Sex, drugs and rock n’ role never looked so bleak a destination for mid-life crises as in Michael Cuesta’s “Roadie” – an existential ode to aging rockers and man-child dreamers. Written by Cuesta and his brother Gerald, “Roadie” focuses on the often overshadowed glory of the professional musician’s helper, you know, the guy who sets up the stage to unpack the gear, gets the instruments ready and then disappears for tears and pillow dreams of one day being on the other end of the stage. It’s hard to know exactly what they do and even more difficult for them to tell you. There’s no special bus or accommodations. There’s no union, or maybe there is and there shouldn’t be. They come and go just like that. “Roadie” tells the story of Jimmy Testagross (Ron Eldard) who was just fired by the Blue Oyster Cult rock band. There’s no explanation or reason. Jimmy’s just old at 40 and probably slower than when he started and that’s enough o get someone younger who’ll do it all for less money. Unemployed and uncertain as what to do, Jimmy goes home only he knows what’s there waiting for him and it’s even less than when he left.
“Roadie” is not your usual biopic charting the humble beginnings of some soon-to-be rockstar followed by his immediate astronomical collision with excess, failure and recovery. The rise and fall never happened for Jimmy, not really. The closest he came to making it put him behind the scenes at every stadium filled show for what would become an internationally recognized rock band setting up and taking down, stringing guitars and arranging amps, speakers and cables. As a roadie you might have dreams of playing music for a living but that’s about as far as dreams go. There’s too much work to be done for that kind of dreaming. At first it was everything he imagined it would be, maybe even more because he needed the fix to keep from thinking too much about what he was doing. Traveling the world, surrounded by music he loved and a band he admired in stadiums and stages of all kinds, wall-to-wall clubs, packed houses full of people from every walk of life, it was easy for Jimmy to imagine he was much more than a baggage handler. But the more time that went by the further he got from the music and when the band’s popularity waned and the stadiums gave way to country fairs and reunion tours, Jimmy woke up stepping off a bus into obscurity. Broke and unemployed Jimmy knew he had to go home if for no other reason that to regroup – and maybe one of his mom’s famous pepper sandwiches. That’s where the film starts somewhere in the middle of a middle-aged story about dreams and failures and to be honest that’s a hard place to convince people to spend 90 minutes. That’s why character films like “Roadie” play well in festivals and small town theaters. That’s why you should watch “Roadie” because it gets so much of living and dying right. There’s always another comic book movie for getting away from it all.
“Roadie’s” success stems from Ron Eldard’s performance as the has-been middle-aged package handler Jimmy Testagross. Eldard packs on the pounds to his otherwise good looks and charismatic long takes. The camera likes Eldard and he knows it, can forget it and look wounded and needy and strong when we need him to do the things we’re not doing in our lives. He’ll surely find bigger films after this. These films are like calling cards, like the pictures you look back on and say see, that’s acting. Eldard’s method work gives the character heart and complexity. He makes us laugh and we feel bad when his world comes apart and there’s nothing that can be done. He makes this our story as much as his. Bobby Cannavale captures the perfect mood and air with perfect detail and it’s easy to chart his success since Thomas McCarthy’s “Station Agent (2003)” with Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson. Cannavale exceeds our worst nightmare caricature of the high school bully as he navigates his own broken dreams and realizations. Jill Hennessy the lost lover, the high school crush gone wrong because it was never meant to be right, almost not quite forgotten, is at once convincing and perfectly connects the triangle. While this is every bit Jimmy’s story it is only through these friends and their lasting connection that all of their life stories are realized.
“Roadie” will suffer for the heavy air and gloomy interiors of small town aspirations put in check. We are all returning home through out our lives, to check in, to remind us where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. Sometimes we don’t like remembering or we’ve done a poor job of hiding and films that take us there show us so much more about ourselves than we are often willing to see. For all these things that work well this collective falling down will not connect with everyone. The perfect soundtrack should ease the transitions from should have been to making it, living high before the fall then the scramble to pick it all up again. “Roadie” features an emotional mix of rock n’ role soul with moody self discovery music, Pat Benatar to Alice Cooper, Styxx, Joe Ely and even some originals from Hennessy. In a film fueled as much by music as for it, “Roadie” never relies on just one song. This is blue-collar Americana-everywhere and nowhere, a daydream as much as a wakeup call. Live your life while you’re living it or else it might just find you beside the road again having to start all over again, with less time to do it.