Writer-director John Schultz’s “Bandwagon” is a rousing crowd-pleaser that should establish the first-time feature filmmaker as a hot commodity. An unusually strong cast of newcomers, most of them making their screen debuts, and an MTV-friendly score of original songs by Greg Kendall help to make this production one of the most promising films to emerge at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.
A sterling example of regional filmmaking at its most technically and dramatically accomplished, filmed-in-North Carolina pic likely will be pegged as an American answer to “The Commitments.” Like Alan Parker’s 1991 feature, “Bandwagon” focuses on a group of working-class twentysomethings who form a band primarily for lack of anything better to do.
But the similarities end there. While Parker’s film offered a gritty slice of Dublin life, Schultz’s pic presents an equally well-observed look at life in the independent band scene in and around North Carolina.
Lee Holmes makes an auspicious screen debut as Tony Ridge, an introverted singer-songwriter who pursues music as a full-time career only after he’s fired from a spirit-killing sales job. Even then, he must be prodded into performing by drummer Charlie Flagg (Matthew Hennessey), an ingenuous motor-mouth who’s prone to expounding at length on any subject that crosses his crowded mind.
At first, Tony is so shy that he hides in a closet while practicing with Charlie. But he slowly emerges after he and Charlie find two other members for their makeshift band: Wynn Knapp (Kevin Corrigan), a talented but perennially stoned guitarist, and Eric Ellwood (Steve Parlavecchio), a hot-tempered bass player who’s deep in debt to a menacing redneck loan shark.
Once they retrieve Eric’s instrument from the loan shark, in an extremely funny breaking-and-entering sequence, the four young men are ready to begin performing under the name Circus Monkey. Unfortunately, they bomb badly during their first gig at a raucous frat party. (Their garage-band sound simply isn’t hard-rocking enough for the boozy college boys.) But they press on, eventually attracting the interest of Linus Tate (Doug MacMillan), a legendary, enigmatic road manager who usually opens his mouth only to offer dollops of Zen-like wisdom.
Accompanied by Linus, the Circus Monkeys set out in a rattletrap van to tour various low-paying venues on the Southern club circuit. For a long time, Tony insists that their goal should be playing the music they like, not chasing groupies or landing a record-company contract.
Once they’re in Jackson, Miss., however, his bandmates discover the real driving force behind Tony’s musical endeavors: Ann (Lisa Keller), an ex-girlfriend whose name pops up in the titles of many Circus Monkey songs. Romantic complications ensue, tensions rise and the band nearly breaks up.
“Bandwagon” freshens a familiar storyline with vivid characterizations, clever writing and a sharp eye for revealing detail. The five lead players develop a thoroughly believable give-and-take, by turns jokey and edgy during their forced intimacy onstage and off. The specifics of life on the road for a struggling band are convincingly limned, with a comic highlight being a near-disastrous interview at a college radio station.
Parlavecchio (“Amongst Friends”) credibly generates tension as the tough-talking, hot-tempered Eric. Corrigan and Hennessey earn the lion’s share of the laughs while developing fully fleshed-out characters. MacMillan — who, as lead singer for the Connells, actually is a successful indie-band vet — sustains an effective sang-froid throughout the pic.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Steph Robinson as a sneering hard-rocker who mocks the Circus Monkey’s more melodic sound, and Doug McCallie as the loan shark and drug dealer who demonstrates his toughness by setting fire to his chest hair.
Schultz, heretofore best known as a director of promotional films for Amblin Entertainment (“The Making of ‘Hook,’ “”The Making of ‘Jurassic Park’ “), directs with breezy confidence. He briefly stumbles into facile corniness near the end, when the band defiantly takes the stage at a record-company showcase, but both he and the pic recover quickly. Schultz even manages the not-so-easy trick of making the band members appear to be really performing the prerecorded songs.
Tech values are exceptional for an indie effort. Particularly praiseworthy are Shawn Maurer’s first-rate cinematography and John Pace’s tight editing.