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Still Crazy's aging rockers may be pathetic, but they do hit a chord.

By Coury Turczyn

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  For any rock fan over the age of 25, it's a mixed blessing to see your former heroes attempt to resume their careers. When you see them climb up on stage yet again in their old outfits to sing their old songs, your reaction is twofold: First, a sort of thankfulness that they can still do it—that time has perhaps waived its usual penalties against aging and allowed them to rock out just like they did 20 or 30 years ago. But the second thought is less forgiving: Geez, they look ridiculous.

Jazzbos may age gracefully, country stars can smoothly settle into middle age, and pop divas might even retain their glamour—but rock stars really ought to hang it up shortly after their prime. The best rock bands are flashes of youth unleashed—angry, hormonally charged, self-abusing, self-absorbed poet Neanderthals living out their lives for our consumption. These qualities don't really last into one's 30s, whereupon many great bands begin their slow (or abrupt) declines. While it may be comforting to still see Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, or The Sex Pistols trot out their hits on-stage, does any of their new music really count for much? And when it comes to reunions of their lesser brethren—Steppenwolf or Styx or REO Speedwagon—the less said the better. Such sad spectacles are best left for VH1's mercenary Where Are They Now?

So why does a has-been band regroup despite the potential for total humiliation? Nostalgia-fueled income is certainly the most honest answer, but perhaps there's something else—an unquenchable need to relocate lost opportunities no matter how remote they may be now. Such is the nut director Brian Gibson attempts to crack with Still Crazy, a bittersweet comedy that follows the efforts of a British glam band to refind its chemistry and make a comeback. While it may appear to be a sort of This is Spinal Tap: 20 Years Later, Still Crazy instead treats its boneheaded rockers with compassion, mining their travails for pathos instead of just laughs. The result is rather subdued for a rock film, but manages to be oddly compelling to anyone who wonders about the inner-lives of long-lost rock heroes.

We first meet Strange Fruit just as it's breaking up in 1978, on-stage at an open-air festival. As lightening flashes around the band members in a downpour, short-circuiting their equipment, they give up in disgust—but even then, they look like true rock gods, all flowing hair, bare chests, and mascara. Twenty years later, things aren't so pretty; they look like typical middle-aged men. Keyboardist Tony (Stephen Rea) is a condom salesman; bassist Les (Jimmy Nail) is a roofer; drummer Beano (Timothy Spall) works in a plant nursery; lead guitarist Brian (Bruce Robinson) has disappeared; and addled lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy) is clinging to his decrepit castle and his second Swedish wife. Nevertheless, Tony presents them with an opportunity: a promoter has invited them to take the stage in a new outdoor festival. Can they put aside their animosity, their rustiness, their whining to become rock gods once again?

The answers are alternately funny and sad. The band undergoes a "European Tour" (using a former Psychedelic Furs bus with their logo painted over it) of scuzzy bars populated mostly by spike-haired punks. As they grind out their '70s-era blooz rock (with artsy pretensions), the tattooed and pierced crowds turn up their noses. But rather than simply turn his outdated rockers into punchlines, director Gibson shades the gentle humor with touches of tragedy—every so often, the movie intercuts scenes of the band in its heyday (using different actors in their 20s). As you see them cavort so carelessly, as if youth and stardom were inextinguishable, they appear like every other young rock group today. The stars that so consume our attention with their larger-than-life lusts will, in the end, be just as mundane as everyone else. (Note to Marilyn Manson: start an IRA.)

Illustrating this lesson most painfully is Nighy's Ray, Strange Fruit's man-child lead singer. Although the slimmest of the lot, the former glam star is also the most pathetic, still sporting long hair despite his balding pate. On stage, he attempts to conjure the "magic" by putting on his old high heels and filmy robes, face painted a la Peter Gabriel. But he looks more like a scared animal, terrified that his carefully propped-up ego might be kicked over once again. Fragile, and rather dim-witted, Ray is a tragic vision of what happens when youth flees those who bank on it. It's a brave performance.

Of course, the movie's ending isn't an unhappy one, and Strange Fruit has its moment in the spotlight, just like any number of nostalgia acts in real life. And if our aging rock heroes can regain some dignity and dollars in the process, so be it—but sometimes memories and record albums are the best tributes.


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