Seeing “Still Crazy” has put me in a reflective mood. While I’ve retained much of my youthful weirdness, if I jump into a mosh pit now I would probably feel it for a couple of days, and the only concerts I’ve attended so far in 1999 are Devo and Black Sabbath.
When I was in my late teens, I would have laughed at seeing a band that had been around that long, but at that time it would have been the Rolling Stones, whom I have also seen in the last five years. Despite the facts, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh fills out that yellow jumpsuit a bit more and Ozzy Osbourne uses a teleprompter and reads from a set list that was in print so huge it was five feet long, I really enjoyed both shows.
“Still Crazy” is another one of those “Let’s get the band back together and tour” movies. In tone, it falls between the broader comedy of “This is Spinal Tap” and the nihilistic black comedy of “Hard Core Logo”. It’s just as good as both of those films.
The film opens in 1978 at the huge outdoor Wisbech Festival, with what would be the last show for the band Strange Fruit. Depicted as a more glam Led Zeppelin, the band, wracked by warring egos and substance abuse, is a big believer in signs. When it rains and lightning strikes the stage on the first number, the group calls it quits.
In 1998, Keyboardist Tony (Stephen Rea), now a condom salesman, runs into the son of the organizer for the Wisbech festival, who is putting together a ’98 version with all of the original acts. With the help of the band’s old assistant, Karen (Juliet Aubrey), Tony hunts his old bandmates down.
Les (Jimmy Nail), the bass player is a roofer in the North of England. Drummer Beano (Timothy Spall) is living in his mother’s garden due to tax evasion and lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy) is in the midst of an embarrassing solo career at the urging of his crazed Swedish wife (Helena Bergstrom), while clinging to sobriety. Missing is Brian (Bruce Robinson, writer/director of “Withnail and I”), the lead guitar player and Karen’s old boyfriend who lost his mind. When their old record company sends them on the road in Europe, their old roadie and soundman Hughie (Billy Connolly) comes back as well to keep watch over his old friends. Hilarity ensues.
Act in haste, repent in leisure. The staple theme of this genre is the band members’ regret and their inability to move on with their lives until they revisit the scene of the crime. Nobody in “Strange Fruit” seems too happy with their current lives, but once regrouped, they fall back into their old dynamic. Tony still harbors a crush on Karen, who still can’t get over Brian. His absence helps her no more than her daughter (Rachel Stirling) falling for the kid (Hans Matheson) they hire to take Brian’s place. Beano won’t grow up, Les still hates Ray for taking his place as lead singer, and Ray is so addled and fearful of life, he can barely form a sentence.
Director Brian Gibson is on firm ground here, having made “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”, as are writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who wrote “The Commitments”. You can feel the history of this group. Better yet, you care what happens to them. What the band must do is not relive their youth, but appreciate it, learn from it, and move past it so that they can grow.
Everyone in Devo has a day job. Frontman Mark Mothersbaugh writes the music for Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats”. Yet I watch him and the band pound through the set, sweating, switching costumes, even dragging out the old Booji Boy identity (if you don’t know, I can’t explain it). What I noticed, though, from around ten feet back, is they were all having a blast. The crowd was going nuts. They weren’t getting paid for this show. They aren’t putting out any new albums. They were there just to perform.
In the end, it’s enough to know your youth wasn’t wasted, that something worthwhile came out of it. For an artist, or a band, it’s important to know that the body of work you’ve created will be remembered. You want to be appreciated. If you have that, the rest can’t be so bad. This is what Strange Fruit must learn and Devo has definitely learned. If I can look as happy as they did onstage, it works for me.