An hourlong comedy about the crew responsible for the fictional Staton House Band's tour, Roadies often feels tone deaf, directionless and, at times, condescending. Its worst offense, however, is that it lacks a certain authenticity to its subject matter, which is especially puzzling considering it's created, written and directed by Cameron Crowe.
After all, this is the man behind Almost Famous, the 2000 film about a teen journalist covering the fictional band Stillwater for Rolling Stone--a story based on Crowe's experiences covering '70s rock bands the Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd as a young journalist. His '90s film Singles meanwhile, was the perfect accompaniment to the times and amplified the grunge music of the era.
So if anyone has the bona fides to make Roadies — and make it work — it's Crowe. Yet Roadies feels content to just skate by on fumes without stoking the fires that create deeper connections: not just between the show and viewers but the characters and the music they claim to love, too.
Of the three episodes screened for critics, Crowe directed each one while penning two. His fingerprints are everywhere. The series hits all the familiar beats you'd expect from a series about the music industry: It name-drops well-known musicians like Tom Waits and Ronnie Van Zant, and each episode features a song-of-the-day segment that highlights lesser-known bands like Frightened Rabbit. A running storyline has the tour unable to keep an opening band on the bill which lends itself to performances from musicians like the Head and the Heart, Reignwolf and even an acoustic performance from Lindsey freaking Buckingham.
All of this is good and arguably even necessary given the topic, but it also comes across as paying lip service to the subject without digging deep to find the real story.
Take Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots) for example, one of the essential roadie crew members. Despite the time dedicated to the character over the show's first three hours, Kelly Ann remains a shapeless mystery. We know she's a roadie, has a twin brother who annoys her and is desperate for a nickname. We know she was adamant about leaving the tour to attend film school, but following a brief conversation with one of the band members (Gilmore Girls' Tanc Sade) — who, having heard one of her idealistic and faux-deep rants about the band, decided to change the set list — she changed her mind.
When she says things like, "You either love what you do or you get the f--k out!" or "Maybe the brand isn't a brand, it's a feeling," they feel like the kind of pretentious and disconnected lines a network executive thinks her character would say rather than a genuine sentiment from someone who gave up film school to set up the rigging.
In what's meant to be a climactic moment for her, Kelly Ann has her hand on a taxi door to bolt from this mess but then decides to race back to the arena in time to see the band take the stage. It's played with a wink and a nod that recognizes how stereotypically manipulative the moment is, but still goes for it anyway. It's not only inauthentic, but we still don't understand why Kelly Ann wants to be there in the first place, making her choice to stay feel totally inconsequential.
Equally as shallow is the rest of the cast, including Luke Wilson's tour manager Bill, who goes way back with one of the band members; and Carla Gugino's production manager Shelli. The cast remains nearly indistinguishable from one another after three episodes. We still know only the most basic facts about them--information that, culled together, we could've gleaned from social media profiles or Spotify playlists.
Most egregious? After three episodes, we've still only met one member of the band. We've still only seen them silhouetted against the bright lights of a stage. They're hardly seen, and their music is never heard. While the series isn't about the band, it's really hard to care about the people behind the scenes without knowing the people those men and women are supporting.
In sum, the series ignores what could make it great: the rush of adrenaline that accompanies live performances and the bonds that music can create between strangers. Instead, we get stories about obsessed fans, a tour that's bleeding money and Bill having sex with women who are far too young for him.
One has to wonder then, with decades of experience and an intimate relationship with the subject, how Crowe failed in his endeavor to capture the transcendent and deeply personal link between music and fan, to depict the sparkling, universally acknowledged magic that can exist between a single song and a single moment in time. Is he stuck in a rut? Is he just striking the same notes and hoping for a different tune? Or is it something more?
Well, one thing is for certain: it's not for a lack of effort or expertise on Crowe's part. He is a fantastic storyteller (films like Aloha and Elizabethtown aside) and has an insight into the world of music that many of us — most of us — lack. But a copy of a copy isn't as sharp as the original. While Almost Famous felt like a story only Cameron Crowe could give us; Roadies feels like a workplace comedy that could exist almost anywhere. Almost Famous worked because Crowe made his protagonist privy to intimate moments and relationships; it showcased the best and worst of the lives of its characters to draw you in alongside the pull of the music.
But he needs to dig deeper here to bring back that magical feeling only he can produce. If he spends a little time fleshing out the characters, makes the band and its music indispensable to the story, stops using the show as free promotion for real artists and digs into the universal language of music, maybe this story won't feel so one-dimensional, maybe the magic will reappear.
As it stands, Roadies just reminds us of how great his previous work has been. It reminds us that Almost Famous and Singles were essential films that spoke to a specific moment in time that was defined by its music but that still managed to tell a story about the people who lived it. Roadies is all talk and no show. And no one's going to pay the price of admission if there's no spectacle.
Roadies premieres Sunday, June 26 at 10/9c.