The shaggy, rambling but earnest “Sunset Strip,” covering 24 hours in the lives of myriad young people who are aiming for stardom in the heady 1972 L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene, goes only halfway in its ambition to be a cinematic mural of the bubbling period. Like the music itself (some scored by Stewart Copeland, some written and selected by Robbie Robertson), pic is made in a bygone style that sometimes consciously mimics the multicharacter ’70s dramas of Robert Altman, but sans Altman’s ability to juggle a wide array of character types and narrative elements. First feature by helmer Adam Collis is a respectable effort by any measure, however, and Fox’s release handling (first delaying its opening, then releasing it with virtually no advance notice) is curious indeed. Timing is doubly unfortunate since it comes so close to both Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” covering nearly identical cultural ground, and Altman’s latest multicharacter opus, “Dr. T & the Women.” More distance from this pair would have greatly helped, but pic’s theatrical gig appears doomed, with only hope in ancillary discovery.
The day starts early for these wannabes, hangers-on and artists, as pic’s nominal music hero, struggling guitarist Zach (Nick Stahl), wakes at 4:15 a.m. and immediately fingers the frets in his hillside rental deep in Laurel Canyon. His landlord, Mr. Niederhaus (John Randolph), a retired Hollywood studio musician, is about the only pal this L.A. newcomer has.
Prepping for that night’s gig at the Whisky with his band, Naked Snake, Zach hears the distant sound of a wailing guitar and plays a call-and-response riff (penned by Robertson) in pic’s most distinctive and memorable scene.
Zach’s escapades are narratively interlaced with a group living and working on and around Sunset Boulevard itself. Album cover photographer Michael (Simon Baker) has to contend with prima donnas like country rock bandleader Glen (Jared Leto). Ambitious boutique store owner and costumer-for-rockers Tammy (Anna Friel) has no idea how much Michael loves her and sleeps around with the cutest musician within arm’s length, which includes a mildly farcical scene with Glen and ultra-cool Brit rock star Duncan Reed (Tommy J. Flanagan) in separate changing rooms.
Bitter, boozy and drug-hungry songwriter Felix (Rory Cochrane) is at the other end of the rock world. While Duncan lives like royalty at the Hyatt on Sunset, Michael finds Felix passed out and seemingly facing his dark night of the soul.
Wandering through it all is phony Shapiro (Adam Goldberg), who acts like he’s David Geffen but is just another hack producer trying to sweet-talk naive artists. Social scene, as depicted through these characters, is actually triangulated by extremes of Duncan’s superiority, Zach’s earnest struggling and Felix’s burned-out waste, with other characters scrambling to get as far from the low end of the triangle as possible.
Interesting structure provides pic with plenty of opportunities for social satire, human comedy and chance encounters, but few setups are ever dramatically fulfilled. Character-driven script by Randall Jahnson and Russell Degrazier (based on a story by Jahnson, who previously explored L.A.’s rock scene in “The Doors”) clearly takes on far too many incidents and folks to round them into anything truly satisfying, and in some cases, such as Felix’s, has no idea where to take a character at all.
Crucial aspect of capturing sights and sounds of lively scene has decidedly mixed results. Costuming by Ha Nguyen and production design by Cynthia Charette evidence considerable research, though some throwaway scenes such as Shapiro vetting clothes of his latest soul group (featuring a dance number care of choreographer Toni Basil) seem to exist more to flaunt pic’s clotheshorse sensibility than serve any real purpose.
Period detailing is less precise in dialogue, which makes no mention of other clubs in Strip area or of the Stones, whose “Exile on Main Street” catapulted them to status of demigods at exactly this time. Production is greatly helped by fact that central locales such as Canter’s Deli, the Whisky-a-Go-Go and various Laurel Canyon spots remain unchanged nearly 30 years later.
Major disappointment is key gig scene at Whisky featuring Zach’s hopeless trio and Duncan’s headlining group that is marred by poor camera coverage, cutting and sound. Other tech credits, including unusually subdued Copeland score and unpredictable song selection, are fine.