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How Roadies expands the Almost Famous universe

Jon Dekel

In his 2000 ode to rock 'n' roll, Almost Famous writer/director Cameron Crowe painted a rose-tinted picture of his life in "the circus" — the alchemy of love, drugs and business that surrounded mid-level bands struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of 1970s stardom. Some 16 years later, Crowe is returning to that crazy, hazy world, but pulling focus in an altogether different direction — and, more importantly, decade.

Roadies, a new Showtime series that airs on TMN in Canada, pairs Crowe with My So-Called Life’s Winnie Holzman and the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams for a look at the colourful lives of those who work behind the scenes. It follows the crew of the fictional, modern-day dad-rockers Staton-House Band as they tour across America, calming the waters of daily minutiae long enough for rock gods to feel "the buzz" unencumbered, often more for the music than the meager money.

“It's like if you took Almost Famous, made it modern day and then took the cameras in the other direction,” explains actress Carla Gugino, who stars in the series as a no-nonsense production manager with a rocky marriage. “It's not redundant in any way. This feels like a cool next chapter.”

For Luke Wilson, who plays the band’s tour manager and childhood best friend, Roadies’ authenticity, like the film, is driven largely by Crowe’s personal anecdotes. “Having been aware of his story — starting at Cream, writing for Rolling Stone and being on tour with Led Zeppelin and later Pearl Jam, he really does know a lot about music,” Wilson says. “You feel like you're getting it straight from the horse's mouth.”

As he finishes his sentence, Wilson’s idiom is given unlikely gravitas by a room-shaking thunder. It’s March, and Gugino and Wilson have taken a break from filming the 10-episode series to enter a circus of their own: the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. After their interview, the plan is to introduce the premiere episode’s guest stars, Seattle group the Head and the Heart, at a Roadies-sponsored event. But, like the band in the episode, the weather is not playing nice.

As Wilson squints in a typically Wilson-like manner, indicatating a what-you-going-to-do frustration, Gugino jumps in.

“[Crowe’s] there with us every day,” she says. “He's generous to his characters. There's this hopefulness, this immediate nostalgia, and there's also this sense of ‘I want to be there.’”

To prepare for their roles, both the leads were given access to the Academy Award-winning director's address book, including legendary tour managers Irving Azoff — who managed the Eagles before becoming one of the most important and feared men in the music industry — and Eric Johnson, who served with Neil Young before signing on as a consultant on the series.

“[Azoff] was so funny to talk to. He was so jaunty and upbeat,” Wilson recalls, before attempting an impression: “‘You know, it's one of those things where you just let them think it was their idea.’"

"It's like if you took Almost Famous, made it modern day and then took the cameras in the other direction"

Carla Gugino on Roadies

“The whole thing I'd never thought of is not wanting it to end. What happens when real life hits?” he continues. “You never think of these people going off tour and being adrift. Not just like Slash or Ronnie Wood, who openly admit that's when they started getting into trouble, but for the crew people, too. They're also going back to family, reality.”

“Willie Nelson sometimes gets home and stays on his bus for a week. Just to ease back in to taking the trash out.”

“I know these production manager couples,” Gugino adds. “When they get back home they need a week before they talk to each other because we're both so in our own world.”

In Roadies’ opening shot, Wilson’s tour manager is shown mid-copulation with a girl half his age who — surprise — turns out to be the tour producer’s daughter. The scene is intended to display Wilson’s issues with commitment and growing older, but when a groupie is shown sleeping her way backstage to "fool around" with a special Bruce Springsteen microphone, one can’t help but consider the backlash to 2016’s other prestige pion to the behind-the-scenes machinations of classic rock, Vinyl.

“This is such a different show,” Gugino eagerly points out. Noting the predominance of women cast in traditionally male roles — the cast also includes Imogen Poots as a well-intentioned electrician/aspiring filmmaker and Keisha Castle-Hughes as a hard-nosed front-of-house engineer — she concedes that “on our show, you do get groupies and you do get a lot of the real elements of rock and roll but the women hold an equal place in terms of the responsibilities and being treated ... I'd say that's not an issue with this show.”

Equally unlike the now-cancelled Scorsese series, and perhaps even Almost Famous, Roadies is unconcerned with the cynical reality of the industry it idealises. In a later episode, the unlikeable Rainn Wilson plays a rather unlikeable imaginary version of industry insider/journalist Bob Lefsetz, whose cooler-than-thou persona is revealed to be a facade by the euphoric mind-expansion of drugs; Lester Bangs and his warnings of the future, this is not. If anything, it’s a post-Bangs alternate reality where sentimentality is all that’s left to drive anyone to the business of music.

“As hard as these characters work, all the shit that hits the fan, it's like they'd really be nowhere else in the world,” Gugino says, summing up Roadies’ makeshift family. “This is it for them. There's something amazing about that.”