creepy portrait of her (see: Bon Jovi video for “Always”). Shelli and Bill are the “grown-ups” in a world that’s set in the perpetual playground of touring; their chemistry is actually quite delightful, particularly in the banter that deeply disappointed acquaintances have with each other. Shelli’s married and stressed and Bill keeps letting her down, and oh golly, how will they keep this show running? By not sleeping with each other, we hope.
Next up are the actual roadies. Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots) is facing her last day of roadie-dom. She’s got a partial scholarship to NYU, she’s got her plane ticket, and she’s outta there. Not even the tearful pleading of her soon-to-be-revealed twin brother will make her change her mind. He recently got kicked off his Pearl Jam tour and cannot fathom anyone who would voluntarily leave “their” band. He would die for Mike McCready (good grief, why?). Kelly Ann, however, is done with the life. Her crew hasn’t even given her a cool nickname; why should she think twice about leaving? She’s made an artsy movie of all these running scenes from various films to show how contrived those movie moments are, so she’s got that film school pretension down and can’t wait to take off.
Obviously, she’s not going to leave. The whole episode is built around the reasons for her to stay, showing her, and by extension us, why this is the life millions would kill for, and structuring the pilot like a mini-film within the scope of the show. She’s the blessedly not-at-all-manic but still ubiquitously pixie and dream-like cool girl who represents what the music used to mean, man. Cue her blowing up at the newly hired financial advisor, the super-suit Brit Reg (Rafe Spall) who lied about who he was to gain insight into the workings of the crew. Reg is there to see who’s extraneous because as he put it, there’s no middle ground in music anymore. “You’re either making a lot of money or no money”, and he’s there to keep that money from disappearing. Thus, one of his first moves is to fire super-roadie Phil (Ron White), who lives and breathes for the Staton-House Band. Now he’s public enemy number one and boy, does he have red on him.
While it’s all very well and kind of easy to use him as the show’s antagonist, you can’t help but feel for him because he speaks the true. “Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix didn’t die to become a crop top at Urban Outfitters!” yells Kelly Ann in the passionate speech all Cameron Crowes have waited their lives to hear from a woman. Yes, Kel, but those who handle their estates make money not because the music speaks to them, but because it’s their job. Kind of like how that’s Reg’s job. This conflict is a more realistic aspect of the show, and of the pitfalls of this life that feels like a good set-up for future clashes. It’s easy to laugh at stodgy Reg who can’t tell a Lynryd Skynrd from a ZZ Top, but he might actually be the most believable and well-rounded character. Plus, Phil isn’t even gone five minutes before he joins up with the manna of tours: Taylor Swift’s road crew. Plus, suit vs. cool chick chemistry is A+. Then again, she’s leaving, so what’s her damage?
To no viewer’s surprise, after all her big talk and determination, Kelly Ann does not leave because we need a cute young lady as well as the sexy older lady lead. After seeing her twin brother shove his way onto her tour, after sharing one of those classic road dog moments with the wise and seen-it-all tour bus driver, and after getting told what’s what by Phil about how the music may not feel the same but that certain something never goes away, Kelly Ann realizes the crew is the blood of her blood and opts to stay. In a moment that’s so Cameron Crowe it makes you want to eat your own eyeballs to deny yourself the goosebumps, Kelly Ann mimics the very sprint of realization she tried so hard to lambast in her own film as she races to beg for her job back.
There are several moments scattered throughout the pilot that make some wonder if the makers weren’t too sure how to angle the tone. There’s the dreamy, arms-wide-open groupie doing anything to gain access to the band she lives for, including orgasming on top of a scared shitless roadie like a majestic eagle taking off (side note: is this Roadies‘ version of the close-up of Richie Finestra [Bobby Cannavale] snorting cocaine? A wildly ecstatic climax that may fool men but wouldn’t convince a woman even a little bit?).
There’s also the magic Native American/Steven Seagal head of security whose ominous, “It won’t happen tonight”, feels like the foreshadowing to some impending classic rock show disaster, but whether his character is meant to be ironic or a horrible caricature is anyone’s call. The roadie with the fake English accent who has those feelings in his pants area for Kelly Ann, and the lesbian boss bitch in charge soundwoman are more filler characters that colorfully decorate the scenery but don’t quite know their role in the show yet.
The aw-shucks “we’re a big family and we’re going to tug at your heartstrings” moments, because music is a love like no other (the band changes the whole setlist because Christopher House, half of the eponymous band overheard Kelly Ann’s complaints about the music’s meaning getting lost in the shuffle and just, really?!) does gets a little eye-rolly at times. There’s a sweetness here, though, that echoes the reason Almost Famous is still the only Crowe movie we really talk about years later. Maybe because in Almost Famous, the protagonist was a child, or maybe because School of Rock remains the only source that actually communicates the love of rock ‘n’ roll these music nerds-turned-directors so desperately want to prove to us. Then again, I’ve yet to see the musical.