As Roadies wraps for the season (and perhaps for good), one question has been nagging at me: Would this show have worked better as a movie? The series’s best two episodes — ”The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken” and “The All-Night Bus Ride” — are the kind of bite-sized one-offs suited for television. But given that both take place on the tour bus, I can imagine a scenario where Cameron Crowe could’ve combined and reshuffled those scripts and shot them as a feature-length film, with some setups and payoffs culled from the rest of the season. Because, as it turns out, the TV format worked against Roadies in a lot of ways, mainly by forcing artificially romantic plotlines that felt tacked-on from the very beginning. And the less said about “villain of the week” characters like Bryce Newman and Abby Van Ness, the better.
I thought about the movie question a lot while I watched this mostly good, occasionally frustrating finale. “The Load Out” plays like the last few scenes of a mid-budget dramedy, padded out with all of the material that the director loved shooting, but he ultimately had to cut for time. In other words, it’s very much in line with Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, where Crowe clearly searched for the right combination of minutiae to express something ephemeral about the human experience. Sometimes Crowe gets that mix exactly right; other times, he’s wildly missed the mark. “The Load Out” falls somewhere in the middle.
The advantage of TV is that Crowe can let things sprawl. Set entirely at a memorial service for the dearly departed roadie king Phil Valentine — held at the Los Angeles Forum — this hour is mostly taken up by testimonial speeches and musical performances, from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Robyn Hitchcock, Jim James, Gary Clark, Jr., Nicole Atkins, and Lucius. The regular Roadies characters talk about the lessons Phil taught them, while Crowe finds all sorts of unusual locations and backdrops in the Forum to stage the action. The combination of rare rock memorabilia and warm words really creates a sense of continuity between the past and the present, honoring the interwoven community of musicians and music lovers.
In a movie, there would’ve been no way for Crowe to linger as long as he does here on the speeches and songs. He would’ve had to hit the highlights: the angry rant from Phil’s wife, the moving memories from his son, and the eulogy from Bill where he reminds everyone that “even your suckiest day on tour will be a story you tell later.” And then Crowe would’ve gotten on with the quirkier bits of business involving Phil’s passing: his final word to Kelly Ann (“Pistachio,” referring to a horse he loved to bet on), and his desire to be stuffed and mounted in a permanent hugging position.
On the other hand, this TV version of Roadies is dragged down once again by its need to address the half-dozen or so characters and subplots that helped fill airtime for the past nine weeks. The perpetually pointless Wes gets another piece of bad news, finding out that he’s getting sued over the proliferation of untrimmed plants at his home in Escondido. The underused Donna finds out that her wife has had their baby, which is currently in the ICU because it was born prematurely. And Chris House finally returns to the fold, with the problematic Janine by his side.
This latter bit of story is grossly underserved by “The Load Out.” The breakup of the Staton-House Band was mostly crammed into the last few episodes; in this finale, the most narrative attention paid to it is centered on the arrival of the band’s absentee manager, Preston, acting cocky over how he snookered Reg into facilitating the split. Preston ends up being one last overly broad Roadies villain, with no real purpose beyond serving as an extreme agitator. Wouldn’t it have been more enlightening to hear from Staton and House, and not their manipulative jerk of an employee?
Instead, the bulk of the non-funeral scenes in this episode are devoted to the series’s two main romantic arcs — which Roadies ultimately invested far too much time into, given that “two people fall in love” is nowhere near as original as “a crew works with a rock band.” At least these two stories end well. A visit from Shelli’s husband, Sean, convinces her that she’d be happier staying on the road with Bill than retiring from rock and having a baby. And, after a few final flirtatious moments between Reg and Kelly Ann (including him sweetly calling her “the most elegant rigger I’ve ever met”), and a nice moment where he finally gets officially initiated into the tour with a pie in the face, Reg decides against flying back to England and rushes to Kelly Ann.
The last scene of Reg racing through the airport after making his choice is meant to be a callback to Kelly Ann’s “supercut” student film from the pilot. But really, I was more affected by the film she made for Reg in the finale: another montage, but of scenes from Roadies instead of scenes from old movies. It’s a fine summary of the season, cobbled together from offhanded pick-up shots — a real “side of the stage” point-of-view of the series as a whole.
That’s where the heart of this show has always been: in the angles and perspectives that we don’t usually see in a rock-and-roll saga. And honestly, it probably would’ve been impossible to include all that marginalia in a movie. A big-screen Roadies would have been almost exclusively about the relationships, not the work. Given that, we should celebrate what Roadies is, not what it might’ve been. Because, woven throughout these ten hours is the Great Lost Cameron Crowe Film that he otherwise never would’ve made. It exists now in our memories, in whatever “director’s cut” we prefer.
- There’s an interesting parallel between the scene of Rick the Bass Player looking into the camera and shaving his beard and the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where Luke Wilson’s character does exactly the same — with similar jump-cuts and similar melancholy music. Beyond the Wilson family connection between that movie and this show, I wonder if Rick’s concluding line, “I married her” (meaning Natalie the Stalker) is meant to be equivalent to Richie Tenenbaum completing his shaving ritual by attempting suicide. If so, that’s pretty dark. If not … well, it’s a weird coincidence.
- Remember how it was supposed to be a big deal that Milo had an unrequited thing for Kelly Ann? That story was barely introduced in the early episodes, dropped entirely, brought back unexpectedly, and Milo is a complete non-factor in the finale. There was a lot of that through this season — threads that Crowe and Co. never really chose to follow, even though they occasionally called back to them. For example, it didn’t occur to me until Reg got his suitcase back that he’d gone this entire season without it. This was probably supposed to be a running joke, explaining why Reg often wound up wearing T-shirts from the latest SHB tour stop. But it was a joke that flew over my head until now.
- The musical MVPs of this episode are Jackson Browne and Greg Leisz, who sing and play together on covers of “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Willin’,” as well as the inevitable performance of Browne’s “The Load-Out.” Browne has such a relaxed, comforting screen presence that when he and Bill start reminiscing about Warren Zevon’s old Winnebago “The Wind-Cutter,” it almost feels completely improvised and real. Forget the Staton-House Band. If there’s a second season of Roadies, let’s put Bill and Shelli and Kelly Ann and Reg in charge of Browne’s next tour.