As I began watching the documentary The Front Man I thought I knew exactly where it was going. It starts as a pretty standard portrait of a wannabe rock star who missed his shot at a music career but still clings to hopes of fame and fortune. To my pleasant surprise I found myself slowly become invested in these people, as the film became a decades spanning, nearly epic meditation on the meaning of success.
Jim Wood formed his band, the Loaded Poets, with some high school buddies with dreams of rock 'n' roll stardom. When we meet Jim the Loaded Poets have been together for nearly twenty years but seem relegated to playing at parties and dive bars. Jim despite being a bit of a goofy man-child, holds down a steady office job and is married to Christie, who met Jim when the Loaded Poets played at her first and ultimately ill-fated wedding. Jim and Christie are happy, but her desire to have children forces Jim to consider giving up his dreams of stadium tours and overwhelming success. Faced with an existential crisis, Jim seeks out several retired musicians whose success in the music industry might give him insight into what course his life should take.
The film works for a number of reasons. It doesn't hurt that Jim Wood, despite being goofy and a little crass, is charismatic and eminently likeable. He masks his desperation for success in humor, but there is an evident undercurrent of longing that makes him sympathetic from the start. It doesn't take long to become completely invested in both him and his wife Christie, whose sass and intelligence are the perfect foil for Jim. We also meet Jim's bandmates John and Dan, who even at the beginning of the film seem more at peace with their lack of fame than Jim does. The film treats the film to a series of slice of life vignettes, as Jim and Christie make a lists of reasons whether or not to have a baby, and later become extras in Z-grade horror film. One of the most poignant moments come when Jim waits after a concert to meet his idol Elvis Costello, and slips him a demo of his band. His hopeful expectation in this scene is heartbreaking as we know Costello probably never listens to the tape.
Director Paul Devlin is a childhood friend of Jim, and while the film may be colored by their friendship, he isn't afraid to show his subject in a less than flattering light. By the end of the film more than a decade passes. Jim and Christie have a daughter, buy a house, and Jim grows a paunch and some grey hairs. What the movie really succeeds at is showing the subtle ways that our priorities change with time and maturity. The Jim we meet at the beginning of the film, when confronted with his future self, might say he failed. The older Jim might beg to differ.