For some, life is a series of indignities. One second too slow, one step too far, and our dreams go unfulfilled. In every bar in the country, there is someone drinking away his regrets, trying to make peace with the records they didn’t break and the hearts they didn’t soothe. Michael Cuesta’s “Roadie” is a film about one of those men.
Jimmy Testagross is returning home to Queens huskier, middle-aged, and not nearly the man he expected to be. His rockstar dreams turned into excessive fandom, as he became a roadie for the Blue Oyster Cult, logging considerable mileage but eventually ending up without much industry respect to show for the time spent carrying guitars, loading up trucks, and managing the dietary habits of aging musicians. While it’s clear he’s not going to be a part of the band’s future, he now walks the abandoned streets of his hometown, visiting familiar haunts while his fist remains clenched around the exotic promise of South America, the next stop on the Cult tour.
His mother is glad to see him, but the time spent tending the garden, repeating her daily routine, suggests a wandering focus. She’s smart enough to understand that something’s bothering Jimmy, but also sharp enough to realize that it’s best she play dumb. The boy’s got enough to worry about. Specifically Nikki, his old high school crush, still apparently bumming around in his old haunts.
Her dreams were similar, and like Jimmy, they haven’t taken her to the life of riches she expected. Open mics are her grand stage, as she peddles her self-produced CDs of acoustic singer-songwriter confessionals. When Jimmy recognizes her hunger for anything even remotely rock and roll, he begins perpetuating the lie that he’s actually Blue Oyster Cult’s manager and occasional songwriter. Whether Nikki is dubious or accepting of his lie is unclear, though from the off it doesn’t pass the smell test with her husband Randy.
Randy is the friend we all have, a tornado of bad decisions that sweeps in and out of your life before you have any recollection of what happened. Through some back-patting and gregarious laughs, Randy ingratiates himself with Jimmy even after admitting he was a bully during the high school years that Jimmy has managed to disown. Randy immediately notices the sadness in Jimmy’s eyes and has intentions that are twofold. Bringing in the more attractive Jimmy to the dynamic involving Randy and his wife is sure to complicate matters, but Randy, who still calls him “Jimmy Testicles”, is a guy who wants to watch gleefully as Jimmy burns to the ground, particularly as his own wife lifts Jimmy up from his depression. When he “spontaneously” gets Jimmy coked up and drunk, you can see the wheels moving in his head.
As Jimmy, Ron Eldard is both affecting and pathetic. Despite years on the road, he is stymied by a coffee machine, and helpless at the sight of laundry. After 26 years away, he’s back to helping his mother (Lois Smith, dignified and compassionate) plant tomatoes. Eldard is clearly not afraid of showing an undeveloped paunch, or letting his voice crack when he gets angry, giving a performance of surprising depth.
As Nikki, Jill Hennessy strikes a perfect balance between “dream girl” and “dreamer,” never glossing over the fact that whatever there was between Nikki and Jimmy in the past ended poorly. And as Randy, Bobby Cannavale spits pure venom, a portrait of an obnoxious working-class ass who lives vicariously through the failures of others. If Jimmy is the dream, and Nikki the dreamer, Randy is the one who can’t be happy unless someone else isn’t. It’s one of the uglier turns in a career spent playing overcompensating jerks, and there’s almost something troubling about the fact Mr. Cannavale does it so well.
“Roadie” is a film of small ambitions – the picture seems less concerned with having you like or root for the underachieving Jimmy than simply depicting the world of shame he occupies. But it rings true in the small details: the ageism of returning home, exemplified by Jimmy’s avoidance of the elderly neighbors; the sadness of a roadie fixing a guitar, the mythical tool he can grasp, but never wield on stage; and, most importantly, the value of rock as a concept that makes a roadie’s life worth living. When Jimmy waxes philosophically on the merits of Blue Oyster Cult, describing them without condescension as “thinking man’s metal,” it’s the one moment Jimmy emerges from his why-me doldrums to illustrate the passion great music can inspire. And when Jimmy and Nikki begin to bond while listening to old records by the Good Rats, there’s the feeling of rock past and rock present delicately informing each other, showcasing the necessity of both. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the Tribeca Film Festival.