“Sugar Town,” a light, wry take on the slippery slopes of the local contemporary music scene, reunites Allison Anders and Kurt Voss, who with cinematographer Dean Lent made “Border Radio,” a gritty 1988 gem that exuded an engaging aura of authenticity in depicting the dicey existence of a group of rock musicians living on the margins. Not nearly so persuasive or probing, “Sugar Town” is diverting and sometimes humorous but sticks to the superficial as it introduces us to a large number of interconnected characters. “Sugar Town” offers a number of accomplished performances but is finally not distinctive enough to make much of an impression.
The intricate plot’s linchpin characters are deftly drawn by Rosanna Arquette and Ally Sheedy. Arquette is Eva, a fading B-picture starlet married to John Taylor’s Clive, described as a “rock god of the ‘80s” who hasn’t had a hit in years. Sheedy’s Liz is Eva’s close friend, a production designer eager for romance. Clive at last has a prospect when hotshot record producer Burt (Larry Klein, who also composed the film’s serviceable score) plans to team Clive with Nick (Michael Des Barres) and Jonesy (Martin Kemp), two more survivors from the ‘80s in equally desperate need of a comeback.
Eva tries fixing Liz up with Burt, but she has unwittingly also passed on to her as a housekeeper Gwen (Jade Gordon), a rock star wannabe whose ambition and total lack of scruples leave “All About Eve’s” Eve Harrington at the starting gate.
Meanwhile, another rock musician, Carl (John Doe), signs up to go on the road with Lumi Cavazos’ sexy singer Rocio, leaving his eight-months'-pregnant wife, Kate (Lucinda Jenney), at home with their three small children--and his brother Rick (Richmond Arquette), who’s fresh out of rehab. Other key figures are Beverly D’Angelo’s rich, hard-as-nails Jane, who will back the comeback album provided the dashing, silver-haired Nick will come across sexually, and Chris Mulkey’s Aaron, a health-food store clerk whom Liz rejects when she learns he’s an actor eager to use her contacts; ironically, he’s not nearly as bad a person as Gwen, whose deliberately disastrous advice Liz takes unquestioningly.
Everyone is now in place to set in motion a lot of developments, many of them foolish, some improbable, others truly nasty and some providential. “Sugar Town” works best when viewed as a comment on people who don’t have a whole lot going for them anymore, those who may have had just enough of what it takes to have a moment in the spotlight and then are left to cope with the rest of their lives with not much in the way of resources, financial or otherwise. By the end of the film, however, you feel that at least Eva and Nick have matured.
Anders and Voss cannot be accused of making things easy for themselves. They’ve created a gallery of individuals (most of whom are deftly drawn by the ensemble cast) who are either none too bright, unlikable or both. Carl and Kate are by far the most appealing individuals in the film, but both seem inordinately vulnerable to serious lapses in judgment. The bottom line, though, is that if you are going to create characters who are not all that special, then you face the challenge of making them interesting anyway. Since it’s tough to become very involved with the people of “Sugar Town,” the film is likely to be as forgotten as its has-been rock stars.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language, some drug content and sexuality. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.
Rosanna Arquette: Eva
Ally Sheedy: Liz
John Doe: Carl
John Taylor: Clive
A USA Films/October Films release. Writers-directors Allison Anders and Kurt Voss. Producer Daniel Hassid. Cinematographer Kristian Bernier. Editor Chris Figler. Music Larry Klein. Costumes Anita Cabada. Production designer Alyssa Coppelman. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
At selected theaters.