The Journal
of Religion and Film

Still Crazy:  An Unsung Homage
to the New Testament

by Mary Ann Beavis
St. Thomas More College

Vol. 8, No.2, October 2004

Still Crazy:  An Unsung Homage
to the New Testament

by Mary Ann Beavis
St. Thomas More College
 

Abstract

This article argues that the British rock-and-roll comedy Still Crazy (1998) is based on the New Testament similarly to the way that Clueless is related to Jane Austen's Emma, or The Legend of Bagger Vance is related to the Bhagavad Gita.  A detailed comparison of the characters, settings and incidents (as well as explicit references) in the film to elements in the New Testament and related Christian traditions is offered to support this thesis.  Thus, Still Crazy is of interest to scholars of religion and film, and is particularly useful for teaching purposes.

Article

[1] Still Crazy is a British rock-and roll comedy that attracted some acclaim when it appeared in 1998, netting two Golden Globe nominations 1 and winning two Evening Standard British Film Awards. 2  The reviews were mixed:  Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times) gave it three stars, calling it a "kinder, gentler version of 'This Is Spinal Tap'"; 3 Janet Maslin (New York Times) found it "drab," "tepid," and excessively "wistful"; 4 Edward Guthman (San Francisco Chronicle) called it "raucous and surprisingly touching"; 5 Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) remarked that while Still Crazy couldn't compete with the "better, brighter comedies" of 1998, it still rated as a "prime piece of entertainment." 6  Penned by veteran comic screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Commitments) and directed by Brian Gibson (What's Love Got To Do With It), the film was not surprisingly compared to other rock-and-roll movies like Spinal Tap (1984), The Commitments (1991), Velvet Goldmine (1998), and The Suburbans (1999), but also to The Full Monty (1997) for its nostalgic, uplifting, bittersweet quality. 7

[2] It will be argued below that an important aspect of the film that has been overlooked by its many reviewers, 8 including Christian and "family-friendly" reviews, 9 is that it is a sort of homage to the New Testament, 10 related to the Christian scriptures as Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) is to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, as Clueless is toAusten's Emma (1995), or, perhaps more aptly, as Billy Elliot (2000) evokes Hindu mythology, or as The Legend of Bagger Vance updates the Bhagavad Gita. 11 Throughout the film, characters, settings, incidents and explicit references evoke the story of Jesus and the early church in a playful, postmodern way that for the most part is irreverent without being blasphemous.  As such, it is of interest to scholars of religion and film, and a particularly useful addition to the repertoire of movies for analysis in "Bible and Film" courses. 12

Plot Summary

[3] History teaches us that men behave wisely once they've exhausted all other alternatives. For most rock bands, the pursuit of wisdom's a low priority, compared to fame, fortune and fornication. Such a band was Strange Fruit (Hughie, Still Crazy).

[4] So begins the tale of the fraught reunion of Strange Fruit, a successful '70s rock group whose flagging career came to an abrupt end at the Wisbech Rock Festival where they were struck by lightning while on stage.  Twenty years later, Tony (Stephen Rea), the band's former keyboardist, reduced to refilling condom machines in Ibiza, runs into the son of the Festival's promoter, who wants to organize a revival.  Tony seeks out Karen (Juliet Aubrey), a combination manager, den-mother and groupie to the band in its glory days, now a divorced single mum working in a public relations firm.  Together, Tony and Karen seek out the others:  the bass player Les (Jimmy Nail), now happily married but working as a roofer and hating it; lead singer Ray (Bill Nighy), a burnt-out recovering alcoholic married to a bossy and possessive Swedish model (Helene Bergstrom), bankrupt but playing out the rock star role in his Victorian mansion; and the flatulent drummer Beano (Timothy Spall), occupying a trailer on his mother's property and living in fear of an audit by the Inland Revenue.  When the band has a reunion meeting at a pub near a druids' circle, Karen sadly reveals that Brian Lovell, the lead guitarist, is missing and probably dead, like his brother Keith, the group's original lead singer.  Hughie (Billy Connelly), the band's boisterous former road-dog and the movie's narrator, also joins his old friends.

[5] Despite Brian's absence, the surviving band members decide to carry on, and hire a young, flashy guitarist named Luke (Hans Matheson) to replace Brian.  The Fruits are advised to go on a comeback tour of the Netherlands, which they do, with results that range from disastrous to encouraging. Gradually, the band regains their energy, sound and confidence, but the tour is marred by infighting between Les and Ray, Ray's relapse into addiction and an accident that nearly claims his life, followed by a temporary reconciliation.  After a highly successful concert in Antwerp, they are offered a record deal, but a final brawl in the studio between the band members brings rehearsals to a halt, and the members go back to their former lives.

[6] Shortly afterward, Karen and her daughter Clare (Rachel Stirling) visit the grave of Keith, where they find flowers and a note from Brian, who, Hughie later confirms, is emotionally fragile but alive after all, and quietly living in the sanitorium where he went for rehab.  Karen, still in love with ex-boyfriend Brian, and Tony, in unrequited love with Karen, seek him out, and persuade him to help bring the band back together for the big concert.

[7] The band manages to reunite in time for the Wisbech Festival, and despite residual bitterness between Les and Ray, Brian's last-minute decision not to go on stage, and Beano's temporary disappearance, they take the stage before an irritable crowd.  Ray's attempt at the first number falters, but when Tony begins to play Les's composition, "The Flame Still Burns," Les begins to sing, and is joined by Ray.  To everyone's delight, Brian ventures out on stage with his guitar, and Les, Ray and Brian sing the song together, as Karen apprehensively watches the sky threatening to storm.  This time, however, the lightning doesn't strike, and, according to the epilogue provided by narrator Hughie, Strange Fruit is a rousing success.

Theological Frame

[8] Still Crazy begins and ends with voiceovers by the omniscient narrator Hughie, who describes himself as having "an irresistible urge to chronicle human folly."  The prologue's reference to the band's preference for "fame, fortune and fornication" over "the pursuit of wisdom," at least to a biblical scholar, strikes a vaguely scriptural note (cf. Ps. 110:10; Prov. 9:10), as does the band's name, Strange Fruit. 13   Hughie goes on to speculate that in his opinion, the group came to grief because "God just got sick of all that seventies excess."  Hughie's final narration echoes the first:

I was wrong about God; turns out he likes that seventies stuff after all, so that it didn't piss down, and they played four encores.  And with the Almighty in their corner, who knows what might happen?  And how will the Fruits conspire to bollocks things up this time around?  We wait with bated breath!

Thus, the band's misadventures are represented as being under divine protection, to comic effect.

[9] The film is also bracketed by two explicitly identified "signs" that encourage the Fruits to carry on in the face of seeming disaster.  After the band learns of Brian's apparent death, they wander through a meadow outside the pub, and a boy herding a large flock of sheep appears over a hill.  The young shepherd is carrying a ghetto blaster playing the Fruits' hit "Tequila Mockingbird" - an apparition acclaimed by Tony as "a sign - a message from the gods of rock and roll!"  On the way to Antwerp after the row between Les and Ray and Ray's brush with death, the tour bus breaks down and the discouraged band is met on the road by two beautiful blond girls.  One is wearing her deceased dad's faded Strange Fruit T-shirt, and she tells them that her father thought the Fruits were the best group ever.  Tony proclaims that this meeting is another sign that the band should persevere; Ray adds, "Brian sent them ... thank you Brian!"

New Testament Characters and Roles

[10] Karen, a single mother and the departed Brian's former girlfriend, is both a Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene figure.  She first appears riding down a long escalator (as, in Catholic lore, Mary periodically descends from heaven to rescue the faithful), wearing a blue shirt and tie.  In Catholic religious art, blue is a colour that has been associated with the Virgin Mary since the twelfth century, 14 and throughout the movie, Karen often wears a blue scarf or other blue garment.  Other classic Marian tableaux are a scene of Karen cradling her sleeping daughter on the tour bus (Madonna and Child), and a flashback to the young Karen embracing an unconscious Brian (Pietà). In the poignant scene where she, like Mary Magdalene, goes to meet her beloved Brian who is alive after all, the blue scarf reaches down below her knees, like a priestly stole. 15 The meeting between Karen and Brian in the garden of the santorium where he is working as a gardener is reminiscent of the encounter between the Magdalene and the resurrected Jesus in John 11:11-18.  When Karen first catches sight of her beloved (cf. John 11:14-15), transformed by age and his battle with addiction, he is kneeling among the standing stones of a rock garden, recalling Mary Magdalene's visit to the empty tomb. 16 As she and Tony leave the sanitorium, Karen reprises the Madonna role when, still wearing her long, blue scarf, she breaks into tears (Mater Dolorosa).  In the final concert scene, as lightening appears in the sky and the clouds threaten to burst, Karen shows her special relationship to the divine by addressing the heavens with an affectionate "Don't you dare!"

[11] Tony, the keyboardist, plays the role of the Beloved Disciple among the band members.  He is frequently paired with Karen (cf. John 19:25-27, where Jesus exhorts the Disciple to adopt Mary as his mother), and is chastely in love with her (at one point, he assures her that he is living in "a profound state of celibacy").  Together with Karen, he brings the band back together, alternatively exhorting, encouraging and coddling the other band members.  It is Tony whom Karen sends to comfort Ray after their first, unsuccessful concert in Holland; in the awkwardly touching scene, the two middle-aged men express their love for each other, with a cross on a wall-mounted medical box hovering in the background.  Throughout the film, Tony wears a cross around his neck.

[12] The perennially bickering Les and Ray are the Peter and Paul figures of the piece.  Working-class Les is an original member of the band, devoted to Brian and his brother Keith, the former lead singer, and to the straight-ahead rock-and-roll style of his idols.  After one of Les's fights with Ray, Tony scolds, "You know what your problem is, man - you see yourself as the keeper of the fucking flame - for all these reasons your anger - Ray's style, Ray's taste, Ray's lyrics . . ."  Ray, an upper-class wannabe, joined the Fruits as a replacement for Keith, whom he never met.  Ray's Glam Rock persona is radically different from Keith's; he deals with his addictions with a combination of AA meetings and New Age spirituality.  He is repeatedly shown posing in front of lavatory mirrors in increasingly outrageous costumes, nervously reassuring himself that he's "The Man." 

[13] The comparison between Peter and Paul is patent.  Peter the fisherman, personally called by Jesus, Rock of the Church (Matt. 15:18), and hero of Jewish Christianity, championed adherence to the Law and, according to Paul's account in Galatians, found it difficult to deal with the Gentile form of Christianity heralded by his colleague (Gal 2:11-14).   Paul, an educated, urban, Hellenistic Jew, never met Jesus in the flesh, preached a new version of the gospel, and encountered the exalted Christ in visions experienced throughout his career (Gal 1:12, 22; 2 Cor 12:1-4).  One bitter argument between Les and Ray echoes the spat between the two Apostles in Antioch:  "But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; . . . I said to Cephas before them all, 'If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (Gal 2:11, 14):

RAY:  I know what you're up to, Les, I've known it since day one, I feel your eyes on my back every time you go on the stage.  Why can't you just get your notes right and remember the fucking lyrics?

LES:  I hate your fucking lyrics!

 

RAY:  Oh, they're not meaningful poetry like Brian's, right?

 

LES:  For him the music was enough, before the hair and the limos . . .

 

RAY:  All I remember about Brian is missed cues, missed gigs, his brother died in a little shed - you worshipped the ground he vomited on.  It's not because they're great, it's because they're dead.  Maybe if I was dead I'd get more respect.

 

LES:  It would be a start!

[14] After the fight, which takes place on his dreaded fiftieth birthday, the depressed Ray stumbles out into the street, and hesitantly accepts a drug hit from a dealer lurking in a doorway.  At the end of a tree-lined road, he walks out onto an icy canal, which cracks under his weight.  Before he is rescued by Karen's daughter, he is submerged in the water, where he has a vision, which he later relates to a contrite (and sceptical) Les:  "You should know this - last night, as the icy waters closed over me, I saw Brian . . . he was sending a message, and the message was positive, man!"  Ray's near-death experience (a sort of baptism and resurrection) belies Hughie's disgruntled pronouncement that "People don't change; there's no blinding flash on the Road to Damascus" (cf. Acts 9:1-6).  Ray has a second mock-visionary encounter when, meditating in the lotus position on a riverbank near his estate, he opens his eyes to see Brian, whom he doesn't yet know is alive:  "I can see you Brian, so clearly . . . do you have a message?"

[15] Brian, clearly the Christ figure of the piece, appears both in flashbacks as a charismatic young musician, and, after his appearance to Karen, as a thin, gentle, dreamy-eyed middle-aged man with shoulder-length hair.  The damaged, frangible Brian is portrayed in the mould of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), "bruised for our iniquities" (Isa 53:5; cf. 42:3).  As Ray and Tony observe, Brian "was fragile . . . and we crushed him."  Later, the roadie explains explains to Karen that he knew Brian was alive, but was afraid to expose him to the other band members.  At a news conference before the Wisbech concert, when Beano jokes that he's "Posh Fruit," a reporter wounds Brian when she tactlessly asks him if he's "bruised fruit."

[16] Beano is Still Crazy's Judas figure.  A comic character, Beano is nicknamed for the malodorous farts for which he is famous (cf. the tradition in Acts 1:18 that Judas bought a field with his ill-gotten gain, where he fell over and "burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out"). 17   Ray describes the vulgar, jocular Beano as a spiritual and emotional "flatliner," who hasn't developed as a person in twenty years.  Just before the Wisbech concert, a drunken Beano "betrays" the band with a cranky TV interview, much to the band's dismay.  Throughout the film, he is pursued by a sinister woman in black (the film's Satan figure; cf. Luke 22:3; John 13:27), whom he fears is an income tax inspector.  During the pre-Wisbech news conference, the film's Last Supper scene, 18 Beano spots the woman among the reporters, and flees the table in a panic (cf. John 13:27-30).  The mystery woman turns out to be an obsessed fan whose Methodist father forbade her ever to go to another rock concert after her first exposure to Strange Fruit; she and Beano share a sexual moment that constitutes the film's (admittedly rather tasteless) crucifixion scene.

[17] Perhaps to avoid telegraphing the New Testament subtext of the film too overtly, the names of the characters generally do not echo those of their biblical archetypes.  Two exceptions are Luke, the youthful guitarist hired to give the band a younger sound, as the evangelist by that name, a Christian of a new generation, updated the gospel with a Hellenistic flair.  More subtly, the Christ-figure's name is Brian, perhaps alluding to another Gospel takeoff, Monty Python's Life of Brian. 19

Other New Testament Elements

[18] Apart from those discussed above, many other references, incidents and settings resonate with early Christian history.  Before she quits her job to devote herself to the band, Karen is told by a colleague that a group of Mitsubishi delegates she is responsible for are wandering about "like lost sheep" (Luke 15:3-7). 20 In Ray's first scene, he is hosting his daughter's wedding, where he recites (to the mild dismay of the wedding guests) a love poem of his own composition (much as Paul's famous hymn to love in 1 Cor 13 is regularly read at Christian weddings).  Tony carries a sacred relic - the tooth of rock legend Jimi Hendrix - to cash in should an emergency arise.  Hughie observes that Ray and Les singing together is a miracle tantamount to the Immaculate Conception. 21 Rather than making their comeback tour in the U.K., the Fruits are sent to Europe to stage a revival - to the strains of their hit "All Over the World" (cf. the Great Commission [Matt. 28:19]).  In Groningen, the Fruits serve as a warm-up act for a band called the Blind Fish (like the early Christian ichthys symbol, which looks like an eyeless fish).22

[19] Churches frequently figure as settings in Still Crazy.  Tony's initial meeting with Les takes place atop a church; Tony leans against a large rooftop cross as he invites Les to return to the band.  At the wedding, Ray takes Karen and Tony to the chapel on his Victorian estate to discuss the reunion scheme.23 When the Fruits regroup for a rehearsal, they practice in a church hall.  Before the tour, Ray pointedly confides in Karen that he'll need to go to a "meeting" (of Alcoholics Anonymous); in a later scene, Ray mistakes an Overeaters Anonymous gathering (held in a church) for AA.  His mistake is only revealed as he begins his testimony to the assembled brothers and sisters.

[20] The Wisbech concert is Still Crazy's Pentecost scene (Acts 2:1-4).24 After a false start, Les and Ray begin singing together, sharing a microphone in a pose reminiscent of Orthodox icons of Sts. Peter and Paul.25 As the departed Brian returns to the stage, Ray kneels down before him and clasps his hands in an attitude of worship.  When the frail, wispy Brian takes his place with the other two singers in a Trinitarian tableau, fire descends from the heavens in the form of lightning to the strains of Les's biblically evocative composition "The Flame Still Burns"26 as Karen looks up and familiarly addresses the heavens.

Conclusion

[21] The number, detail and subtlety of the New Testament allusions in Still Crazy make it clear that they are deliberate, knowledgeable and ingenious.  Thus, the film is an unusual, interesting and so-far unheralded example of the pervasiveness of the bible's influence on western culture, and a very useful and illuminating addition to a bible and film course. The failure of its many reviewers (including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; see n. 9) to notice the scriptural underpinning of the film illustrates the widespread biblical illiteracy described by pollster George Gallup in The Next American Spirituality and decried by church leaders.27

[22] For some viewers, recognizing the implicit comparison of the Fruits to Jesus and the disciples may make Still Crazy more meaningful.  Others, like some of Christian reviewers referred to above, may find the film even more offensive for its ingenious and lighthearted midrash on the sacred text.  However, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the biblical subtext will enhance their enjoyment and appreciation of this film about friendship, reconciliation and recaptured dreams.

Grouped Notes

FILM CREDITS
Billy Elliot Bridget Jones' Diary
Clueless The Commitments
Emma The Full Monty
The Legend of Bagger Vance Monty Python's Life of Brian
Still Crazy The Suburbans
This is Spinal Tap Velvet Goldmine
What's Love Got To Do With It


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