Published January 1, 1999
Still Crazy, directed by Brian Gibson from a script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, also the writers of The Commitments, does about as good a job as it is possible to do with such predictable material as the reunion twenty years later of an aging 70s pop group. The recent Velvet Goldmine dealt with some of the same themes and the same period in a fashion much too portentous and self-important. At least Still Crazy has the virtue of being funny. And the music is better too. The group whose story it tells is the fictional Strange Fruit, a band whose period of stardom was all too brief and terminated abruptly when the band broke up in acrimony after being struck by lightning at the Wisbeach Rock Festival in 1977. “Divine intervention pulled the plug on the Fruits,” as Hughie (Billy Connolly), the band’s road manager tells us in an introductory voiceover. “I think God just got sick of all that 70s excess. That’s why he invented the Sex Pistols.”
But twenty years later in Ibiza, a fan spots Tony Costello (Stephen Rea), the band’s keyboardist, who now has “the condom concession for the whole of the Balearics” and Tony gets the idea that there might be some money in a reunion. He gathers together the surviving members of the band plus Karen (Juliet Aubrey), a former groupie who had become the girlfriend of Brian Lovell (Bruce Robinson) the “genius” behind the band’s success. She tells the others that Brian is dead. His brother, Keith, another genius, had overdosed in a Little Chef restaurant, and Brian had thought it incumbent on him also to make an early exit.
Karen, having left him because she didn’t want to watch him kill himself, married, had a daughter and divorced. Now she is working as a courier for Japanese tourists in England. “I had enough rock ‘n’ roll to last a lifetime,” she tells Tony.
“So you gave it all up for this?” he asks her on a particularly bad day at work.
That is really the point of the film: that a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is a high that spoils you for a settled existence or honest employment, though most of the other Fruits are trying and pretending to like both. Only Ray (Bill Nighy), the rather dim lead singer, has stayed in music and retained at least some of the money from their brief period of stardom. His hilariously controlling Scandanavian wife, Astrid (Helena Bergström) scorns the idea of reunion, saying that Ray’s solo career “is very happening now music. The Fruits,” she adds, making a gagging sound, are “passé — an old hat.” But Tony and Karen discover that Ray’s last solo album was in 1989 and that his stately home is up for sale, so they are able to persuade him to join the others, whose respectable, middle-aged lives in the abstemious 1990s hide a yearning for the excesses of their youth in the 1970s.
It is not a promising theme. As Hughie says, having last been on tour with Aerosmith ten years ago, “They cleaned up their act. I hope you guys are still crazy, or I’m out of here.” But the film has the sense to recognize that middle aged craziness is very different from the youthful kind. The reconstituted Fruits include the bassist, Les (Jimmy Nail), who is working as a roofer, the drummer, Beano Baggot (Timothy Spall), who works in a nursery and is on the run from the Inland Revenue, and a young kid called Luke (Hans Matheson) whom they hire as a guitarist. A record company executive thinks he can get them a reunion album if they can make a successful tour of Holland, and so they set off on a bus recently repainted but not thoroughly cleaned after another band had used it for its tour. “I love the smell of vomit in the morning,” says Hughie anticipating the good times ahead.
Of course the predictable sorts of disasters and successes happen, but both the jokes and the music are pretty good. The latter is sung very convincingly by the actors themselves, who can sing both badly and well, as the occasion demands. Especially memorable, perhaps, is the sight of these middle-aged youths in a seedy Dutch club venue singing a song that goes “I won’t get old and change my ways/The Revolution is now!” to a bunch of bored Dutch kids. It would all be well worth watching but for the fact that we know the sensitive and self-destructive genius, that stock-figure from the rock mythology, is eventually going to have to put in his appearance and turn things serious on us. He does so, but not obtrusively so, and the ending, with its suggestion that the music is all that matters (all the human stories of romance, friendship and enmity are left unresolved) is surprisingly inoffensive in its absurdity.