SIFF “Face the Music” preview: Roadie

Directed by Michael Cuesta, Roadie is a superbly acted and sublimely written character study about a worker on the fringes of the rock and roll scene. This well-researched and seemingly lived-through fiction follows a roadie for Blue Oyster Cult going back home after a tour’s end, where the drama continues as he deals with issues of his career, health, and the family, friends, and loved ones left behind.

Festival screenings:

June 9, 2011, 9:30 PM at the Harvard Exit
June 12, 2011, 4:00 PM at the Harvard Exit

(USA, 2011, 96 minutes)

The rock and roll life hasn’t been bad for roadie Jimmy Testagross, played by Ron Eldard (Super 8, House of Sand and Fog). For 20 years, he carried gear and tuned up and probably did a lot of things he never got credit for as he toured with his childhood favorites, Blue Oyster Cult. But he never became an artist in his own write, never even wrote a song.

That’s not what he tells people when he gets back to hometown Queens, though, after he gets abandoned while on the road by BOC in “Buttmunch, Nowhere.” He knows he can get back into the game if he keeps pestering group gatekeeper “Bobby” via cell phone, as he travels back to check on his mom. He keeps calling and calling to start working the tour again, but it seems that in more ways than one he’s used up his options.

His mom’s house is in good shape, but she isn’t, though she looks fine. He can tell something’s wrong by how she leaves lunch half-prepared, and seems to wander out to tend her garden compulsively. This doesn’t keep her from picking on him for gaining weight and never checking in and not properly visiting their neighbors, the Mullers, the husband of the pair having suffered a couple of strokes. (A very slight but pointed observation about their neighborhood being built on toxic wastes may explain the psychological damage of Jimmy and his elders.)

Reminiscent of the scene in Mother when Albert Brooks tries to recreate his boyhood bedroom, but with rock and roll posters and LPs instead of science fiction collectibles and sports gear, Jimmy walks into his past, kept as a shrine by his mom. This is never explained — she’s pretty critical for someone who has preserved her only son’s adolescence in “perfect condition” (which she beams about his album collection) — though at the end, when she insists she always wanted him to have his dream, it almost is.

Then on a sweet butter run for mom he hits a bar and bangs into his old friend (played viciously but hilariously by Bobby Cannavale) and his pretty and reasonably talented singer-songwriter wife (Jill Hennessy). Suddenly we’re back in Testagross’s semi-tormented adolescence, having an afternoon shot of Wild Turkey and rhapsodizing about how BOC could “swing” and that they were the “intelligent heavy metal band.” Eldard makes Jimmy’s ranted love for the poetry and power of rock seem real enough that you forget this is a movie, it actually seems like a documentary about a very real roadie. One who gets his balls busted — literally, as his nickname ‘Jimmy Testicles’ is revived immediately by the yuppie friend/nemesis — just like he always has in this town. A coke-fueled reunion with the two is extended into a well-supplied but strange pre-show “hotel room ritual” that we can imagine felt like home and hell mixed together for Testagross to encounter so soon after being let go of his dream job, which was the real thing just days ago.

The third feature directed by Six Feet Under director Michael Cuesta, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Gerald, Roadie has been compared to The Wrestler, for its vivid recreation of an almost-was, never-been who is simply marginalized by age and entropy. The parallel of inevitable replacement of labor resources in the music business and sports is evoked but not overdrawn. The acting is superb from everyone, from a young mugger to the elderly stroke victim; the dialogue is totally believable, whether it be the sharp words of Jimmy’s mom to the nurturing awkwardness of his ex-girlfriend; and the plot is both realistic and unpredictable and makes you really care deeply for Jimmy, someone who took care of his favorite musicians but never really learned to take care of himself. Eldard’s spot-on performance of this sad but beautiful soldier of the music scene makes Roadie a don’t miss selection in the Seattle International Film Festival’s 2011 line-up.

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