Last week saw the passing of renowned rock musician Meat Loaf (born Marvin Lee Aday), who shot to fame with the release of his 1977 debut album Bat Out of Hell – an album whose worldwide popularity transcends its deceptive cover’s promise of a more hard-edged metallic sound (a promise which, I must confess, has left me constantly disappointed by the sound of his musical output). His success as a singer, however, has somewhat overshadowed his surprisingly extensive career as an actor – a body of work which, to my mind, is far more interesting. Most people called upon to name a film in which he’s appeared would likely latch on to his cinematic debut as Eddie in the cult classic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). If pushed, they might recall his cameos in Wayne’s World (1992) and Spiceworld (1997), or his supporting role in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). But I’ve yet to meet anybody familiar with his starring role in the rock & roll comedy road movie Roadie (1980), an obscurity I first encountered years ago buried amongst the late night/early morning programming on some commercial TV station or other. Revisiting it for the first time earlier this week with some trepidation, I was pleasantly surprised to find that – while it’s definitely not without its flaws – it stands up to repeat viewing better than I’d expected.
Roadie opens, appropriately enough, with a road – a stretch of open highway on which multiple armadillos are gambolling away. (I mention this not because the armadillos have any wider significance – I just happen to be inexplicably charmed whenever I happen across an armadillo onscreen, especially when they turn up outside any sane context such as in the original 1931 Dracula.) Playing over the top of this arid scene is Cheap Trick’s theme tune “Everything Works If You Let It”, whose title and lyrics act as an effective mission statement for what is to come – a fairly simple plot taking place against a series of loosely associated incidents which also serve to showcase a cross-section of American rock music.
Travis W. Redfish (Meat Loaf) is a Texan good ol’ boy truck driver who makes a living delivering Shiner beer with his best friend B.B. Muldoon (Gailard Sartain). In his spare time he helps out his father Corpus C. Redfish (Art Carney) with the family business, a salvage company which repurposes all sorts of random detritus into various Rube Goldberg-like lash-ups. En route to Austin for their latest delivery, Travis and B.B. happen across a broken-down tour bus. On any other day they would have driven past without a second thought (other than to laugh at the helpless city slickers) – but on this fateful occasion, a smile and a wave from a pretty girl (Kaki Hunter, better known for the Porky’s trilogy, playing the improbably named Lola Bouilliabase) brings Travis to a screeching halt. No sooner has he finished repairing the vehicle than Lola has charmed him into driving them the rest of the way into Austin, where Hank Williams Jr. and The Bama Band are waiting for their equipment. Setting up in record time, Redfish earns the admiration of big-time music mogul Mohammed Johnson (a pitch perfect performance from Don Cornelius, the creator of the hugely influential music showcase Soul Train [1971-2006]). Determined to retain the services of his “lucky white man” (but constitutionally incapable of getting his name right), Johnson leans on his jealous subordinate Ace (Joe Spano, shortly to become a series regular on Hill Street Blues [1981-1987]) to ensure his presence at their next gig, and Ace in turn leans on Lola to exert her charms.
Careening from one musical performance to another, Travis swiftly earns himself the title of “the greatest roadie that ever lived” – a reputation which means little to him since he doesn’t have a clue as to the identity of most of the people he meets and has very little interest in their music. The closest he comes to expressing any interest is with Hank Williams Jr. – and even then, only because Redfish is familiar with the work of his long-deceased father Hank Williams Sr. Lola, on the other hand, is all about the music – so much so that she’s developed the psychic ability to know what’s currently playing on any radio station. Lola’s ambition is to become “the greatest groupie who ever lived”, with the more specific objective of making her way across country to meet Alice Cooper – who, she claims, has promised to have dinner with her, although her refusal to provide further details casts some doubt over her veracity. Despite her stated goal, it’s clear to the audience that she’s fallen just as hard for Redfish as he has for her, although it takes her much longer to realise this – just long enough for the traditional separation and reconciliation plot beats to play out before the film’s end. Unfortunately there’s one aspect of Lola’s character which does not stand up at all well today (and must, I would hope, have seemed a little squicky even at the time the film was made) – she’s only 16 years old (albeit played by a 24-year-old). Although the writers make it clear that she’s still a virgin and doesn’t have sex with any of the musicians they encounter, this is still a film in which the happy ending revolves around a man in his 30s hooking up with a 16-year-old girl – and I can’t really fault any viewers for whom this plot element is a dealbreaker.
Comedically the film is all over the place. Much of the stronger material revolves around Travis and Lola – the two actors have good chemistry with other, and Meat Loaf is surprisingly effective at playing both the physical and verbal aspects required of him. Particularly well crafted is the scene in which Travis and Lola are obliviously trying to do their laundry with a detergent box full of cocaine. A surprisingly streetwise old lady (Lenore Woodward), diagnosing the difficulty and spotting an opportunity, swaps her box of laundry powder for theirs just before the cops turn up to arrest them. An exquisitely timed exchange of crossed dialogue ensues, with the two pairs carrying on completely unrelated conversations which accidentally intersect, before one of the cops samples the goods and runs screaming from the launderette (last seen with soap bubbles pouring from his nose and mouth). Less effective are the scenes back home in Texas with the Redfish family which punctuate the film. Beloved American comedian Art Carney (who would no doubt be appalled that I mainly know him from The Star Wars Holiday Special) is clearly having fun as Travis’ father, spending most of his time in an electric wheelchair surrounded by gadgets. Unfortunately he’s paired with a badly written and grotesque performance from Rhonda Bates as Travis’ sister Alice Poo. Bates apparently made a career out of this sort of role – the tall, skinny hick who will go to any lengths to secure her man (in this case Travis’ best friend B.B.). To be fair to her, I have no doubt that she achieved exactly what she was aiming for in her performance – but it’s something that I found indescribably painful to watch.
Amongst the many luminaries of the rock & roll world to be found here, only two stand out for their ability to act as well as play – Blondie’s lead vocalist Deborah Harry and Alice Cooper (coincidentally the same two individuals whose presence led me to set the VCR for this film all those years ago). Deborah Harry takes the unlikely role of Lola’s romantic rival, beginning her flirtation with Redfish with some sexual innuendo about power cords before performing a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. After a scene in the back of Blondie’s limousine provides definitive proof of the complete lack of acting talent among the rest of the band, their potential love connection over dinner is disrupted by a food fight with fictional band Snow White (invented for the film) which results in Debbie leaving with their singer. (Snow White’s membership is made up entirely of the short-statured. There are seven of them. Yes, that’s right. Add one more tally in the “reasons to be offended” column.) Harry herself was no stranger to acting, having already appeared in four films prior to this. Having recently played the lead role in Union City (1980), her next film saw her playing a significant part in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and she’s continued to pop up sporadically in all sorts of acting roles ever since. Notable cameos in this section of the film include the actual Mayor of Austin, Carole McClellan, as a sheriff come to shut down the gig; and Marcy Hanson (Playboy‘s Playmate of October 1978) as a groupie who admires Lola’s look. (Marcy had previously co-starred alongside Rhonda Bates in short-lived 1978 sitcom The Roller Girls.)
Alice Cooper proves more than willing to puncture his shock-rock image by showing the viewer the man behind the makeup, a mild-mannered politely-spoken happily-married man who always keeps his promises and is visibly uncomfortable at having to wear his full leather-and-live-snake ensemble for his dinner with Lola and Travis. Although his acting CV is less extensive than that of either Deborah Harry or Meatloaf, by this point he had already been part of the much-derided Beatles-without-the-Beatles film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and would next turn up as the lead in horror movie Monster Dog (1984) – although I know him better for his cameos as Street Schizo in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) (in which he stabs somebody with half a bicycle) and as Freddy’s father in the previously reviewed Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).
Other musicians appearing include folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; Roy Orbison (who joins Hank Williams Jr. onstage for a crowd-calming duet of “Eyes of Texas”); Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys; Rick Crow and Asleep at the Wheel; Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia (standing in as Alice Cooper’s backing band); and Peter Frampton. The most memorable performance comes courtesy of new wave band Standing Waves, appearing here as the fictional punk group Spittle who refuse to play without their cocaine rider until Redfish goes apeshit and dumps them unceremoniously onto the stage. Roaming between band members with a menacing look in his eye, he keeps shoving the singer away from his mike stand in order to carry on a shouted conversation across the club with Lola – an exchange which proves so enthralling to the audience that the band improvises an on-the-spot accompaniment using their dialogue as the lyrics.
Making his performance debut under the band name Meat Loaf Soul in 1968, Meat Loaf made his pivotal breakthrough as part of the original L.A. Roxy cast of The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, leading to his reprisal of the role of Eddie in the 1975 movie. The year of the film’s release saw him begin work on debut album Bat Out of Hell (with supporting musicians including members of Utopia), whose release in 1977 made a permanent impression on the musical landscape. Although appearing in a wide variety of roles since then – both serious and not-so-serious – Roadie remains, as far as I’m aware, the only film in which he played the lead role. His final screen appearance was as one of the main cast of the Syfy Original paranormal action TV series Ghost Wars (2017-2018), appearing in 7 out of 13 episodes.
If you were to ask me to program a Meat Loaf double bill, my unquestioned – and completely unironic – choice would be… Spice World! No, wait, hear me out. Really. The most obvious connection between the two films is that in both films Meat Loaf plays a roadie – truck driver Travis W. Redfish in one, bus driver Dennis in the other (almost certainly a conscious homage). But there’s another link to one of Roadie‘s stranger plot elements, a part of B.B.’s backstory which is alluded to briefly in passing and then forgotten about entirely until it re-emerges in the final genre-bending scene. A plot element which, it could be argued, is also homaged in the Spice Girls’ own uncanny roadside encounter. True, Spice World owes more to A Hard Day’s Night (1964) than to Roadie… but I think pairing it with Roadie would be more fun.
Roadie is hardly a lost masterpiece – its sense of humour is wildly uneven and it relies on a core plot conceit which may be irredeemably compromised to some viewers. But the material which works holds up better than I expected and (to my mind) outbalances the less successful elements. Anybody with an affection for Meat Loaf, Blondie and/or Alice Cooper should find something here to entertain them – at least enough to justify a single viewing out of curiosity.