If, as the saying goes, we are all each other’s angels and demons, then Lachlan MacAldonich (Robert Carlyle) has played the demon to more than his fair share of people during his life. Whippet thin, every feature a grimace, he’s a barely contained streak of bitterness and regret, the former guitarist of a Madchester rock band, now living in self-imposed isolation in California. Selfish, ungrateful, and often ragingly drunk, his attempts to overturn a deportation ruling – sending him back to his native Scotland – are disastrous, resulting in him finding ever new ways to hurt those around him. It’s a testament to the conviction and ferocity of Carlyle’s performance he’s never less than compulsively watchable in so toxic a role, and that ultimately you end up on Lachlan’s side. It’s a career-best turn.
The washed up musician is well-trodden cinematic territory, most recently with Jeff Bridge’s Oscar-nabbing turn in the country music schmaltz fest Crazy Heart, which California Solo shares common ground with: both Bridges’ and Carlyle’s characters are irascible, high-functioning drunks. Both films are anchored by bravura lead performances. What distinguishes California Solo, however, is an intelligently realised, lean script, which deftly handles the bleak subject matter without ever seeming too maudlin. Whatever his faults, Lachlan is shot through with a healthy dose of Scots wit, so you can always spy the charisma that first draws people towards him before he pushes them away.
The cinematography is garishly beautiful, painting California in grainy, abrasive light – seeing the world through Lachlan’s hangover. The soundtrack, featuring tracks from Lachlan’s old band the Cranks, aptly apes the gangly guitars and ironic lyrics of Mancunian rock. It’s soaringly good, as is the moment where Carlyle performs the titular lament on acoustic guitar. As with the film itself, you’ve heard this story before, but it’s no less beautiful for it.