Cameron Crowe’s tenaciously entertaining rock memoir Almost Famous included some teenage groupies who insisted on being referred to as band aides and claimed they offered their bodies not so much to rock stars but “to the service of the music.” This perky valentine to the rock’n’roll lifestyle and roads hard-traveled painted a vivid if rather sanitized picture of the late 1960s and early 1970s rock milieu. It had plenty of heart, soul, wit and honest emotional resonance.
The Banger Sisters heavily references this same tumultuous era in rock as it catches up with two such backstage band rabbits in middle age, who have “rattled” numerous rock icons and have the Polaroids of penises to prove it. Writer-director Bob Dolman penned Ron Howard’s Far and Away and Willow and was an un-credited contributor to Oliver Stone’s The Doors. His sporadically funny but ultra clunky and shallow comedy-drama feels linked more to Howard’s TV sitcom roots (even though it is peppered with expletives and sex talk) than either Stone’s brazen biography or Crowe’s tinted memories.
The film gets its title from the nickname allegedly bestowed upon two infamously prolific groupies of the 1960s by Mothers of Invention co-founder Frank Zappa. The party girls have not had contact for more than 20 years. Suzette (Goldie Hawn) is stuck in the past. She’s still slinging drinks at the legendary Whisky a Go Go, apparently “rattling” a younger generation of Sunset Strip musicians and rebelling against the watering hole’s young manager. (“I’ve been drinking rum and coke since before he was born,” she snipes.) Vinnie (Susan Sarandon) has turned her back on her past. She has reinvented herself as society matron Lavinia, a Martha Stewart-like disciple who has an attorney husband with political aspirations, two teenage daughters and a posh home.
Suzette loses her job and, in a moment of nostalgia and monetary stress, decides to look up her former partner in promiscuity. The journey takes her to Phoenix with an obvious rising-from-the-ashes metaphor riding shotgun. Along the way, she picks up depressed screenwriter Harry (Geoffrey Rush), who has a gun in his manual typewriter case. Harry confides that he hasn’t had sex in 10 years and is on his way to kill his father. At road’s end, Suzette finds Vinnie chafed from her high-starch lifestyle and being taken for granted by husband Raymond. She then attempts to liberate everyone around her from their screwed-up lives.
The film’s casting is fine and has an odd pedigree. Hawn plays an aged (but not far from matured) and silicon-enhanced version of the band aide Penny Lane who Hawn’s real-life daughter Kate Hudson played in Almost Famous. And Sarandon plays mother to her real-life daughter Eva Amurri. All three actresses here are game players saddled with contrived plotting.
Traffic’s Erica Christensen gives the film some bite as eldest daughter Hannah, who parties like its 1969, but the script poorly explores her reckless hedonism in Boomerland. Rush makes one of the lamest entrances of the year as the rather prissy, neurotic Harry (he exits a cross-country bus complaining about two flies landing on his hand and copulating) and develops into more of a cartoon character than human being. The script also is propelled by coincidences (including Suzette bumping into an acid-addled Hannah at her hotel) that cheapen the story.
I didn’t care for The Banger Sisters as a whole, but some of it worked marvelously. Suzette’s comments on Harry’s obsessive behavior and associated bowel movements are a howl (“Harry, you may never shit again!”). Vinnie’s use of her car as a battering ram is a scream, and Raymond’s disorientation in discovering his wife’s checkered past is hilariously executed.
The Banger Sisters is about a clash of liberalism and conservatism. It’s about sacrificing the present to live in the past or for the future, fabricating or mythicizing one’s past to vindicate the present and losing track of one’s true self. One scene involves Suzette’s defense of the Whisky as a historical landmark. “Jim Morrison once passed out here, and I was underneath him,” she says. “Jim Morrison’s a ghost, and so are you,” replies her boss. Unfortunately, so is most of the meat of this story.