‘Roadie’ rules: An everyday story about Long Island and Blue Oyster Cult, told extraordinarily

Roadie. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and over the next couple of weeks, Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see in a two-week period. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Jimmy Testagross in Michael Cuesta's Roadie has never made a pot of coffee. He does not know how to fold laundry. He still crashes on his friends' couches. He can fit all of his stuff into one bag. He is in his 40s.

How does a man make it that far in life without ever having brewed a pot of coffee for himself? Well, he's been a roadie with the Blue Öyster Cult for 26 years. He has toured the world for decades, living the rock star life (by association), hauling speakers and sound equipment out of vans and into clubs and then out of clubs and back into vans. Jimmy Testagross may have no life skills and seem baffled when confronted with a pile of laundry to be folded, but for 26 years he has lived his dream.

All of that comes to a crashing halt when Jimmy (played by Ron Eldard in a great performance) is not asked to come with the band on their upcoming South American tour. In short, he is fired. We never really find out why, but it had to be pretty bad, because when we first see Jimmy he is standing by the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, screaming into his cell phone at someone, "Don't do this to me, man!" He wants back in. Of course he does. Being a roadie is his entire identity. He knows nothing else.

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Roadie, written by Gerald and Michael Cuesta, is a formulaic story bordering on cliche: man whose identity is tied up in his job loses said job and has to face life without that "crutch". Along the way he learns and grows and changes, The End. We've seen it all before.

What distinguishes Roadie, though, is its lack of sentimentality towards its characters, its detailed, comfortable observations of Long Island culture (familiar territory to Cuesta, whose debut feature was the well-received L.I.E. in 2001), the presentation of the obsessive world of Blue Öyster Cult fans and the Long Island music scene in general, and the magnificent performances by the four leads: Ron Eldard, Bobby Cannavale, Jill Hennessy and Lois Smith. Cuesta lets some scenes play out in one take, a leisurely, trusting technique that is far less fashionable these days than quick cuts and dueling closeups. Scenes actually have a chance to breathe, and there is a real sense that people are actually listening to one another.

Jimmy, after being dumped unceremoniously by the Blue Öyster Cult, has nowhere to go. He reluctantly heads back to Long Island, to crash with his mother (played by the great Lois Smith) for a couple of days. He hasn't seen his her 10 years. When an old woman comes to the door, you can see the shock on both of their faces. She looks at him as though a ghost has entered her home. He looks at her with dismay, and something akin to fear. When did she get so old? She is busy with her garden, and also with looking after her next-door neighbor who has had a stroke. (He is played wonderfully and crankily by David Marguiles.) She has almost forgotten she has a son, although his room has remained exactly the way he left it.

Jimmy, with his crazy facial hair, sunglasses, and bloat (Eldard gained a lot of weight for the part) is from another world. Blue Öyster Cult, while still going strong, began as a real local band, with a hardcore local following. To be a Long Island boy and to get a job with the Blue Öyster Cult would have been heady stuff for Jimmy, and he has lived in that fantasy for more than 25 years. His mother says to him, "I'm sorry, dear, but I've never really understood what you do." Jimmy tries to explain, and indulges in what is obviously a fib, saying that he now "manages" the band and has even written some songs for them. It sounds more important. He keeps insisting he's on a short break, he's going to join up with the band in a couple of days to go on tour again.

Aimlessly, in between shouting phone calls with the Blue Öyster Cult, and awkward, intense conversations with his mother, Jimmy re-visits his old neighborhood. He stops at an old music club and has a drink. There, he runs into Randy Stevens (played by Bobby Cannavale), a guy he went to high school with who used to call him "Jimmy Testicles" (and does again the second he sees him: "Jimmy Testicles?!").

Randy is loud and slick, with perfect hair, and now runs his father's used car lot. He is married to Nikki (Jill Hennessy), a girl Jimmy was in love with back in high school. Nikki is now a singer-songwriter, and has acquired a small local following. "30 people showed up at my show last Sunday!" she tells Jimmy excitedly. The dynamic among the three people is edgy, loaded, with a polite overlay of enthusiasm and goodwill. Randy walks through life like a politician (as all used-car salesmen do), and is used to getting his own way. But he recognizes that there was something powerful between Jimmy and Nikki back in high school, and he's not sure he likes the happy little reunion going on before his eyes. Nikki is more openly impressed with Jimmy's life than her husband is (who looks at it all with a jaundiced eye), and wonders if Jimmy could pass on her EP to The Blue Öyster Cult. Jimmy, unhappily caught in the misery of his own reduced circumstance but being unable to share it with anyone, says that he'd be happy to.

So we've got the setup. It's a classic love triangle. But the characters are the thing here, and Cuesta is smart to recognize that. He has cast superb actors and, for the most part, stays out of their way. He doesn't manipulate the frame too much. He films the story simply and with a really good eye for catching moments, glimpses and thoughts. Roadie is about how people listen to one another (or don't), how people all have their own miserable, swirling subtexts going on during their polite conversations, and vast private lives they cannot divulge. Everyone puts up a brave front, a front of success, and moves forward. Everyone's got plans.

Randy seems content, although perhaps a little bit nervous about keeping up with his hot leather-clad wife who is now branching out without him. Nikki, who reveals to Jimmy that kids were not in the cards for her and Randy (she does not elaborate), seems excited and ambitious about her new life. And Jimmy? Jimmy floats above reality. Jimmy's identity is back on that tour bus. He can't accept that hanging out with his mom and helping her fold laundry is who he is now. He has a hard time being present.

These three characters are on a collision course, and when they crash, you may think you know what is coming, but you would be wrong.

There is a montage flashback, filmed like a Behind the Music episode, showing Jimmy at work with other roadies. They filmed this sequence at an actual Blue Öyster Cult show in the New York area, and Cuesta approached the actual roadies about letting Eldard "work" with them for the night so he could film it. Cuesta said the roadies were initially reluctant, afraid that they were going to be mocked in some way, but eventually they agreed. So actor Eldard was a roadie for a night, Cuesta filming it with just a Bolex: We see him setting up speakers, re-stringing guitars, laughing with the other roadies backstage, in an exciting fast-paced world of important tasks and problem-solving. On a deeper unspoken level, a roadie, while the grunt of the rock-and-roll business, knows that he is needed. Rock stars need good roadies. A roadie fixes things, and he is there before he needs to be asked. Like Anthony Hopkins's butler in Remains of the Day, a roadie is invisible yet essential. It's a submissive position, but these guys bask in the glow of the rock stars they serve.

Roadie suggests that what Jimmy misses about the job is that sense of being needed. His entire career was about being needed. Without the job, Jimmy seems uncomfortable with helping his mother in the garden, or helping her with the stroke victim. The submissive position of "helper," in this more intimate context, sends him into a tailspin. All he wants to do is get the hell out of Long Island again. As the days stretch out, as he spends a little bit of time hanging out with Nikki, catching up with her, he starts to realize all that he has missed out on in life. What would it have been like to actually have had the love of a good steady woman all these years? Why has he never had that?

There's a great scene between Hennessy and Eldard, when, during a leisurely walk, they end up at his house. Nikki asks to use the bathroom, and on her way there, glances into what was Jimmy's boyhood bedroom. Jimmy joins her there. John El Manahi was the production designer of Roadie, and the interior of Jimmy's mother's house is a masterpiece: the window treatments, the floral couches, the knick-knacks, every element speaking of the woman who lives there and her Long Island background.

Jimmy's bedroom walls are, of course, plastered with posters, and his single bed is hemmed in by stereo equipment and piles and piles of record albums. Nikki exclaims over the record collection, and Jimmy, flipping through the albums, pulls one out and says to her, as though suddenly reclaiming his entire past, "Man, The Good Rats. Member them? Weren't they so great?" They crouch by the turntable together and put the album on, reminiscing about going to see the shows of The Good Rats back in high school, and how much fun they had. It is their first unselfconscious moment together. They listen to the song "Advertisement in the Voice", a classically structured rock ballad by yet another giant Long Island band that never acquired the worldwide following of the Blue Öyster Cult, but which engenders passion and loyalty in their fans. Joe Franco, drummer for The Good Rats, once said, "If the rest of the country was Long Island, we'd be The Beatles." And there is something Beatles-esque about "Advertisement in the Voice", a blend of a melancholy melody with clever lyrics, a lonely man's lament, looking through the classifieds in The Village Voice:

I read your advertisement in the Voice
Seeking some companionship to pass the lonely days
You made no stipulations, and only signed it "Friend"
Oh, it's 3 o'clock and I'm alone again

Jimmy and Nikki sit on the floor and listen to the song, lost in their dreams of the past, but more than that, revitalized by listening to a song they once loved, a song they had forgotten about. Music can act as a time machine. It's dangerous that way. (And I'll tell you one thing: after the screening of Roadie I came home, immediately loaded up iTunes, and downloaded three Good Rats albums.) The scene is a poignant and powerful moment, the two middle-aged friends grooving out to a song they once loved, full of sentiments that cannot be expressed.

Lois Smith made her film debut in Elia Kazan's East of Eden in 1955. Since then, she has worked steadily in films, television and theatre, and is an ensemble member at Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre. She has been nominated for two Tonys. She can play slightly dotty very well, but she has a native emotional intelligence that always reverberates (even in silly movies like Twister). She has an authoritative but eccentric presence, a quality that commands an audience to stop, take a breath, and listen to what she has to say.

Here, as Jimmy's mom, she seems to be on the edge of dementia. She is easily distracted, she forgets what she's doing, and she is obsessed with her garden and with her next-door neighbor. These two activities keep her on track. She is frustrated by her son's sudden re-appearance, and does not treat him with kid gloves. This is not a cuddly, sentimental old lady. She is a real person. The scenes between her and Eldard are tense, and effective. Expressions flicker across Eldard's face as he looks at her, confusion, fear, tenderness. Eldard has said that one of the main reasons he signed on to do the film was that they had gotten Lois Smith to play his mother, because he knew then that Cuesta meant business.

Jill Hennessy, known mainly for her stint on Law and Order, is terrific as Nikki, and the second you see her, running at Jimmy on the sidewalk calling out his name gleefully, you know exactly who this woman is. The character has made some compromises in her life, and she's loyal to her husband, insisting to Jimmy that he's a good guy, and really supportive of her music plans. Hennessy has a beautiful folksy voice, reminiscent of Cheryl Wheeler or Natalie Merchant, and despite the leather clothes and the leather jewelry, you know that, at heart, Nikki is just a nice Long Island girl.

Bobby Cannavale, who first made such an indelible impression in The Station Agent (although he had been working for some time before that breakthrough), and now currently getting ra ve reviews on Broadway in The Motherfucker with the Hat, gives a star performance in Roadie.

There's something dead behind Randy's eyes—a coiled, submerged energy that makes him vaguely threatening. Randy stalks through life as the ultimate alpha male, but he's tender with his wife, excited for her, and needles Jimmy about what exactly he did for The Blue Öyster Cult again. He knows bullshit when he sees it, and Randy Stevens is dangerous when crossed. Cannavale has been doing exciting work for years, and it is a thrill to see him here. Randy Stevens is unlike any other role he has played, and he inhabits it like a well-worn suit. If you hadn't seen him in anything else, you would swear that Cannavale was this guy.

I first saw Ron Eldard in Sleepers, in which he has a glorified cameo at the start of the film before Jason Patric and Brad Pitt take over the narrative. The film opens with Eldard and Billy Crudup sitting in a bar, and there was something so electric about him, so attention-getting, that I missed him for the rest of the film. I kept wondering: "Where are those two guys from the first scene again?" In the same year, he played Shep, the paramedic-firefighter, in the second season of E.R., a recurring character and the love interest of the nurse played by Julianna Margulies. The second I saw him appear through the doors of the E.R., wheeling someone in on a stretcher, I thought, "Hey! That's that guy from Sleepers!"

He was terrific on E.R., creating a complete Chicago "type", instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any time there. Just like with Sleepers, I was sorry to see him go. Since then, he has always been on my radar. He was in the ensemble casts of some big movies, like Black Hawk Down, and Deep Impact, and he had a key role in the Oscar-nominated House of Sand and Fog. He appeared on Broadway in On the Waterfront (playing Brando's part, Terry Molloy), and Biloxi Blues and Death of a Salesman, to name a few. But major stardom has eluded him.

Perhaps it's best for Ron Eldard to remain somewhat under the radar, where he can do interesting, unconventional work in projects that interest him. Stardom can be its own trap. As Jimmy Testagross in Roadie, he proves what I knew all along: that Ron Eldard is a leading man, and an actor who can carry a movie. Jimmy is the heart and soul of the picture, and while it could have been a tour de force of self-pity, Eldard's talent leads him down unexpected byways of anger, and kindness, and confusion. Unlike anything Eldard has done before, he is a revelation in the part.

When Jimmy, Randy, and Nikki go to a cheesy motel to "play rock star" before one of her shows, they blast music, do copious lines of coke, talk, drink, laugh, and the situation eventually disintegrates. The three actors are sometimes all in the same frame for an extended period of time in this scene, which shows Cuesta's faith in the event of the scene. The polite surfaces begin to crack. The truth can't help but come out. Nikki and Jimmy appear to gang up on Randy at one point, and Randy finally lashes out. Jimmy, coked up, explodes. "You guys like to PLAY rock star? I LIVED it, man!" .

Roadie, with all of its formulaic trappings, ends up being a unique and sad examination of a man unmoored from his identity, a man looking to his past for answers, for a sense of continuity, but finding that "it's 3 o'clock and I'm alone again". There's a mess to Roadie, and I mean that as a great compliment. Things get messy, and it's not just because of the love-triangle plot. The mess is in how Cuesta allows the scenes, and sometimes very complex ones like the motel-room scene, to unfold in what feels like an organic fashion.

Roadie is compulsively watchable for this reason. There's nothing more interesting than human behavior. There's nothing more compelling than watching a person listen to someone else. Cuesta understands that.

Read more reviews of Tribeca Film Festival selections by Sheila O'Malley.