It’s a perversely satisfying thrill to see a movie about rock and roll has-beens starring two fallen teen idols (Duran Duran’s John Taylor and Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp), a could’ve-been (X’s John Doe) and a never-was-but-at-least-I-married-a-famous-groupie (Michael Des Barres). With anyone but Allison Anders at the helm, Sugar Town could have been a riotously funny satire of the vagaries of fame: the actors seem game for self-parody, and the milieu (over the hill L.A. rockers desperate to make this month’s mortgage) is rife with possibilities.
But Anders did write and direct (with Kurt Voss), and the result is a soap opera mired in good intentions. What jokes it allows itself are at the expense of easy targets: the romantic failures of a brittle, neurotic production designer (a shrill Ally Sheedy); an avaricious hanger-on (Jade Gordon) who’ll do anything to break into the business; new age ashrams; the self-absorption of aspiring actors. Nothing, in fact, that wasn’t sent up (to much funnier effect) twenty-five years ago in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
For a film like this to succeed, it has to risk offending the audience: a satire with no fangs is no satire at all. Sugar Town is nothing if not nice–its only good moments come when the pretense of mocking the rock world is dropped altogether, in favor of an exploration of the lives of the story’s women.
Anders has real empathy for her older female characters: she understands their frustrations and compromises. Lucinda Jenny’s scenes as a pregnant woman attracted to her husband’s junkie brother have a touching, engaging warmth. In the film’s one truly original scene, we see her showering, her body lit and photographed with a lush eroticism rarely lavished on a woman a week from labor. It’s a revelatory moment, exactly what you’d hope to see in independent films by women and so rarely do. Neither Rosanna Arquette (playing an actress trying to sustain a career with her ingenue years behind her) nor Beverly D’Angelo (as a wealthy widow) fare quite so well: both try valiantly but are ultimately unable to overcome the two-dimensionality of their roles.
Anders and Voss wrote the film in just over a week. This is nothing to crow about: with a few more days spent writing, Arquette might have had something to work with. The constricted shooting schedule and low production costs are supposed to reflect the film’s "guerilla" spirit, but instead they serve to make the film feel undercooked. The tone varies wildly from scene to scene, characters drift in and out haphazardly, and when the separate stories all resolve in the final ten minutes, it’s dull and inevitable: we’re not seeing people come to moments of clarity, we’re seeing plot devices function correctly.
And the film looks like anything but a guerilla production–it’s an absolutely conventional film, well shot and impeccably edited. Uneven performances aside, there are no rough edges to speak of. What’s the point of making a film this cheaply if ultimately it’s just mainstream product? The lack of money only undermines it–we can see where extra time for writing and rehearsing would make the film more credible. Sugar Town could use a good dose of the independent spirit it’s so eager to claim for itself: then it might be as fun as it thinks it is.