Faded legend Roxy Starr (Penelope Alex) learns she hasn’t long to live and heads home to Kalamazoo to make amends and do one final show in director Phil Wurtzel’s rock drama Raunch and Roll.
The film opens with Roxy asking her manager Carl (Michael Paré), to see her after a long estrangement. He complies without question. Roxy’s life has been a typically chaotic rockstar journey of ups and downs, and Carl has been her anchor and looked after her for decades. He agrees to take her back home, and soon they are enjoying cocktails on a private jet. Roxy, we learn, hasn’t been successful in her personal life, but the financial rewards of being a star make for a high-quality environment from which she can consider the errors of her past.
In Michigan, there aren’t a lot of people with warm feelings for Roxy. When her career initially took off decades ago, she dumped her band and hit fame as a solo act. Her mother has never approved of her decadent rock n’ roll lifestyle. She is also poorly received by her ex-bandmate, Tommy (Steve Wilder), the adoptive father of her teenage son, Johnny (Riley Snyder). Of course, her son doesn’t know she’s his mother. When Roxy arrives unexpectedly, Johnny’s family is upset that she didn’t let them know she was coming. Carl smooths the way for her, and she talks Tommy into calling the boys in the band back together to play one last show at the Barn Theater.
A quick dig into the production and cast reveals a lot to unpack about this unassuming little indie outing. Penelope Alex is married to the film’s writer, Brendan Ragotzy, and together they run the real Barn Theater in Kalamazoo. Raunch and Roll was originally a live production at the venue, featuring music by Troy Benton.
“Faded legend Roxy Starr learns she hasn’t long to live and heads home to Kalamazoo to make amends…”
They’ve worked before with Wurtzel on the horror film A Haunting in Cawdor, and Wurtzel directed a 2017 documentary about the Barn Theater called The Barn Theatre: Tomorrow’s Stars Today. This is a tight-knit group that sticks together. Of course, setting Roxy’s final show at The Barn is a genius way to leverage the available location, as well as promote the theater.
Raunch and Roll is charming, in the same way, one (having never been there) assumes Kalamazoo is charming: off the beaten path and a bit provincial, but quirky fun nonetheless. The story and dialogue run the constant risk of being hopelessly cheesy, but avoid that fate through the sincerity of the performances. There are no winks to the audience, and everything is played entirely straight. This could have easily felt like a parody of films like The Rose, Almost Famous, or even A Star is Born. Instead, the cast and crew deliver a powerful story of a woman who’s lived a full life, now staring down her mortality and facing her regrets. The cinematography is adequate, and the soundtrack is clearly home-grown but good.
I blame Will Farrell’s popular films with intentionally cringe-inducing, unself-conscious characters for setting the expectation that sooner or later a movie like Raunch and Roll will throw one of the characters under a bus in the name of cheap, embarrassing laughs. Happily, it never does.
The third act of Raunch and Roll is Roxy’s final show, which is played as a part rock show and part confession as she sings and pours her heart out. This could have come across as appallingly trite, but it doesn’t. Roxy Starr is the incarnation of 70s rock, and the film is a poignant, nostalgic trip through that time. As The Who put it: Rock is dead, they say. Long live rock.