After the pleasant surprise of Peter Mullan singing like a Glaswegian Mark Lanegan in the recent Sunshine On Leith, suddenly the idea of Robert Carlyle as an ex-guitarist in a once famous Britpop band is not such a stretch, if it was ever going to be that in the first place.
California Solo is an indie film from earlier this year which has ‘Made for the Sundance Festival’ written all over it. Carlyle is Lachlan MacAldonich, once of The Cranks, a band who sound like a This Is Music period Verve, and who were just about to make it big when tragedy struck. Lachlan’s older brother was also the main man in The Cranks (sound familiar?) and his untimely death from a drugs overdose stopped the band in their tracks.
When we meet Lachlan he is working on a farm growing and selling organic vegetables to the hipsters of LA. His life appears simple and uncomplex, apart from the odd bit of fan recognition, until he gets pulled over and charged for drink-driving after a night at his local. When added to a long forgotten charge for drug possession from the ’90s, he is looking at deportation back home to Scotland, which will mean he has to face up to his family, as well as his past.
This is a wee gem of a movie, reminding me in terms of tone of American indie favourites such as James Mangold’s Heavy and Hal Hartley’s Amateur. Carlyle is superb as the charming Lachlan, a man who continues to make mistakes and receive increasingly grudging forgiveness from those around him. His well of goodwill threatens to run dry. The situation he finds himself in is similar to that of Jeremiah Brown in James Kelman’s novel You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free, which would have made a great alternative title for California Solo, as both are about the purgatorial limbo people can find themselves in when stuck between two ‘homes’. Kafka couldn’t have come up with the hell that can result from US immigration laws, it seems.
There’s some good, strong, support here, particularly from Alexia Rasmussen as possible love interest ‘Beau’ and A Martinez as the long-suffering farm owner, ‘Warren’, who tries to keep Lachlan on the straight and narrow as his world is falling apart. And it’s always a delight to see Kathleen Wilhoite in a movie, who I first remember as singing barmaid ‘Carrie’ in the legendary Roadhouse. However, Carlyle is in almost every scene and you can’t take your eyes off him. He does cocky and confident, self-pity and selfish, drunk, disorderly and distraught, all with ease and just a hint of self-awareness. This is acting at its finest, and Carlyle’s performance rivals James McAvoy’s in Filth as the best from a Scottish actor this year.
The film looks and sounds amazing. Hats firmly off to the cinematographer James Laxton and director Marshall Lewy, as they display a palate of colours of which Michael Mann would have been proud. The music often references Ry Cooder’s work on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, but there are also some nice uses of classical music, as well as a welcome play for The Charlatan’s The Only One I Know. Even the music of ‘The Cranks’ sounds pretty good to me.
California Solo is a lo-fi treat, and is a reminder that good films can be simply yet beautifully made. It’s not without its faults; the podcast which Lachlan records to celebrate the careers of dead rock stars is a little on the obvious side, but then who am I to criticise someone who chooses to podcast from his own home? However, on the whole, things are kept subtle and underplayed, so that when real emotion does appear it has more impact than if the audience were being force fed it from the start. It certainly had an impact on me as it is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Here’s the trailer: