The Washington Post
‘Daisy Jones & the Six,’ rocking through the ’70s with rote emotions
You can’t reasonably fault an adaptation of an imitation for lacking originality. It’s worth saying, then, that “Daisy Jones & the Six” is at least pointedly derivative. The Prime Video series premiering Friday about the rise and fall of a fictional ’70s rock band courts all sorts of comparisons: If the obvious reference point is “Almost Famous,” the chemistry and dysfunction between the lead characters is very “A Star is Born,” while the made-up band could just as well be called Meetwood Flac. Even the music — written by Blake Mills with assists from the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Chris Weisman and Marcus Mumford, to name a few — is tailored to evoke something that could have blown minds back then because it borrows so heavily from the stuff that did.
Based on Taylor Jenkins Reid’s best-selling 2019 novel of the same name, the show’s premise is familiar: A band from Pittsburgh called the Dunne Brothers, named for frontman Billy Dunne (Sam Claflin) and his brother Graham ( Will Harrison), becomes the Six when a decent keyboardist (Suki Waterhouse’s
Karen) joins up. They acquire a following, but it’s only after the arrival of Daisy Jones (Riley Keough) — a glamorous and eccentric fixture of the Los Angeles music scene who won’t settle for being a muse but hasn’t quite mastered writing songs of her own — that they achieve superstardom.
Things get messy when Daisy and Billy start writing and performing together. She adds complexity and despair to songs about his wife, and he brings discipline and structure to her lyrics. The pair hate each other, sexily. But they also connect because they’re gifted egotists who share core qualities that drove them down different paths: Billy, an ex-addict, sees Daisy’s erratic behavior as a byproduct of the desperate self-medicating he perfectly understands. She in turn sees the aspirational strain of his self-conception as sober and faithful. They needle each other. He’s patronizing, and she relentlessly shoves the id back into his pleasant songs about love and home.
It’s a spicy setup even if the cliches it traffics in are obvious: repression vs. honesty, hedonism vs. restraint. The rock star’s wife (Camila Morrone as Camila) should be the clear loser here, a pallid enforcer of bourgeois social norms competing against the truth-telling iconoclast. It’s to Morrone’s credit (and the show’s) that she capably stewards the role through genre conventions that would normally stamp her as a doormat or killjoy. She’s a believable contender, and the ensuing melodrama is fun to watch.
The unexpectedly complicated and restrained dynamics of this love triangle are what the show handles best, even if it’s overlong at 10 episodes. Keough plays Daisy as assertive but open, with a winsome combination of take-noprisoners savagery and stochastic, captivating warmth.
But what, beyond a juicy love story, do we want from a reverseengineered nostalgia piece about a ’70s band? Should it channel something raw and real about what the decade felt like? Produce great music uncontaminated by modern sensibilities? Ironize forms — such as the oral history or the rockumentary — that have ossified? Explore the intersections of trust and regret? Mine rock history for insights we can only really appreciate now, 50 years after the fact?
The music really is fun, but on most of these other fronts, “Daisy Jones & the Six” fails. The politics of the period are surgically stripped out, the dialogue feels quite contemporary, and a subplot featuring the adventures in queer love and disco of Daisy’s best friend Simone (Nabiyah Be) feels conscientiously grafted on. Most of the actors don’t capture what young stardom looks or feels like, being both a little too old to play avatars of youth culture and far too young to sell the older versions of themselves in the retrospectives. If Sam Claflin is convincingly soulful and charismatic as Billy, it’s because he looks like he’s lived. And while he and Keough sizzle when they sing together — this is the main reason to watch — Keough doesn’t quite command the stage or the spotlight on her own. The series narrates the effect Daisy has on audiences without fully producing it.
The same is true of its formal experiments. “Daisy Jones & the Six” announces itself as a documentary but then unaccountably forgets about its framing device for long periods. It therefore sacrifices both the grainy thrills of “archival” footage someone found in a basement (or whatever) and the fun workarounds mockumentaries sometimes resort to in order to plausibly show us intimate moments unlikely to be caught on camera. The show’s shortcuts are sloppy: We see scenes no third party could possibly have witnessed and move swiftly on.
“Daisy Jones & the Six” also forgoes one of the main advantages of an oral history (which the novel uses to good effect), namely, that discrepancies in people’s accounts can yield productive doubt about what really happened. Not so in this series: The consensus among the principals is surprisingly strong, the camera’s nosy omniscience confirms that Things Happened This Way, and the talking heads tend to simply re-narrate (rather than complicate or deepen) what you just saw.
The viewer ends up feeling disproportionately grateful for Josh Whitehouse’s Eddie, the band’s disgruntled bass player, whose resentment means he occasionally has a slightly different take.
This all speaks to a somewhat puzzling allocation of resources. Showrunners Scott Neustadter and Will Graham invested vast sums in certain kinds of historical “verisimilitude,” carefully re-creating the legendary Sunset Strip bar Filthy Mcnasty’s in the actual present-day Viper Room, for instance. But little effort went into aging the band members (the older Daisy’s hair is a touch straighter) and even less went into the crucial work of writing them as older. The impression that these are just people in wigs is only bolstered by their disinclination to reflect on their choices. Whereas the older Daisy of the book is frank, expansive and self-flagellating — clear about her ugly intentions at specific moments, honest about how out-of-control she was — Keough plays her as tight-lipped and self-preserving. If Billy’s younger brother Graham is explicit in the novel about his issues with his talented, egotistical brother, the show’s Graham is gentle and unbothered. (Harrison deserves particular praise, therefore, for bucking the overall trend; despite having less material to work with, his Graham is one of the only characters who seems convincingly young and middleaged.)
That said, the most candid and reflective participants in the documentary are Claflin’s Billy and Morrone’s Camila — a payoff to the anemic framing device. That makes it all the weirder that a show obsessed with certain formal challenges — specifically, recreating the feel and sound of a particular period and genre — mostly ignores its own genre’s constraints.
Daisy Jones & the Six (10 episodes) premieres Friday on Prime Video with three episodes. New episodes will be released weekly through March 24.