Well, you can bring the movie geniuses to TV, but you can't make them deliver great television.
Cameron Crowe is considered a genius by some. As a writer or director he's delivered Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. By reputation his gift is for capturing the feel of youth, the vibe of music and the music business, and the emotional intricacies of fame and creativity. Now he's doing a TV show about music.
Roadies (Sunday, The Movie Network, 10 p.m. ET) is his creation and was anticipated with some pleasure when it was announced he was doing it for Showtime. Give the man the artistic freedom of cable these days and let him deliver a drama about the people behind the scenes of a rock music band. It's his field, after all.
The show is, however, bland and deeply disappointing. In the episodes available, no tone is established; the characters are poorly defined or barely exist and the whole rock-music industry is painted as boring, trite and filled with ridiculous people. Ridiculous in an unappealing way, to be precise.
Creating a plausible drama about popular music is the most difficult of tasks. Witness the grand failure that was HBO's just-cancelled Vinyl. It's a remote world from most of us and pop music is, really, about what we feel. Getting that feeling right in a drama is a stretch. ABC's Nashville (also cancelled but revived in a deal with CMT and Hulu) presented the country-music business as a trashy soap opera, successfully. Vinyl went for Grand Guignol and failed. On the other hand, Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle, about classical music, is an absolute joy to behold. It treads lightly into the politics of an orchestra but delves deep into what motivates people to devote their lives to music.
The premise of Roadies is too clean-cut to begin with. The roadies, who are the key support workers for a band, are a family. That's it, that's the premise – they're family. They have their quirks and sometimes go astray, but they're family, bound by an unbreakable force that is, somehow, defined by the vibe of the band and the music. Here, all of that comes across as a Disneyfied version of reality. The viewer never quite believes any of it.
The fictional band is a mid-level success, probably on the way up in the music racket. Of course, things in the racket ain't what they used to be. No consumer – even the band's fans – wants to pay for music, and live gigs are crucial for success. The band's key tour roadies and managers are Bill (Luke Wilson), Shelli (Carla Gugino) and Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots). You will note that each character is played by a good actor. Cameron Crowe attracts talent. And yet not one of the major characters seems fully built or interesting.
A too-conventional device is used to introduce the roadies. The record company has figured that a tour is costing too much and sends in an exec (played by Rafe Spall) to sort out who is vital and who is redundant. So he interviews the personnel. Thus, we get their stories, such as they are. There is ample scope here to flesh out these people who have, essentially, abandoned responsibility to run way and join the circus. But they remain elusive and rather boring. Roadies is, at times, ridiculously bad. It's not about the vibe – it has no vibe.
Also airing this weekend
Where the Universe Sings: The Spiritual Journey of Lawren Harris
(Saturday, TVOntario, 9 p.m.) is a fine though adoring examination of Harris's work and life. Directed by Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont, it features Colm Feore as the voice of Harris and Eric Peterson as the voice of A.Y. Jackson.
Visually, it is lovely, and that is not so much a matter of presenting the great Harris paintings as it is about seeing the archival footage of Harris, his Group of Seven comrades and Toronto in the early 20th century. The doc airs just ahead of the opening of the Idea of North, a new Harris exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
To anyone unfamiliar with Harris, the program has much to offer. His significance is explained in layman's terms and the route of his life is chronicled. "He actually thought that the purpose of art was to bring people to ecstasy," one of the pundits tells us. For others, the ubiquity of Harris's paintings and the Group of Seven will make the doc rather too prosaic. It looks gorgeous, mind you, and is accessible nationally on tvo.org beginning Sunday.