Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who chronicled a too-young music journalist’s adventures in the semiautobiographical Almost Famous, makes his TV debut with another deep dive into the rock world: Roadies (Showtime, June 26, 10 p.m.), an hour-long music-comedy series that follows the crew of the fictional Staton-House Band on tour.
On the road, he found new ground in familiar territory. “People haven’t told this story,” says Crowe, whose fellow high-profile executive producers include his co-showrunner, Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life), and J.J. Abrams. “Every time I interviewed a roadie — the roadies were always this rich source of material — I loved that they wanted to help you enjoy their world, but they’re not the stars. They are the handmaidens. They are here to facilitate your love of music.”
Just because these makeshift communities of wanderlusty souls don’t get to shine on stage (except while assembling and taking it apart) doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of the spotlight (which they operate). You could say that there’s a role reversal of sorts in this show: The band is the invisible presence, as you never witness the Staton-House band performing, and its members are rarely seen. “It’s the drama of: Is tonight going to work out?” says Crowe. “You can see it in the relief on their faces at the end of every night. There’s no beer that ever tasted as good as the beer after your load-out. There is an ongoing drama about who’s tough enough to last here. These are all glorious loners who are hanging out with other loners and sharing this communal experience, knowing that they will not be together in two or three months. There’s a vital electricity that happens with people basically working on a circus. There’s a new trainer tonight — what’s going to happen? Is the elephant going to stomp on somebody?”
Meet your circus ringleaders: laidback, one-night-stand-prone tour manager Bill (Luke Wilson) and sharp, tenacious production manager Shelli (Carla Gugino), who have strongly diverging approaches to life but their jobs draw them closer. “Bill is the good-time guy with the crew, walking around talking about sports or the newest joke, and she’s the one with the paychecks and wanting to know where the petty cash receipts are,” says Wilson, whose research for the role included conversations with legendary manager Irving Azoff and tour managers for the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. “He’s able to kind of glide over those things.” Though Shelli is married to Taylor Swift’s tour manager, her dynamic with Bill has a spousal quality to it. “I’ve been wanting to write about marriage,” notes Crowe, “and I thought the best way to do it would be to write about a work marriage because they’re essentially going through all the things that people go through in a real marriage, except they can’t sleep together. So that’s a tension and a relief at the same time.” Adds Gugino: “I love that we get to explore that dynamic without it being literal. They’re two people who if they met each other online would never go out on a date. Yet when they’re together they couldn’t be happier, which is problematic because Shelli’s married.”
Bill and Shelli’s relationship isn’t the only complicated one: Take deep-thinking, big-dreaming, skateboarding electrician Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), who nearly quits her job in disillusionment, and her go-with-the-flow, puppy-dog brother Wes (Machine Gun Kelly), who joins the tour as a manny. ““It’s endlessly fascinating when two people who were raised in a similar environment turn out to be polar opposites,” says Poots. “There’s that contrast of real family versus family she’s created on the road. Are those two things compatible?”
Also throw into the mix a financial adviser (Rafe Spall) brought in to trim the budget, a frighteningly passionate road manager (Ron White), a seen-it-all bus driver (Luis Guzman), a sound mixer who doubles as an information nexus (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an accountant/aspiring comedian (Finesse Mitchell), stalkers, group hugs, and a slew of musical guest stars ranging from Jim James to Halsey to Lindsey Buckingham to Lucius. But don’t tune into this series looking for a parade of rock-star excess. “You will not see a show based on the glory of sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” says Crowe with a chuckle. “You’ll see parts of that, but really what you’re going to be seeing is a show about people and music. You won’t see somebody OD with a needle hanging out of their arm. There are so many other places you can see that.”
And there are many places on the emotional spectrum that Roadies will aim to take you. “It is really funny and it’s suspenseful, too,” says Gugino. “But it’s also got this ache — it’s got a little bit of heartache that to me is synonymous with living life, and it’s interesting to have a comedy with the underpinnings of this kind of heartache. I think that is something that is very signature Cameron Crowe, but also is something that when this story came my way I was like, ‘There’s no way this hasn’t been done already,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh, it’s because they’re waiting for Cameron Crowe.’” Adds Poots: “You could argue there’s a discursive nature to this show, about ‘What do you believe in?,’ which I find very interesting.”
Cast members are finding themselves in all kinds of surreal music moments with real-life rock stars. “We were filming in an arena in Anaheim — and I can’t tell you which one it was — but all of the cast that was there, we just sat in the bleachers and watched the show,” Gugino says. “I looked at Cameron and I was like, ‘You know you have a set that everybody loves what they’re doing when instead of being in their trailers on their phones, everyone’s just sitting there, watching the musical act perform and hanging out together, which is basically the nature of the show. We were actually living in the show, and that’s a real testament to Cameron Crowe’s magic.”
Wilson, meanwhile, gushes about the time that a certain six-string slinger from Fleetwood Mac showed up on stage to film a guest spot opposite him. “When Lindsey Buckingham picked up his guitar in a scene and started playing this instrumental — he’s just one of those guys, whether it’s The Edge or Jimmy Paige, where you think, ‘There are millions of people that play the guitar, but when this one guy plays it, you know it’s him’ — it took me back to my parents and being a kid and Rumors,” says Wilson. “I thought, ‘Okay, please don’t have tears in your eyes when you’re doing a scene with Lindsey Buckingham on his first day.’ That’s the power of music.”
This summer, Roadies hauls it out front and center, through the eyes of the unsung warriors.