In the press notes for California Solo, writer-director Marshall Lewy defines “FEAR” as an acronym that can mean either: “fuck everything and run” or “face everything and recover.” Perhaps, more than anything, that is the underlying theme of his new movie. The movie, which stars Robert Carlyle in a mesmerizing performance as a faded former Britpop rocker haunted by his past, opens November 30 in New York at the Quad Cinema, in Los Angeles December 7 at the Nuart, and wider after that.
I’d seen California Solo earlier this year at the small, but growing Chicago Independent Movie and Music Festival (Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh sits on its board), but the venue was not ideal for experiencing the film (the sound system, particularly was inadequate). The wider release after premiering as an Official Selection at Sundance earlier this year provided me the opportunity to take another (and deeper) look, at the movie.
When we meet the movie’s central character Lachlan MacAldonich, whom Carlyle infuses with equal portions of self-loathing and charm, he is living a comfortably numb existence. “And,” according to Lewy, suddenly that path no longer works for him. “The movie is really about acceptance,” of that, he told me during a phone interview last week. That concept of “FEAR,” the journey from one understanding of it to the other is at the heart of the film. “I don’t know that I knew that when I started, at least consciously,” he told me. “But by the time we got to the editing process, that was really the word that stuck in my head. And I think that facing your fear is a lot, very much that journey of acceptance.” In a way, we are dropped into Lachlan’s life in the middle of a (very) dark night of the soul.
Carlyle is perfectly cast as Lachlan, the Scottish former lead guitarist in a “big deal” ‘90s British rock band, the Cranks. The band’s real “big deal” was Lachlan’s older brother, the Cranks lead singer Jed, who died tragically of a drug overdose years earlier in L.A.
By night, Lachlan hosts a rather morbid podcast called Flameouts, honoring the world’s great musicians, tragically dead before their time: from T-Rex’s Marc Bolan, to that most tragic of composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But, the one flameout Lachlan’s not yet profiled is Jed; the memory of his brother’s death is still too keen and raw, even more than a decade later, as Lachlan feels responsible (with good reason) for the overdose that killed him.
Since Jed’s death, Lachlan hasn’t been home to the U.K.—never faced family, friends, and fans. Nor really himself. Now an expat with a green card, in this self-imposed exile, hiding from his past and himself in Antelope Valley, California, Lachlan works on an organic farm owned by Warren (A Martinez in a gentle, sympathetic performance as Lachlan’s patient boss).
That “comfortably numb” existence, and a steady diet of beer and Scotch, seems to be the only way Lachlan can live with himself, getting drunk nightly alone in his tiny hovel of a home or at the local bar. On one such night, Lachlan is pulled over and charged with a DUI; his problems are only just beginning.
A barely-remembered marijuana possession charge from years earlier threatens him with deportation unless he can prove himself valuable to someone—anyone—who is a U.S. citizen. As Lachlan confesses, “I can’t think of anyone who would give a toss whether I’m here or not.”, Lachlan reluctantly turns to his estranged ex-wife Catherine (Kathleen Wilhoite) and daughter Arianwen (Savannah Lathem)—whom he hasn’t seen since she was three years old—as his last desperate hope against facing the music back home. It’s a tricky path for him to take, full of emotional landmines, and, ultimately, there are no easy answers for him.
There is also an ongoing flirtation between Lachlan and Beau, a farmer’s market customer. It would have been easy to take the relationship to its logical end and land them in bed. But it really rings true that it doesn’t wind up that way. Lachlan is clearly so screwed up at this point and so self-destructive at this point, it’s hard to imagine him pursuing it, even though he might desire it. It’s an interesting narrative choice, but it makes a lot of sense, even though it might contradict conventional wisdom (and frustrate those of us more romantic souls).
“Yeah, you know, it’s interesting,” noted Lewy. “I had a couple of screenings last week and that question came up: why don’t they get together. Throughout the film I tried to go in a different direction than you might expect in terms of the path that he’s on.” Lewy also feels that Beau “doesn’t really see him that way. And she never does. She’s intrigued by him; she likes the attention that he is giving her. But that’s not really the direction that the relationship is going to go.”
And in the end, as well, the film’s resolution doesn’t necessarily go where the audience might expect either. There are no neat bows to tie up the shattered remains of Lachlan’s life, yet it’s not completely bleak. There are no pat answers; it’s a hopeful, yet truthful. Lewy leaves filmgoers with “some sense that he’s evolving and that he is going to go face his past.”
But the final scene may be read as slightly ambiguous, although the director didn’t necessarily intend it that way. The final shot of the film has Lachlan cuts off prematurely and abruptly. “We had a camera error and the shot went black at that moment that the film cuts. We kept that as the final cut of the film.” When Lewy showed the final cut to Carlyle, the actor thought perhaps his expression made the ending ambiguous (Unfortunately, I can’t spoil the end of the movie to say how it actually plays out, or what’s ambiguous about it.) However you read the ending, it makes for an interesting segue into the next phase of Lachlan’s journey. “It’s almost like and now the story begins,” Lewy observed.
California Solo, more than anything, is a carefully drawn character study of a middle-aged man stuck in a 15-year old nightmare much of his own making. To say that Robert Carlyle’s performance is stunning is not hyperbole; it’s simple fact. He’s in nearly every frame of the 97-minute film; we can’t avoid getting pulled into the chaos of his life. One moment, we feel terrible for him; at another, we want to shake him and tell him to grow up, for heaven’s sake!
We want him to find some peace, even as he refuses it in a self-destructive downward spiral intensified by his current problems with immigration. And whether he is wallowing in a drunken stupor of self-pity, raging about his immigration situation, shyly and ineffectively courting a beautiful young woman, or trying to reconnect with a daughter he barely knows, it’s all there played out behind Carlyle’s soulful eyes. He hits every emotional beat true and natural in a brilliant performance.
The actor always manages to find the humanity and vulnerability in every character he plays, but California Solo gives Carlyle the opportunity to exhibit the full range of his mastery. He doesn’t miss a beat; none of it feels forced. It is gorgeous, naturalistic acting at its finest.
Lewy wrote the script for California Solo with Carlyle’s voice firmly in his head. “Obviously he is well-known for playing some pretty vicious villains, some pretty intense characters. On the other hand, he has played many very sweet characters,” Lewy observed. “And likable and very charming characters,” he continued, adding that they filmed the movie just as Carlyle was about to start shooting Once Upon a Time, on which that duality is very much a part of his role in the hit ABC series. (He plays Rumplestiltskin.)
Lewy explained that he “thought it would be interesting to try to roll those two sides of Carlyle into one character and have him be a charming guy where he can feel that sort of inner fire, that inner anger lurking underneath and it pops up just a few times.”
I wondered if there had been a role that particularly inspired Lewy as he was writing. What came to mind was director Ken Loach’s 1996 film Carla’s Song, in which Carlyle plays George, a sweet Glasgow bus driver, but who also possesses a fiery edge that exists just below the surface. “He has that sweetness [in Carla’s Song] that he has in this character as well. That’s really, I think, what made me think of him above anyone else.”
Lewy found a real collaborator in Robert Carlyle. “He was pretty amazing. It was a real collaboration because he brought a lot to the part. First of all knows a lot of the guys the character is kind of based on.”
In fact, the metal bracelet Carlyle wears as Lachlan was a gift from close friend Paul Weller of iconic British band The Jam. “Carlyle also knew the Gallaghers from Oasis, and he drew on that a bit.” Like Lachlan’s band The Cranks, Oasis also was a band with two brothers, Liam and Noel, “Which,” added Lewy, “can be a volatile thing.”
“The shirts Lachlan wears in the movie are also Carlyle’s—what he would wear, buttoned up to the neck, at that time when he would hang out with these guys. He was obviously coming into his fame at the same time as they were.” Lewy added, “So those were little touches he really brought to the character—that I kind of banked on him doing. You know, I kind of hoped that’s what would happen.”
Carlyle is famous, not only for a total commitment to his roles, but also for using improvisation as a way of keeping his characters “in the moment.” Having worked extensively both in improvisational theatre, and with several directors legendary for working that way, including Loach (Riff Raff, and the aforementioned Carla’s Song) and Dominic Savage (the BBC’s Born Equal), among others, I was curious about how much Carlyle improvised around the script.
Lewy told me that yes, there was “a lot of improvisation, especially in the scenes between Lachlan and Beau (Alexia Rasmussen).” Noting the “great rapport” between the two actors, the director added that, “sometimes you’ll see movies where young [actors] are improvising. They don’t know how to do it the way that doesn’t feel like people making up dialogue.”
The director was delighted with the scenes between Alexia and Carlyle, which “come off very natural. He is just incredible at it. And you can tell he’s done this with the master, with Ken Loach.”
Although California Solo has a fairly straightforward plot, the film doesn’t generally take the expected route to navigate it. “I’ve got all these Mexicans working for me, and the Scottish guy gets into trouble with immigration,” observes Warren in one scene, noting the irony of Lachlan’s predicament. But placing the former British rocker on a farm is an interesting angle in the first place, but it works. What better place to hide from everyone and everything, but on a small organic farm? It’s the diametric opposite of Lachlan’s former life in the limelight, a life he is extremely reticent to discuss.
“I think I first had the idea of a guy like that working at the farmer’s market,” Lewy told me. “So then it kind of followed that he would work on a farm. And then it would kind of follow that he is now in his mid-forties or late forties that he would have been around during the great Britpop era.” The immigration story provided the structure.
“So there’s all these different strands woven together. The way the whole movie came together was just sort of a bunch of different strands coalescing around this one character of Lachlan who was pretty much where it started.”
Ultimately, California Solo should be appreciated for the beautiful character study it is at its core, and the exquisite, heartbreaking performance of its lead actor. Not a huge, raucous rock movie, but rather a melancholy and not-too-sweet ballad of a film.
California Solo is playing in New York at the Quad Cinema, and opens December 7 in L.A. at the Nuart, and in San Diego, San Francisco and other cities shortly thereafter.
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