'The Independents': Film Review | Santa Barbara 2018

Courtesy of RGB Films
Charming musical drama hits unexpected notes.

Folk rock group The Sweet Remains headlines this musical road movie, with cameos from Tony winners James Naughton and Kelli O'Hara.

An extremely engaging film showcased at this year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival, The Independents, a character drama with music, deserves to find an audience beyond the festival circuit. Greg Naughton, the writer-director and also one of the movie’s three stars, has an impressive musical theater pedigree. His father, actor James Naughton, is a two-time Tony winner, and his wife, Kelli O’Hara, is also a Tony winner. O’Hara and the elder Naughton have cameo roles in the film, but the movie really depends on the three leading actors — Rich Price and Brian Chartrand in addition to Greg Naughton — who form a folk rock trio.  Offscreen, these three belong to singing group The Sweet Remains, and although the film isn’t literally their story, it obviously has some parallels to their lives.

The movie begins with Rich, a New York graduate student who is struggling with his dissertation while secretly hoping for a career as a singer. Inspiration literally comes from above when he is almost hit by a falling branch, courtesy of tree trimmer Greg. They discover that they share a love of music and begin writing songs together in the latter’s rundown van. On an impulse, they decide to enter a folk music festival in Ohio. On the road, they pick up a scruffy hitchhiker, Brian, who looks slightly dangerous but turns out to be another aspiring musician. So they set out together for the festival. When they perform in a club along the way, a Los Angeles record promoter (expertly played by comedian Richard Kind) happens to be in the audience and offers them a chance at a musical career. But things do not unfold exactly as expected.

In fact, the best thing about the movie is the way in which it subverts all the clichés of the star-is-born story. Greg does not reconcile with his ex-wife. Their big concert gig hits some unpredictable but amusing snags. And yet the three accidental collaborators affirm their friendship and love of music in an ending that proves there are plenty of offbeat ways to satisfy audiences without hewing to formula. Naughton deserves credit for an unconventional, sharply written script.

He is clearly the most experienced and adept of the three leads. Price is probably the main character in the story, but he’s not quite a strong enough presence to hold the film together.  On the other hand, Chartrand, playing the most entertainingly unstable character, delivers most of the laughs. In one hilarious scene, he gets into a furious argument with a cop (smoothly played by James Naughton) who stops them because of their unconventional van. Brian’s uncontrolled, anti-establishment fury is hilariously observed and performed. 

The film also has a nice sense of atmosphere. New York locales and rural settings are equally well caught by cinematographer Piero Basso. There are also some scenes in Los Angeles, which were obviously filmed some time ago, because a billboard in Hollywood advertises The Martian from 2015. Greg Naughton explained at the Santa Barbara screening that they actually shot over a period of years, in between their musical gigs and as they struggled to secure financing. Yet these setbacks rarely show up onscreen. The songs are smoothly integrated into the story, but the film’s main virtue is the warmth it shows toward the three main characters and their sometimes desperate dreams.

Cast: Rich Price, Greg Naughton, Brian Chartrand, Boyd Gaines, Kelli O’Hara, James Naughton, Richard Kind

Director-screenwriter-producer: Greg Naughton

Executive producers: Robert N. Downey, Richard Sorenson

Cinematographer: Piero Basso

Production designer: James Bartol

Costume designer: Veronica Jay Clay

Editor: Jon Vesey

Music: The Sweet Remains

No rating, 96 minutes