"Sugar Town"

John Taylor, Michael Des Barres and Martin Kemp play -- what else? -- faded '80s rock titans in this slight L.A. music-biz satire.

Published September 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

During Hollywood's golden age, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney played exuberant kids who fought the odds to put on a show or get into one. Sentiment being the order of their day, the duo's pluck and talent usually netted them fame and fortune. Behind the scenes they may have been popping pills, hitting the booze, wrecking happy homes and otherwise messing up, but audiences saw only the entertainment world's wholesome side.

Something of the reverse has occurred with "Sugar Town," a music-biz satire with the premise that nothing breeds desperation like a rock 'n' roll wannabe questing for stardom -- except perhaps fallen stars maneuvering to regain their luster.

This story's heartwarming side happened off-screen. Allison Anders and Kurt Voss, the co-writers and co-directors of "Sugar Town," scripted it in less than two weeks, shot it in three and set up financing with relative ease. @ la Mickey and Judy, they persuaded friends to donate their houses as sets and contribute their talents for lower-than-usual fees. The film's unvarnished look only adds to its charm.

Things on-screen go less swimmingly, as a cast headed by Ally Sheedy, Rosanna Arquette, Beverly D'Angelo and musicians John Taylor (Duran Duran), Michael Des Barres (Power Station) and Martin Kemp (Spandau Ballet) enacts scenarios worthy of the VH1 series "Behind the Music." A talentless youngster steals, sleeps and steamrolls her way into the big time. To cut an album, a producer lies, strings people along and even turns to pimping. Faded '80s rock titans go contempo with godawful "fusion soul." A sexy vocalist attempts to seduce a session man away from his wife, who is eight months pregnant. And his newly reformed junkie of a brother ... well, you get the idea. When it isn't reconstituting tales of rock-world woe, "Sugar Town" samples from "All About Eve," "Nashville" and a previous Anders-Voss collaboration, "Border Radio," a grainy, low-budget, fictional snapshot of the late-1980s Los Angeles punk scene. (The co-directors apparently love mocking the notion of "seminal" all-male bands.)

The story's so familiar and the clichis about Los Angeles so careworn, if merrily rendered, that after a short while only my admiration for Anders' "Gas Food Lodging," about a mother and her two daughters living in a trailer in New Mexico, kept me from squirming in my seat. ("Mi Vida Loca," about Chicana gangs in Los Angeles, and "Grace of My Heart," inspired by the songwriting career of Carole King, are two of Anders' less fully realized, though still affecting, efforts.) Voss' films, such as "Baja" (Molly Ringwald on the lam in Mexico) and "Amnesia" (adultery leads to amnesia and sex slavery), are the very things that give "edgy" a bad name. But despite the attention given Anders for her contributions to "Sugar Town," Voss seems to have the upper hand here.

After its manic opening sequences, though, the film slips into an appealing groove. Anders blends her real-life observations into fictive action in a way no other American director -- except perhaps Henry Jaglom -- does. "Sugar Town" may be a lark and its characters essentially stereotypes, but they end up being more substantial than the material suggests they'll be. An added bonus is that most of them are in their 30s and 40s. Unlike the inhabitants of many of this summer's movies, their underlying dilemmas are more pressing than getting laid for the first time.

Not that they're any more grown-up about handling said dilemmas. Sheedy's character, a successful production designer, is a font of New Age psychobabble about relationships. Needless to say she's got a miserable track record in dating. That one sympathizes at all with this airhead is a tribute to Sheedy's earnest playing of the role and Anders' skill at revealing the psychic nuances of women who aren't necessarily deep or intellectual. Likewise with the male characters, even when they're acting like dicks -- or thinking with them -- they invariably rise above caricature. Des Barres, for instance, plays a haggard-looking rocker who's ever on the make for nubile flesh. He's ridiculous, but in a nice twist his comeuppance winds up being his entree to more mature (and satisfying) sexual relations.

Anders and Voss keep the tone of "Sugar Town" mostly glib, but toward the end its satiric and serious sides surface simultaneously. A husband who has nearly succumbed to temptation -- "Sugar Town" seems pretty clear that women are better at fidelity than men -- congratulates himself for only kissing his seductress. His wife declares that kissing is worse than fucking because it's more intimate. The statement's at once hyperbolic and not without a grain of truth. The contradiction hangs nicely in the air, unresolved until the film's closing shot.

"Sugar Town" isn't profound, but it is perceptive, and despite its earthier take on show biz the film ends up being just as sweet on its protagonists as the scrappy Rooney-Garland vehicles of yore were on theirs. Maybe it's because the film was made on the fly, in something of the spirit of those 1930s and 1940s shows within the show. In any case it's a pile of fun -- but don't be surprised if you find yourself thinking about it a week later.

By Daniel Mangin

Daniel Mangin is a writer and editor living in New York.

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