A sort of Crazy Heart with Britpop substituting for country music, this achingly earnest drama from writer/director Marshall Lewy (Blue State) may not offer the soul-stirring music or Oscar-caliber performances of that critically lauded hit, though it does give talented lead Robert Carlyle the chance to get in the head of a tormented and complex character whose obsession with tragedy stems from a particularly dark chapter from his past. If only the role came off as a bit more sympathetic or vulnerable, the drama in California Solo would have really struck home. In attempting to save his dramatic payload for a major reveal at the opening of the third act, however, Lewy never quite achieves the right amount of momentum needed to connect us to Carlyle’s haunted character, making California Solo more an admirable sophomore effort than an outright success.
Back in the 1990s, British pop star Lachlan MacAldonich (Carlyle) was on top of the world. You could barely turn on a radio without hearing one of his hits, but these days Lachlan maintains a low profile by working on an organic farm in L.A., and reflecting on the untimely deaths of his favorite musicians in his podcast "Flame-Outs." One night, while driving back home following an evening of drinking at his favorite bar, Lachlan is arrested on a DUI charge. Because he already has a drug conviction, this new bust means Lachlan may face deportation unless he can convince the judge that his absence would have a negative impact on his family stateside. Desperate, Lachlan soon finds himself compelled to try and repair the failed relationships that have haunted him ever since his music career dried up and his star faded.
A versatile actor who’s proven himself adept at drama (Trainspotting), comedy (The Full Monty), and virtually everything in between (Ravenous, 28 Weeks Later), Carlyle has always possessed an on-camera intensity that makes even the most mundane character compulsively watchable. With his hard drinking and modest farm job, Lachlan MacAldonich certainly qualifies as prosaic, but it’s Carlyle’s ability to hint at a more complex past that helps to give Lewy’s lackadaisical screenplay a spark of life. Long before MacAldonich bares his soul on a liquor-fortified podcast, Carlyle’s strained expressions have already spoken volumes, and though the conceit of having a fan trying to drag him back into the spotlight feels contrived, Lewy continually surprises us by refusing to wallow or settle for simple melodrama. It’s a wise move that results in some quietly powerful moments throughout the film. Likewise, Lewy proves a fairly talented director when it comes to working with actors. He manages to build a convincing air of melancholy around MacAldonich, and he seems to instinctively know how other characters would respond to him as well. The scene in which MacAldonich meets his estranged teenage daughter for the first time in years is a prime example -- his former flame (Kathleen Wilhoite) effectively displaying a guarded optimism as their daughter visibly wavers between wonder and embarrassment. It’s an emotionally complex scene that could have easily come off as trite in the hands of a lesser storyteller, but Lewy manages to hit all the right emotional beats.
If only the music in California Solo were as convincing as the drama, perhaps the film would have come together more strongly than it does. Of course we can’t all have the great T. Rex penning original songs for our soundtracks, and while Lewy’s script effectively uses name-dropping to give MacAldonich’s story context, the songs we hear from both the protagonist and his “legendary” band aren’t entirely convincing. For a film so steeped in musical history it’s a shortcoming that’s difficult to overlook, though given the sincere efforts of songwriter Adam Franklin and star Carlyle, it’s also a fairly easy one to forgive. So while it’s true that tales of rock-and-roll redemption are as common as a power riff on classic rock radio, this one has just enough soul to stick with you for while, even if it feels more like an album cut than a smash hit. leave a comment --Jason Buchanan