Among the more remarkable aspects of pop music has always been its ability to reinvent itself, transforming disasters into triumphs and breakups into reunions. Take the case of Strange Fruit, the classic British rock group that literally came apart onstage at the 1977 Wisbech Festival. Some said it was 'divine intervention' when a bolt of lightning struck the stage, but the band never played together again-well, not until this year anyway-hence, the premise of Still Crazy, a lively, deadpan comedy that celebrates the joy, the heartbreak and the absurdity of the rock 'n' roll life.
Written by the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who penned The Commitments, and directed by Brian Gibson of What's Love Got to Do With It repute, Still Crazy is that odd rarity, a savvy film about a rock group that might have existed even if, in fact, it didn't. Certainly, anyone who has hung around even the most ordinary of garage bands will recognize Strange Fruit's archetypal personnel.
And why not? They're nothing if not familiar. Lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy) is living way beyond his means. Keyboard player Tony (Stephen Rea) squandered most of his earnings on booze. Drummer Beano (Timothy Spall) is dodging the tax man while holed up in a trailer at the bottom of his mother's garden. Guitarist Les (Jimmy Nail) runs a roofing business in the freezing north of England. Roadie Hughie (Billy Connolly) works in a street market. And Brian (Bruce Robinson), the Fruits' charismatic lead guitarist, is reportedly dead. (Interestingly, Robinson himself is something of an iconic figure in England, having written and directed the cult classic Withnail and I.) When the mentally fragile Brian emerges in the glare of present-day life, the effect is somewhat startling, both for him and his erstwhile cohorts.
In its depiction of an aging British rock group, Still Crazy has already been compared by some to Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap. But Gibson's film has more in common with a movie like The Full Monty in its gentle, almost sweet, group portrait of middle-aged guys who want to reach back into their youth for one last time-even if they recognize that the past can't be recaptured. As one of the aging rockers observes: 'God just got sick of all that '70s excess.'
The screenplay by Clement and La Frenais walks a fine line between celebrating and kidding its rock star revivalists. If Strange Fruit's longtime anthem was a song called 'Scream Freedom,' and their biggest album was entitled 'Tequila Mockingbird,' their group motto could well have been 'What, me worry?' Told backstage that their audience is a rough crowd, their wry response is: 'Maybe we should cut the Joni Mitchell tribute.' But they're not above sentiment either: Tony still treasures an odd keepsake, one of Jimi Hendrix's teeth from the 1960s. 'I knew he was a genius even then,' he explains solemnly.