For all we complain about movie stars, when big-budget films are bad, it's usually due to dumb scripts or clumsy direction rather than poor performances. A matched set of 1990s indie rock 'n' roll road movies suggests how much acting counts for on film -- and how little it sometimes matters.
Half-Cocked and Radiation (both new on a single DVD) share a production concept. In Half-Cocked (1994), filmmakers Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky follow some artsy but aimless and dispirited college-age kids from Louisville, Ky., as they steal a van full of music gear and -- despite a complete lack of musical skills -- travel around posing as a band. Radiation (1998), set in Spain, has the same picaresque quality: A music promoter and small-time drug-dealer screws up and splits Madrid, hoping to recoup his losses by selling speed and marketing the talents of a raucous, middle-aged American female performance poet.
While both films are loosely scripted fictions, they're also documents, kinda. Hawley and Galinsky actually recruited twentysomethings to play characters masquerading as a band; Radiation's Unai is played by Jnai Fresnedo, a real-life promoter. Both movies were shot on 16 mm film, in no-budget guerilla conditions.
One appeal of Half-Cocked is its scruffy milieu and desultory storyline; shot in Jarmuschesque black-and-white, it's all diners, crash pads and dive clubs ("If you're all distorted and stuff, no one's going to be able to tell that you can't play"). But while you won't guess that its cast members are real-life pro musicians, you'll grasp almost instantly that they're not trained actors. There's that tell-tale self-consciousness, occasionally painful to watch.
Yet ultimately, it barely matters. Partly, that's because you just like these kids. But mostly, it's because of the beautiful direction. Half-Cocked is gorgeous, and even when the actors battle the dialogue, each emotionally packed framing and telling mise-en-scene provides all you need. (The soundtrack, with Freakwater, The Grifters and Codeine, isn't bad, either.)
Fresnedo, by contrast, is amazingly natural on camera, easily mistaken for a pro. Radiation, shot in color, follows a character on the older, desperate side of the rock 'n' roll hill, and he feels like just the guy to take you there.