By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.
Indiana born musician turned writer-director Darren Dowler’s full-length feature debut, Rock & Roll: The Movie (2016), is a wildly successful rapid-fire comedy. It is one which just as engagingly acts as a loving homage to the popular culture of the 1980’s and 90’s. This is while embracing the immersive spirit of the melodic genre stated outright in its title. Evidence of this rests in Dowler’s witty incorporation of a deftly conveyed stoner duo by the name of Bill (Vince Corazza) and Ted (Chip Bent) into the proceedings. Such becomes a pulpit for slyly abounding references to the two film, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter starring series. This began with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and ended with Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). Such a factor is especially evident in the uproarious sequence at the twenty- minute marker. Here these certainly likable and well-played pals are introduced. Yet, the often unabashedly raunchy jokes, all playfully administered, are much in the mad cap, slapstick vain of another decade appropriate gem. This is Jim Abrahams’ and David and Jerry Zucker’s satirical parody masterpiece, Airplane! (1980). The Zuckers’ and Peter Segal’s The Naked Gun (1988), an adaptation of their detective style television show Police Squad! (1982), also springs to mind. Such is established immediately in a brilliantly conceived commencing bit. Such kids the inevitable “leaving my unconditionally ardent mother behind to chase my dreams” segment to endlessly guffaw-inducing effect. This is an inescapable tradition in cinematic stories such as these. A reoccurring pun concerning martial artist Jackie Chan, which is initiated into the fiction in the second half and later addressed in full while the flashily displayed concluding credits roll, is another highlight.
Keeping its tongue firmly planted in cheek for the entirety of its ninety-one-minute runtime, this delightfully entertaining romp has nary a gag or smartly penned piece of dialogue that doesn’t land with either a chuckle or an outright belly laugh. This is a courtesy of Dowler’s tremendously clever, confidently paced screenplay. The composition fully embraces its broad structure and characterizations. This also testifies to the great comic timing of the on-screen performers. Yet, this intimate epic also flourishes because Dowler fills his tale with charismatic, yet vastly sympathetic, central figures. All of whom are distinctly their own personality. Moreover, they are complete with their own eccentricities and amusing quirks. Though many of the anecdotes might haggle the easily offended, none of the people in Dowler’s effort are ever mean-spirited or overly villainous. Such only makes the undertaking more charming and decidedly old-fashioned. The effectiveness of this element is at its most memorable in Bill Oberst Jr.’s scene stealing performance of Moe. He is a sometimes bar tender who constantly pops up at random intervals throughout the affair. This is to dispense strange and off-key nuggets of nonsensical wisdoms and alternate words of motivation to both our leads as well as the audience.
But, the essence of the motion picture, Dowler’s twenty-five songs which are heard throughout, often bring about some of the heartiest laughs. For instance, there is a catchy tune presented in the last fifteen minutes, authored and performed by Dowler (as are all the tracks), which is called “I am Better Looking”. It is just as rib-tickling as the live concert/ music video manner it is presented. But, there are also some genuinely stirring and emotive moments. They pleasantly derive from the more serious numbers. “You Are the First Girl”, which is recited after a bet which transpires before the hour mark, is a beautiful, passionate ballad. It is enhanced by the quietly same said segment in which it takes place. “When We Were Young”, which our hero, Steve Taylor (in a wickedly good portrayal by Dowler) stages in the climactic competition, is just as poignant. Such illuminates Dowler’s bold storytelling and organizational capabilities. These episodes, which would otherwise conflict with the not entirely sentimental mood of the labor, are among the centerpieces of the film. Best of all, they blend seamlessly with everything else Dowler dishes out here. Such ultimately creates a more rounded, artistic and unpredictable arrangement.
Dowler chronicles an oft projected narrative. This is that of an unmistakably innocent man, David Roso (in a pitch perfect depiction by Clark Koelsch), who goes to Los Angeles in hopes of seeing his ambitions take flight. Almost immediately upon his arrival in California, David meets up with personal idol and agent to a catalogue of famous individuals, William Smythe (in an outstanding representation by Daniel Laney which frequently utilizes deadpan humor to punctuate its laughs). Smythe is more interested in obtaining Roso’s ’57 T-Bird than providing career advice to him. In so doing, Smythe makes a wager with Roso. The deal is that if Roso can get an unsigned talent a recording deal in four months or less, Smythe will officially make Roso an agent. If this doesn’t work out, Roso must hand over his prized vehicle to Smythe. Pretending that he is genuinely concerned with Roso, Smythe secretly sets him up for what he expects to be failure. This is by declaring to Smythe that the person he helps get a recording contract is Taylor. An individual who happens to be a porn star servicing drunk in his 40’s who never once glimpsed fame. Such is just the first of the numerous spins Dowler puts on the deliberately conventional trappings of this otherwise formulaic plot.
From a technical standpoint, Dowler issues editing which is every bit as sharp and impressive as his myriad other contributions to this wonderful project. This Entertainment Research Institute and Rocking and Rolling production also benefits from Dimitris Bogiantzis’ suitably cheery, vibrant cinematography. The make-up, camera and electrical as well as the four-person sound department are also remarkable. Likewise, Dowler’s stunts and Alexandra’s Pomerance’s wardrobes are exceptional. Further assisting matters is Cindy Merrill as Karen, Mara Marina as Gloria and Shawn Parikh as Don. All of whom offer delightful enactments.
This EskaGo and Uncork’d Entertainment distribution release is a true tour de force. Compelling and competent at all levels, Dowler’s photoplay has fun with its familiar ingredients. This is without every falling prey to them. Dowler, who is also the lead vocalist for Paul Revere and the Raiders, sends-up the industry that he has been a stealthy force in for many years. Yet, this is done in a spirited and admirable fashion. Such a design will surely appeal as much to insiders as it will general audiences. This is the increasingly rare comedy with real bite. Yet, it operates just as well as an exhibition of talent from all involved. Just don’t go into it expecting any unique insights into the underbelly of the music world. The multi-faceted Dowler, who is also an acclaimed novelist, has given us an amiable opus. It is one which lampoons the limitations of similar entries. This is with a knowing wink at itself and its patron. Because of this, the light-hearted nature and nostalgia at hand are increasingly infectious. Rock & Roll: The Movie triumphs. As a matter of fact, it is one of the best films of its ilk I’ve encountered in the past decade. I highly recommend you seek It out on video on demand today.