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The Boston Phoenix Band Wagging

Still Crazy taps into the '70s

By Gary Susman

JANUARY 25, 1999:  Hello, Cleveland! Yes, we're in This Is Spinal Tap territory again with Still Crazy, a comedy about a fictional doddering English hair-and-guitar band from the '70s. Nonetheless, Brian Gilbert's film proves an original and wonderfully entertaining creation whose abundant humor gets a rueful, poignant edge from its characters' middle-age desperation.

Imagine a band of second-tier British progressive rockers -- not as skilled or inspired as King Crimson or Yes, not as bombastic as Uriah Heep, not as glam as Roxy Music, not as forgotten as Barclay James Harvest, but with elements of all of these -- and you'll have Strange Fruit. The line-up originally consisted of keyboardist Tony Costello (Stephen Rea), bassist Les Wickes (Jimmy Nail), drummer Beano Baggot (Timothy Spall), rhythm-guitarist Ray Simms (Bill Nighy), lead-guitarist Brian Lovell (Bruce Robinson), and Brian's brother Keith on vocals. When Keith's addictions did him in, Ray took over as lead singer, but the band felt he never measured up to Keith. Tensions came to a head at their notoriously godforsaken appearance at the legendary Wisbech festival in 1977. The estranged Fruits drifted into ordinary day jobs, all except Ray, who continued to record the odd solo album, and Brian, the brilliant and mentally unstable songwriter, who pulled a Syd Barrett and disappeared and was presumed dead.

Two decades later, a chance meeting in Ibiza between Tony and the promoter of a 20th-anniversary restaging of Wisbech inspires Tony to reunite the band. Tony is not vacationing but rather running a condom concession, and the other Fruits are living in similarly reduced circumstances. Les is working as a roofer. The hilariously dim Beano lives in a trailer on his mother's lawn as a tax dodge. Even Ray, who lives in a country estate with the fiercely protective Astrid (Helena Bergstrom), the groupie he married, is nearly broke. Tony coaxes them out of retirement as well as Karen (Juliet Aubrey), the band's old personal assistant, who agrees to manage them, and Hughie (Billy Connolly), their boisterously pessimistic roadie. To replace Brian, they hire Luke Shand (Hans Matheson), a talented young guitarist. Now the musicians must try to recapture the magic, avoid the mistakes of the past, and keep the volatile mix together long enough to make it to Wisbech.

The notion of a group of middle-aged, underemployed Englishmen attempting to regain their dignity via flamboyant live performance owes less to Spinal Tap than to The Full Monty. If the structure of Still Crazy is familiar, however, the film remains fresh in its portrayal of the insecurities of guys who used to have it and are terrified that they no longer do. Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who adapted The Commitments to the screen, know how to bring out those insecurities and musicians' fragile egos with brash humor and heartfelt wistfulness. They've created a well-rounded set of characters, each with his or her own vivid set of anxieties, who are fully fleshed out by a strong ensemble. Rea puts his famously hangdog visage to good use as Tony, who hopes that Karen will finally pay more attention to him than to the memory of Brian. Nail's Les still seethes with resentment over Ray's usurpation of the spotlight. Aubrey's Karen worries that her teenage daughter Claire, along for the ride, is too fond of dashing young Luke. Best of all is Nighy's Ray, who worries that he still can't live up to Keith's or even his own glory years, With his desiccated garishness, his wobbly stance, and his inner frailty, he's a cross between Keith Richards and Judy Garland.

The songs, composed by a team of English pop veterans including Squeeze's Chris Difford and Foreigner's Mick Jones, are a canny pastiche of the real thing, full of pomp, pretense, and soaring harmony. Brian Gilbert, who directed What's Love Got To Do with It and HBO's The Josephine Baker Story, knows how to stage musical numbers for emotional resonance and narrative drive, not just rock-video spectacle. When the Fruits sing a stirring ballad aptly titled "The Flame Still Burns" at Still Crazy's climax, you'll want to dry your eyes and flick your lighter.



Fruit salad

NEW YORK -- Pop stars always want to be actors (think of Elvis, David Bowie, Whitney Houston), and movie stars always want to be rockers (think of Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, and Keanu Reeves). Playing British-rock has-beens Strange Fruit, the cast of Still Crazy got to enjoy both fantasies.

"I did want to be a rock-and-roll singer, like everybody else. I never got out of the bedroom," says veteran British stage and TV actor Bill Nighy, who plays Strange Fruit's flamboyant singer Ray. "I did once rehearse with a band, but when it got close to the real thing, I panicked and fled back into the theater. So it's terrific to have done this movie. It's as close as I'll get."

Playing Les, the Strange Fruit bassist who stands resentfully behind Ray on stage, is Jimmy Nail, who has enjoyed a dual career as a British TV star and touring rock frontman. Asked whether he has a preference between acting and singing, he says, "Not really. They're so very different. I'm glad I can do them both. I don't think I could make a choice."

The actors deny that they modeled their characters after specific aging British rockers. "People seem to think it's an amalgam of Keith and Mick," Nighy says of Ray. "I'm glad to hear it because I admire them tremendously, but it's not intentional."

Any similarity to the faded British band in the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is also coincidental, insists Nail. "There is a kind of universal rock-and-roll humor. I was in a band where a guy had number 11 on his amp. This was way before Spinal Tap. But it's a spoof of a certain type of lifestyle. What we have here is a small-scale mainstream movie with a traditional movie architecture. It's about a bunch of guys who happen to be musicians. It works because you care about the characters."

Nonetheless, even '70s progressive-rock and metal bands as silly as the ones parodied in both films still give off some nostalgic resonance. Says Nail, "It was all a bit naff, and the clothes were a bit silly, but there was something magic about people just trying to express themselves. We live in a much more dangerous world, and maybe that's reflected through the grooves."

Asked about their own arena-rock nostalgia, the 49-year-old Nighy and 44-year-old Nail let loose a flood of can-you-top-this memories.

Nighy: "I was on the Isle of Wight when Jimi Hendrix came to play. I couldn't believe it."

Nail: "I've got a Hendrix story. I was in my mid teens. There was a club in Newcastle, the Club A-Go-Go, that the Animals made famous. The club had a very low ceiling. And Hendrix, I hadn't seen anything like it. He leapt with the guitar, and it went through a ceiling tile. But get this, he let it go and continued playing while it hung from the ceiling."

Nighy: "I must declare myself a Van Morrison idiot. I've seen Van Morrison probably a dozen times. If I did have a lighter, I'd have flicked it for Van."

Nail: "I was lucky enough to meet Dylan one time, through George Harrison. He rang me up and said, 'Do you want to see Bob at the Hammersmith Odeon?' George and I had a cup of tea with him before the gig. That was pretty extraordinary, spending time pre-gig with His Bobness.

"There've been so many. Rod Stewart and the Faces in 1970, Rod coming on in his leopardskin coat and kicking footballs into the audience. And then the Who finished that night. Mott the Hoople opened that bill."

Nighy: "I got to see Humble Pie at the Albert Hall, and Steve Marriott came out with his top off, just his braces. The first thing he did was scream, 'I have all the same anxieties and fears that you do. Let's rock and roll.' "

Nail: "Black Sabbath came to Newcastle when I was about 13. I saw these columns that I didn't realize were speaker columns. There were banks and banks of them. I was so naive at the time, I was leaning inside the bass bins, not knowing what they were. And Black Sabbath went into 'Paranoid,' and I flew about six yards."

Nighy: "I saw James Brown once. I had the honor. And Taj Mahal."

Nail: "The musical highlight of my life so far is singing with Stevie Wonder at Carnegie Hall at a benefit a couple years ago. That was a blast. It was a tremendous bill. Elton John, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin, Sting, who organized it. It doesn't get any better."

Nighy: "And then you've got me."


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