As a character study, time capsule and rock drama, Paul Schrader's sixth directorial endeavor is a modest success, though not without its faults. Set in an unsightly Cleveland suburb, its subject is The Barbusters, a popular local band fronted by a talented, dissolute single mother and her responsible, long-suffering brother. This act's veracity is sustained by its popular cast of genuine musicians: Joan Jett on vox and rhythm, Michael J. Fox playing lead and bassist Michael McKean, only a few years removed from Spinal Tap!
Jett's unschooled conviction cements her sole lead role as dedicated performer and wayward parent. Channeling the sneering potency of her onstage persona to theatrical discourse, hers is one of too few instances in which a popular musician has proven adept as a screen actor. As her sibling, conscience and substitute parent, Fox's character is pushed too far as the custodian of her transgressions. That Fox was so often relegated to the undemanding banality of conventional comedies is regrettable; here, as in too few other instances, his capacity for understated desperation and palpable vulnerability is tremendously moving. However, Gena Rowlands eclipses her juniors remarkably as their embittered, deteriorating, justifiably frustrated mother - no surprise to any admirer of the film veteran who recognizes her as one of America's most accomplished living actresses. Despite his brief screen time, Jason Miller provides this fractured family's taciturn patriarch some chagrined profundity.
Schrader utilizes his cast's enormous charisma to great effect without sacrificing their plausibility as working-class folk. However, both his skillful direction and intelligent script are compromised by a plodding, uneven pace that very nearly undermines the entire production. Wisely avoiding stock rock clichés concerning narcotics and career arcs, Schrader again stretched a good story too thin and slowed its momentum interminably in compensation - an inexplicable bad habit of a man who's otherwise proven himself a master screenwriter. Nonetheless, his exhibition of musicianship as a means for developmentally stunted adults to shirk responsibilities and pervert healthy enthusiasm to egoistic obsession is admirable.
Situated betwixt biopics of Yukio Mishima and Patty Hearst in Schrader's oeuvre, this is one of several films that revealed him a filmmaker of tremendous versatility in the 1980s. For fans of Fox and Jett before the former fell afflicted to Parkinson's disease and the latter lost herself to numerous ill-advised reinventions, this is a substantial treat. It's also highly recommended for a double-bill viewing paired with Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, in which many of this movie's themes are explored with greater severity.