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Defacing the Music 

Sugar Town pulls the plug on showbiz excess.

Trust Allison Anders and her old running mate Kurt Voss to come up with a piquant, carefully observed movie about tarnished hope, overfed vanity, and half-baked scheming on the treacherous L.A. music scene. They know the territory. In 1988, the ex-UCLA Film School classmates wrote and directed Border Radio, one of the few good movies set in the world of punk rock, on a budget that wouldn't have kept Kurt Cobain in heroin for a week. Three years ago, Anders directed Grace of My Heart, exploring pop songwriters of the '60s.

In Sugar Town, Anders and Voss have sharpened their daggers and broadened their sympathies -- no easy trick. The has-been rockers, whorish wannabes, and wasted burnouts we meet here may be targets of satire, but the filmmakers, older and wiser now, don't mind cutting their characters some slack: Even forty-year-olds can learn to grow up.

Sugar Town's tunes are terrific, and the writing is sharp. But the typecasting is a work of genius. John Doe, whose '70s band X helped launch alternative rock, shows up here as Carl, an aging guitarist who has exchanged the dangerous life for three kids, a perennially pregnant wife (Lucinda Jenney), and a barnyard full of pigs. It's abundantly clear that Doe has lived a few of his lyrics, and when he talks about drug rehab, you can't help but listen.

Duran Duran's John Taylor, who has also been around the block a couple of times, is another fallen star, called Clive, who, back in 1982, was on 46 magazine covers. Today, Clive's plotting comeback schemes and signing the occasional autograph at his front door. Meanwhile, his thirtysomething actress wife, Eva (Rosanna Arquette), is properly outraged at her predicament: "They want me to play Christina Ricci's mother!"

Michael Des Barres, a survivor of vanished bands such as Detective and Power Station, is Nick, a vain, old glam rocker who's still putting on eyeliner and chasing teenyboppers -- until he's enlisted in a plan to seduce a case-hardened backer (Beverly D'Angelo) for a revival group. Talk about verisimilitude: Des Barres sounds as if he wrote his dialogue himself. Maybe he did.

The big ensemble cast is further enriched by Jade Gordon as Gwen, a ruthless young go-getter who demands that her junkie songwriter come up with "a sensitive ballad about rape," and Ally Sheedy as Liz, a rudderless production designer who's shopping (with hilarious results) for new-age romance. Larry Klein, a guitarist and record producer off-screen, portrays a down-at-the-heels producer named Burt who never loses sight of the main chance. He's the perfect counterpart to Gordon's Gwen: Two minutes in a car with her, and his pants are around his ankles.

Anders and Voss ably juggle a half-dozen loosely linked stories, Nashville-style, spiking them all with dark wit and surprising tenderness. When Clive and Eva find an ornery love child with the unlikely name of Nirvana (Vincent Berry) on the doorstep, their pursuit of fame is slowly transformed into faith in family. Forced into bed with a woman his own age, Nick finally glimpses the difference between youth and experience. Back on the road with a horny Latina singer (Lumi Cavazos), Carl grasps the value of what he's left at home. Even trendy Liz, whose every first date is a disaster, gets satisfaction of a sort -- in karate class.

While taking a major potshot at the bitch goddess Success, this exceptionally witty film merrily skewers personal trainers, instant religion, new-age psychobabble, and showbiz excess. And its general view of Los Angeles is a little like Noel Coward's: "There is always something so delightfully real about what's phony here, and something so phony about what is real." But there's a bedrock of affection beneath the jibes: Anders and Voss may smash icons with relish, but they're careful to pick up the pieces.


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