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Saturday, April 15, 2000

Getting back where they once belonged

I'm jealous. Seething with envy and turning green, all because of "Still Crazy," a British picture in which middle-aged ex-rock musicians get together for a comeback tour.

These guys are 50ish, graying and bitter, mere ghosts of their once-beautiful selves as members of the legendary band Strange Fruits. They gave it all up one fateful night in '77 because they were fed up with each other, the industry and even their music, once described by critics as "quintessential '70s rock." Strange Fruits disbanded and went their separate, anonymous ways, not to see one another for the next 20 years.

Why am I jealous? Because these burned-out fogies shared a decade that is now considered one of the crowning achievements of popular culture. It had everything: glam rock, long hair, free sex, hard drugs, rebels with and without a cause. Those were the days when people knew how to be young, to spin out the rush to last as long as possible. But I missed out. By the time my generation got out of school, Reagan was president, Madonna was singing "Material Girl" and people actually aspired to the investment banking business. Nostalgic anyone? Nah.

On the other hand, the '70s are glorified every time you turn around. And by all accounts, the decade deserves every single starry-eyed tribute it gets, including that of "Still Crazy," whose waxing lyricism of good old times occasionally goes over the top. But all is forgiven in the face of a dynamite soundtrack (written by Clive Langar and Cliff Difford of Squeeze), fly-by gags and stellar performances turned in by the entire cast, most of whom had never seen an amplifier up close but by the end of the movie look as if they were born in velvet pants.

The story opens on Tony (Stephen Rea), Strange Fruits keyboard player-turned-condom salesman in Ibiza. One day he runs into a former fan and they decide that the Fruits must get together for a revival tour, cut an album and show the spineless '90s rock world what rocking is really about.

After the initial rush of enthusiasm, Tony turns skeptical. The Fruits were never high on loyalty and personal grudges are fast recalled, especially between lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy) and bass player Les (Jimmy Nail). Beano the drummer (Timothy Spall) is still the disgusting slob he was 20 years ago and the once-charismatic guitarist Brian (Bruce Robinson) is reported dead. As it is, their hopes rest on band manager Karen (Juliet Aubrey), an ex-groupie now matured into a divorcee with teenaged daughter. Karen gets the gigs, draws up the contracts and hires young Luke (Hans Mathieson) for some much needed youth and energy.

At first, the Fruits are a sorry sight. After years of all booze and no work, Ray's voice is shot and Les never misses an opportunity to tell him so. Creaking in the joints and all too conscious that Luke is outshining them all, the Fruits somehow marshal forces to continue with their tour -- a series of nowhere gigs in nowhere clubs.

When morale hits bottom, Karen comes through, reminding them of past glories and how wonderful it is just to get away from boring jobs and be on the road again. Tony holds a secret torch for this wonderful woman but she has never stopped pining for Brian, the love of her life.

Director Brian Gibson is a practiced hand at adapting music to film ("The Josephine Baker Story" and "What's Love Got to Do With It") and to his credit, "Still Crazy" never slips into MTV mode, even when you feel that a couple of minutes of stylized scenery wouldn't hurt. Gibson never hesitates to highlight the flyspecks, the wrinkles and the midlife despair that define the Fruits. As a result, the energy is genuine, edgy, raw: a veritable kick in the taste buds.

And as the credits roll on, the sadness sets in. Twenty years from now, what feats of craziness will we remember and stir us to action -- an all-time high score in a Tetris game? Will we lug out our power PCs and power suits and recall good times over Starbucks lattes? Will we talk about Bill Gates like the "Still Crazy" characters talk about Jimi Hendrix?

Very likely we won't have to meet at all. We'll do it on e-mail or in a chat room called "Days of Our Youth for Fiftysomethings" and then the big kick will be to see who can type the fastest. Gee, I can hardly wait.

"Still Crazy" opens April 29 at Chanter Cine theater in Hibiya.

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