Review by Ian Keogh
Gunning for Hits is smart, slick up to a point, and very self-aware. After reading his introduction and afterword, connecting writer Jeff Rougvie to his lead character Martin Mills is no great leap. There’s an ego in play in this story of a smarmy 1980s record label A&R man, but also the chops to back it up with a flow of anecdotes honed by being retold in a succession of after hours bars following gigs. It’s when Rougvie departs from that material to address the plot that Gunning for Hits loses some gloss.
A clever opening chapter has Mills making his pitch to sign a new band whose manager is demanding and whose creative force is a withdrawn genius possessing an infallible commercial touch and dozens of demo tapes. The artist he holds in thrall is Brian Slade, an admiration shared by Mills, Slade being a constantly shifting conceptual force through the 1970s while losing his way in the mid-1980s. The description alone renders David Bowie a close analogue, and that’s before the acknowledgement that Mills has lifted the name from Velvet Goldmine, a film based in no small part on Bowie, and Moritat’s cover illustration. As the person who worked with Bowie for the CD reissue of his back catalogue, Rougvie doesn’t claim friendship, but certainly admiration and respect with acknowledgement of his being stimulating company. Why he’d then besmirch Bowie by employing him as the scheming, manipulative and creatively bankrupt Slade is never adequately explained. One thing Bowie never became was a caricature.
Artist Moritat (Justin Norman) creates a dense and rich world. His light cartooning brings out personalities via poses and expressions, often resorting to a dozen small panels on a page to emphasise the verbal cut and thrust. A good Bowie likeness is important, and that’s not a problem from any angle, while everyone else is kept consistent and distinct.
Mills is as manipulative as Slade, just blinded by him, a really funny page showing assorted cast reactions to an album that Mills can’t hear is terrible. Rougvie’s given him a viable skill set from a previous job, and that provides a killer surprise during the opening contract offer, so is just about justifiable, but then Rougvie’s left with having to acknowledge it subsequently, and this leads to forced moments. Let Mills channel Rougvie’s voice about the record industry in the 1980s, though, and let people he knew at the time coalesce, and the rambling’s richly anecdotal, but the creaky moments of the plot too often get in the way.
If you’ve no problem with Bowie cast as playing a role, and accepting a few cracks just about papered over, then Gunning for Hits is a solid piece of comedy drama that’s occasionally a lot more.