How Strange Fruit Got Its Groove Back

Between the current nostalgia for platform shoes and the epidemic of midlife crisis that has so many baby boomers in its grip, director Brian Gibson's Still Crazy just might be able to find an audience among the disturbed, the deafened, and the disenchanted. It is, after all, the comic tale of a fictional British glam-rock group that makes a comeback twenty years after vainly throwing itself onto the rubbish heap.

What we have here, of course, is another optimistic comment on second chances, and a clear likelihood that the soundtrack may outperform the movie. Eleven new songs with roots in several vintage styles have been cooked up by Squeeze guitarist-lyricist Chris Difford, Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones, and producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the blokes who've handled everyone from Elvis Costello to Madness to Bush. The film's anthem is a sweet and soulful thing called "The Flame Still Burns," written by Jones, Difford, and Marti Frederickson, and it might still be running through your head hours after you leave the theater.

The movie covers some of the same ground as Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes's recent valentine to glam, and suggests the mood of a real classic: Rob Reiner's brilliantly bogus rockumentary This Is Spi¨nal Tap (1984). It's neither as pompous as the former nor as biting as the latter, settling instead for a conciliatory tone in which genial satire gets along with sentimental daydreaming. Remember The Commitments, Alan Parker's 1991 comedy about an unlikely Irish soul band? Still Crazy screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais also cowrote that tribute to pluck.

It's enough to wilt Billie Holiday's gardenia, but the name of the group in Still Crazy is Strange Fruit. After breaking up (amid much scandal) in 1978 at the Wisbech music festival, the bickering members have gone their separate ways, "dragging their dwindling royalties and bruised egos behind them." Two decades later, keyboard player Tony Costello (The Butcher Boy's Stephen Rea) finds himself selling condoms in Ibiza. Bassist Les Wickes (Jimmy Nail) repairs roofs in the north of England. Slovenly drummer Beano Baggot (Timothy Spall, from Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies) holes up in a tiny house trailer in his mother's garden, keeping one step ahead of the tax collector. Self-absorbed lead singer Ray Simms (Bill Nighy) is as downtrodden as his former bandmates, but he keeps up appearances with a drafty country mansion, a prescription for Prozac, and a nagging Swedish trophy wife (Helena Bergstrsm). Band manager Karen Knowles (Juliet Aubrey) has settled into single motherhood and a nine-to-five routine.

Strange Fruit's fifth member (and acknowledged genius), the sensitive lead guitarist Brian Lovell (Bruce Robinson) has mysteriously vanished.

How fast can you say "reunion concert"?
Without that prospect there could be no resumption of hostilities among the "Fruits," no common fear of mortality, no possibility of glory recaptured. There could be no movie. Luckily writers Clement and La Frenais are clever dialogists; this cast is talented enough to provide the characters with plenty of individual flavor and quirk, and director Gibson knows his way around a musical set piece (he did The Josephine Baker Story (1991) for HBO and the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do with It? (1993) for the big screen).

Older but not necessarily wiser, Strange Fruit is thrown back together on the whim of a promoter who turns out to be the son of the promoter who last booked them. But before returning to Wisbech, these rock-and-roll dinosaurs must rehone their chops. That means argument-ridden rehearsals, the reconstruction of shattered egos, and a tour through the scummier rock clubs of snowy Amsterdam and Antwerp, where they face audiences both hostile and bewildered. It's not for nothing that the script calls for the band bus to break down on a sweep of plain decorated with fat windmills: The Fruits' quest to revivify themselves is nothing if not quixotic.

"History teaches us," the movie's wry narrator observes, "that men behave wisely once they've exhausted all other alternatives." The alternatives are the fun part here, of course: Addled Beano struggling to remember if Strange Fruit really did once play the Hollywood Bowl, as he so fondly recalls; vain Ray, still decked out in green feathers, presuming that a smirky pizza driver wants his autograph; brokenhearted Karen still chasing the ghost of a lost love. The road back is littered with obstacles, but at least it leads somewhere. Meanwhile, Still Crazy leads us to the conclusion, not always borne out in real life, that if you care deeply and work hard enough, you can reinvent your life.

Still Crazy.
Directed by Brian Gibson. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Starring Stephen Rea, Jimmy Nail, Juliet Aubrey, Bill Nighy, and Timothy Spall.

 
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