If I followed the music scene more closely, perhaps all the rock stars in Sugar Town would have given me a little thrill. Maybe the personalities that inhabit this movie would have struck a resonant chord with me. Maybe I would have even liked the movie.
Sugar Town is a low-budget feature from Allison Anders and Kurt Voss, two filmmakers in tune with the L.A. music scene. It’s an ensemble piece, following half a dozen plot threads through a period of a couple of weeks.
Gwen (Jade Gordon) opens the film with a to-do list: “Win Grammys. Get famous. Have rich friends.” Her plan is to steal, lie, and sleep her way to the top. She hopes to be a singer, but she can’t write songs, so she subcontracts the job.
Gwen works as a housekeeper for Liz.
Liz (Ally Sheedy) wants nothing to do with the music scene, having been burned by some of the great egos in that field. Still, she seems caught in the middle of it. Every person she meets steps on her in their pursuit of fame.
Sheedy showed real talent in last year’s High Art, but she is wasted in this film. Her character was written to be the butt of every joke, so there’s not much room for her to continue her mature comeback.
Reading the production notes, I got the impression that Sheedy agreed to do the movie before she read the script. She says that she agreed to work on the project “when Allison called” (my emphasis). She also says “The script was secondary.” I assume that was her way of being polite, acknowledging her friendship with Anders while excusing what she maybe now realizes was a bad role.
Liz is friends with Eva.
Eva (Rosanna Arquette) is an actress, married to an aging rock star Clive (John Taylor). Her husband was big in the ‘80s, and now he’s trying to stay relevant. They are a surprisingly mature couple, eventually “adopting” Nerve (Vincent Berry), who may or may not be Clive’s love child.
Nerve (probably 12) comes into their lives when his caricatured hippie mother leaves him at their doorstep. His arrival gives Eva just the dose of maternal responsibility she was looking for. And while Clive doesn’t relish the idea of being a father, it gives him a sense of self-worth beyond what his career has given him.
Clive is in a new, unsigned, unnamed band.
The band comprises several aging rockers—both the characters and the actors. The actors’ names meant very little to me, but here they are, in case any of you care: Michael Des Barres, of Power Station; John Taylor, of Duran Duran, and Martin Kemp, of Spandau Ballet. Des Barres and Taylor (along with John Doe of X) were watchably interesting in not insubstantial roles, but don’t look for them at the Oscars. The others had bit parts.
The band’s drugs are supplied by the friend of the brother of Carl.
Carl (John Doe) is a husband, father, and father-to-be. He’s also a studio musician. Of the whole cast of characters, Carl is the most stable and sensible. A hot new Mexican songstress hires him for her upcoming tour and tries to steal his heart, but Carl is steadfastly true to his wife and family.
As you can see, some of the threads are more tightly woven than others, and that’s okay in this type of movie. It’s meant to be a slice of life, a portrait of a subculture of L.A. And if that’s truly its aim, then it succeeds pretty well. Many personalities are portrayed, and lots of foibles, egos, and quirks identify the characters.
Unfortunately, these quirks and foibles are what end up ruining the film. In a handful of scenes, the integrity of the characters is sacrificed for a few cheap (attempted) laughs. In this type of ensemble movie, with very little plot and lots of character study, all the characters need to be interesting and real. Throw in a character that feels false and the whole thing falls apart.
For example, Nerve’s mother leaves him with Clive so she can go off and work in a third-world orphanage. The irony might have been hilarious if she hadn’t been passed off as a new-age hippie goofball. The film had nothing to say about her character, and even as a stereotype, she seemed stereotyped.
Anders and Voss made the same mistake with the character of Liz (Sheedy). Sheedy tried to bring some dignity and humanity to her character, but that was a mistake. The character was written to be the butt of the film’s cruel jokes, nothing more. Adding humanity just makes the jokes more painful and less funny. The actor and writers should have reworked the character, because they didn’t see eye to eye on who she was.
Finally, they made the same mistake a third time with the character of Gwen. Gwen was ruthless and moral-less in her flight to stardom, which in itself does not seem so farfetched. But that sort of determination requires some sort of intelligent planning, a devious, cunning streak that makes the plan work. But when the time came for a dumb blond joke, Gwen was right there, being dumb. Dumb would have been okay, or cunning would have been okay, but a person isn’t both at the same time, no matter the color of her hair.
As I watched Sugar Town, I chuckled quite a bit. But thinking about it afterwards, it makes me mad how lazily it was written. Comically exaggerated characters are okay, but there has to be a human heart behind them. A good Sugar Town would have let the truth behind the stereotypes come through in the characters. This one just presents the stereotypes, hoping we will recognize them as jokes, and laugh.
If you’re in the music biz, it will probably work for you. If not, don’t go.