Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll get a markedly downbeat spin in “Roadie,” helmer Michael Cuesta’s take on youthful dreams gone out of tune. Low-budget pic, a showcase for the outsized acting talents of Ron Eldard, Bobby Cannavale and Jill Hennessy, is appropriately gritty, honest and uncategorizable. The uniqueness of the story could be a marketing handicap, but word of mouth could provide a commercial counterweight.
Scripted by Cuesta and brother Gerald (who co-wrote 2001’s controversial “L.I.E.,” which Michael also directed), “Roadie” focuses on the fringes of rock, where Jimmy Testagross (Eldard) finds himself at the ripe-old-rock ‘n’ roll age of 40. He’s been touring since the ’80s with Blue Oyster Cult — a perfect choice of bands to place things in the Queens/Long Island milieu in which “Roadie” exists. But he’s been fired from the upcoming tour and, with nowhere else to go, has returned to his mother’s house to lick his wounds, harass his ex-employer via cell phone and enter a kind of high school-informed time warp.
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Shot in Brooklyn and Forest Hills, Queens (where the story is set), “Roadie” is immersed in blue-collar New York — in this case, Italian — from the stores to the locals to the rusting Pontiac that Jimmy left in the driveway of his neighbors (David Margulies, Catherine Wolf) some time ago. How long? It’s unclear: His mother (Lois Smith) certainly hasn’t seen him in years, but she’s getting a bit dotty. What we see, and Jimmy does too, is his early retirement to Queens, caring for Mom. It’s not a pretty picture, or one that includes groupies.
Eldard gives a valiant performance: Jimmy, who’s been toting the band’s gear for 20 years, is whiny, fat, uninspiring — and a liar: He’s not the band’s manager or songwriter, which is how he presents himself when he runs into two blasts from the past — the overbearing Randy (Cannavale), who tortured Jimmy through high school (and still purposely and unflatteringly butchers his name); and Randy’s wife, Nikki (Hennessy), Jimmy’s old flame and an aspiring singer-songwriter, who performs for crowds of 30 or 40 in Forest Hills bars. That everyone is lost in a particular daydream is pretty clear. It’s the wakeup call that’s going to be disturbing.
“Roadie” features some wonderfully evocative music out of its characters’ collective past (local legends the Good Rats, for instance) but like Jimmy himself, it takes a bit of a push to get the pic going, which it gets, both emotionally and dramatically, thanks largely to its ensemble. Eldard (“True Love,” “Black Hawk Down”), who apparently gained 38 pounds for the role, creates a character that invites both sympathy and contempt; Cannavale (“Win Win”) makes Randy a perfectly vile example of the bully who never grew up, or got beat up. And Hennessy, who seems to get better with each film, and who performs her own music here convincingly, seems the perfect embodiment of the beauty who never left the neighborhood, and should have.
Tech credits are first-rate, with John El-Manahi’s production design right on the money.