Sugar Town

Sugar Town

USA/UK, 1999. Rated R. 92 minutes.

Cast: Rosanna Arquette, John Taylor, Jade Gordon, Ally Sheedy, Michael Des Barres, John Doe, Lucinda Jenney, Beverly D'Angelo, Richmond Arquette, Vincent Berry, Larry Klein, Lumi Cavazos, Martin Kemp, Polly Platt, Jeffrey McDonald
Writers: Allison Anders & Kurt Voss
Music: Larry Klein
Cinematographer: Kristian Bernier
Producer: Daniel Hassid
Directors: Allison Anders & Kurt Voss


Grade: B Review by Dana Knowles

Read the AboutFilm interview with co-writer and co-director Kurt Voss.

I f ever a movie begged for more, this is it. More what? More everything! More budget, more running time, more story and character development. What's there is good, for the most part. But this is a Altman-esque multi-character extravaganza (think Nashville, but set in Hollywood among rock and film industry fringe-dwellers) without the time or budget to go to half the places (narratively and thematically) that it could or should. There are at least a dozen major characters, some of whom intersect marginally or through common acquaintances, and the paltry 92 minutes of footage is simply incapable of delving into their world in a truly satisfying way. Still, it has its heart in the right place. And to the extent that it shows us this world, it's both watchable and fairly endearing.

A quick rundown on the characters should suffice as an introduction to the premise... Rosanna Arquette plays an aging actress who is married to John Taylor, an aging rock star. Both are trying to jump-start their careers, she by auditioning for films, and he with a new band that's comprised of other aging rock stars from now-dissolved acts (Michael Des Barres and Martin Kemp). Ally Sheedy is Arquette's best friend, a movie production designer who is successful and rich, but dreadfully lonely. Jade Gordon plays a young woman who is determined to become a pop star, whatever that might require her to do. She's sort of an "Eve" (as in All About Eve), and thus, her ambition knows no bounds. John Doe plays an aging guitarist, living hand-to-mouth on session work and road gigs, though he has a sizable family to support. Larry Klein plays a former-musician-turned-record-producer whose career is in decline. Beverly D'Angelo plays a wealthy widow whom he hopes to snag as an investor in the album he wants to produce with Taylor, Rosanna Arquette and John TaylorDes Barres, and Kemp. And that's just the beginning! There are others: the junkie composer (Jeffrey McDonald), the loyal-salt-of-the-earth wife of John Doe's guitarist (Lucinda Jenney), and his just-out-of-rehab brother (Richmond Arquette)... plus the singer who invites Doe to join her on her tour and in her bed (Lumi Cavazos), the Health Food Store clerk who dates Sheedy with ulterior motives (Chris Mulkey), the former groupie (Polly Platt) who arrives at John Taylor's house one morning to introduce and hand over their (purported) love-child (Vincent Berry), about whom Taylor knew nothing. And there's that love-child, a hilariously surly little fellow who knows he's not wanted by "dad", but considers it an improvement over the crazy cult he's finally escaped.

Is your head spinning yet? Indeed! All of this is fodder for a lot of small pleasures, but there are so many characters that none of them has a chance at enough screen time to develop fully. Those who fare best are the women, partly because their characters are given more to do, and partly because the female characters are cast with talented actresses. Arquette, Sheedy, and (especially) Beverly D'Angelo are all marvelous and funny and interesting. Rosanna Arquette seems to be playing herself in a way... an actress who lost her career because she fell in love with a musician and followed him during the years she was most bankable (Peter Gabriel, in real life). Sheedy is neurotic and needy and malleable in a way that is pathetic, but you still can't help liking her. And D'Angelo lights up the screen like a firecracker. This woman needs to work much, much more than she currently does. The male characters are less developed, but are no less watchable. Still, by casting them almost exclusively with musicians, they suffer a bit by sharing the screen with such strong actresses. All of them are pretty good, really (John Taylor is definitely the stand-out among the non-pros), but there is a difference between accomplished craft and decent screen presence. And it shows.

Considering that the film is primarily focused on the slimy underbelly of the music industry, it is remarkably sweet and sunny, showing the ordinary tribulations of people whose time in the spotlight has passed. For them, the trouble is this: where do you go from there? Life goes on, even if your career doesn't. So how do you cope with what's left and make something of that? Scene for scene, the movie works fine. But when it's over, there's a sense of emptiness... as if the real stories have been hinted at but left out, and all we've gotten is a taste. I suppose it's a compliment to the film that I was disappointed to have so little. That I wished for another 30 or 40 minutes with these people (maybe even another hour) indicates that there was a good movie to be made with this premise and this cast. Too bad such a big chunk of it isn't there, because the sense that Sugar Town is severely truncated is palpable. Still, you could do worse than to spend 92 minutes with this ragtag bunch. And if you do, it will be helpful to prepare yourself for some mild-to-moderate dissatisfaction... a state of Narrativus Interruptus, if you will....

Review © September 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 1999 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

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