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[whitespace] Still Crazy
Alex Bailey

Rock of Ages: Beano Baggot (Timothy Spall) dusts off his drums for Strange Fruit's 20th reunion show in 'Still Crazy.'

A British comedy satirizes dino-rock

By Richard von Busack

YOU KNOW that Mick Jagger was an economics student before he became a rock star. So naturally the contract Jagger signed with Satan was gone over paragraph by paragraph, and that's what's made the Stones rock stars for decades, instead of for just a handful of years. As we see in Still Crazy, the imaginary band Strange Fruit got the usual deal with the devil: three or four years of living like royalty, then 10 or 20 years of living on diminishing royalties.

As we see them in this likable comedy by Brian Gibson (What's Love Got to Do With It?), the members of Strange Fruit have gone their separate ways since the band's time in the sun 20 years ago: one member dead, one member incommunicado and believed to be insane, the rest holding up as well as can be expected. One day the Fruit's keyboard player, Tony (bloodhound-faced Stephen Rea, a regular in Neil Jordan's movies), is inspired to reform the band in time for the 20th anniversary of Wisbech, an outdoor concert Strange Fruit played back in '77. To warm up, the ensemble rents a bus and heads out to the worst nightclubs in Holland.

Among those on the coach: lead vocalist Ray (Bill Nighy), whose flamboyant makeup, hard-bitten age and strained nerves make him look like Blanche du Bois; Hughie (Bill Connolly of Mrs. Brown), the band's gray-maned road manager; and bass player Les Wickes (Jimmy Nail), who personifies that wise saying "real musicians have day jobs" (Jimmy's a roofer in the cold part of England). For gross comic relief, Timothy Spall plays the drummer, "Beano." Spall is fondly remembered as the proprietor of the world's worst French restaurant in Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet.

Longtime British TV comedy writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have made Still Crazy a very knowing, gag-loaded satire of rock & roll excess. Clive Langer's music makes Strange Fruit authentically godawful, like the worst years of Humble Pie. The problem with the film, however, is that a rock band ought to generate its own sentiment, and the last half of Still Crazy is too dewy-eyed. This Is Spinal Tap, the model for these rock-manqué movies, wasn't a hit, and it seems that the sweetness here was meant as box-office insurance. (We're supposed to take Strange Fruit's closing anthem, "The Flame Still Burns," seriously, even though it sounds wetter than that song Eric Clapton wrote for his dead kid.) For further insurance, Gibson has used the Thalberg Strategy: If you make a movie with the Marx Brothers, you'd better cast Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones to keep the romance-loving audience happy. But the two juveniles (Hans Matheson and Rachael Sterling) in Still Crazy are introduced and then dropped from the story. Since the real love story is among this group of overgrown boys, the youngsters may have just been in the way to begin with. Concentrating on the middle-aged folly would have distilled Still Crazy, making it incisive and unforgettable, instead of just droll and pleasant.


Still Crazy (R; 95 min.), directed by Brian Gibson, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, photographed by Ashley Rowe and starring Stephen Rea and Timothy Spall.

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From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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