Summer 2015 Review: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll

20 Jul


Sex & Drugs & Rock n Roll charts the path of a legendary almost-but-never-quite-made-it band that faded just before Nirvana hit and made rock huge again (think maybe Mudhoney) as they are drawn back together in the present for the first time in many years. The Heathens were led by ultimate heathen Johnny Rock, played by Denis Leary, who drank and drugged his way through life, getting by on oozing charisma and competent songwriting chops while generally being an asshole to everyone, particularly his bandmates.

The show starts as a docudrama with Dave Grohl and Grug Dulli talking about The Heathens and just how equally important, influential, and unsuccessful they were. (I have to put in a note here that none of the language thrown around by Dulli and Grohl actually sounds anything like the little music we here the Heathens’ play; they sound more like the New York Dolls than a band that would immediately influence Nirvana.) In the present, Johnny visits his manager and finds out he’s out of options; there’s no market for his music and he’s too old to start over again, but too young to retire. He’s reduced to considering a position in a low grade but decent paying tribute band; selling out is everything Johnny has fought against, but money is money.

Later at a bar, he hits on a woman, Gigi, (Victorious’ Elizabeth Gillies) far younger and more attractive than himself he believes is making eyes at him, only to find out that she’s been doing so because she’s actually his daughter that he never knew existed. He lucks out when the next day it turns out that Gigi has some money and wants to make it as a singer in NYC, and despite her lack of interest in him as a paternal figure, she wants his help as a songwriter, if he can convince his old songwriting partner, the Heathens’ former guitarist, Flash, to join forces with him. Convincing Flash (John Corbett) is difficult as Johnny was a huge asshole and Flash is much more successful currently, making bank as Lady Gaga’s traveling guitarist. Gigi, sensing this might be an issue and knowing the way to all musicians’ hearts, texts Leary a provocative picture to show Corbett, and the old crew against all odds is up and running.

Gigi performs a classic Heathens song with the band; everyone can see she’s got actual talent, and we’re in business.

The biggest problem with Sex&Drug&Rock&Roll is a sense of a tonal dissonance. I’m not quite sure what the show wants to be, and it might be more successful if it pulled further in one of a number of directions rather than where it currently is. There are some good ideas here for a show; skewing the music industry, both modern, and classic, and the notion of the fading rocker, the Keith Richards type tried to keep up. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll at times seems like it is trying to be an edge, satirical, black comedy, that pulls no punches, with characters who are not necessarily likeable. On the other hand, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll wants to have a heart, and tell the story of a complicated relationship between father and daughter, that’s a little more serious and more sentimental. In this way, it almost has the vibe of a feel-good movie redemption story, like Music & Lyrics but about a father-daughter relationship instead of a rom-com.

The jokes aren’t funny, which is a problem for the black comedy aspect. One approach would be to tone down the jokes, keep a light, comic tone, but up the ante on the plot and depth of characters. A biting satire could work as well but the writing would need a lot of tightening; if a satire isn’t funny, it doesn’t work: see The Brink. There may be gray areas between these approaches, or others, but Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’s isn’t working currently, and that’s the chief problem. The jokes aren’t funny, the music sensibility seems weirdly out of date; the Lady Gaga jokes for example feel a couple of years well too late.

Will I watch it again? No. There’s an idea here and I like the cast. But it’s just not there without a bit of a stylistic overhaul.

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