Movies – Almost Famous

I first saw Almost Famous(2000) around five years ago, and found it a pleasant but inconsequential mainstream entertainment. But I couldn’t help notice that, since then, it has slowly gained stature in general popular culture. A number of the writers I enjoy on pajiba.com regularly sing its praises, and ESPN’s Bill Simmons recently structured his NBA season preview column around quotes from the film, calling it the best movie of the decade. Remembering the exhortations of my friend who originally recommended my first viewing, I decided that perhaps this was a film Ripe for Reassessment.

Essentially, the film is Cameron Crowe’s roman à clef of a teen-aged prodigy’s entrance into the world of rock journalism. William Miller entered school in San Diego a year early, skipped a grade on the way, and is introduced to us, in 1969, discovering that he’s a year younger than his mother has been letting on – eleven, not twelve. His older sister, Anita, is rebelliously leaving home. Their mother, Elaine, is a widowed college professor, and is as draconian in cloistering her children from popular culture as she is gracious in fostering their higher intellectual capacities. But Anita’s had it – she’s splitting with her boyfriend and becoming a stewardess, and, as a surreptitious parting gift, she leaves William all of her ‘forbidden’ rock and roll albums – Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, etc.

Now it’s 1973, and William’s sister-generated crash course has not only converted him to the glories of rock and roll, but he has started a fledgling writing career as a rock journalist. His roadmap is CREEM magazine, and its editor at the time, Lester Bangs, is visiting hometown San Diego. They meet and chat, with Lester admonishing William to not let ‘professional’ journalism or ‘professional’ musicians ruin what’s fundamentally great about rock and roll. Bangs gives William an assignment – 1000 words on Black Sabbath, who are playing San Diego that night.

And so the career begins. He’s repelled by the arena’s doorman, but meets Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and her fellow Band-Aids – not groupies, damn it! – who get backstage with the Sabs, but can’t pull William past Mr. Cerberus at the door. Then the back-up band’s bus arrives – it’s the up-and-coming Stillwater. William strikes up a conversation with them, laying on all the flattery he can muster and ingratiating himself with them. He’s in, with them.

It doesn’t take long for young William make friends – he’s a modest but engaging kid, and obviously whip-smart. He’s the antithesis of the usual shmoozy, smart-ass rock writer. Upon making friends with Penny Lane, he innocently presents her to Stillwater’s potential superstar lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), unaware that they have a romantic past. Russell invites William to their L.A. hotel for their L.A. dates, and encourages him to invite Penny along. Penny and William make the short drive from San Diego and seamlessly join the party at the hotel, William for reportage, Penny for romantic intrigue.

The next day, William receives a call from Ben Fong-Torres, one of the editors from Rolling Stone. He’s read some of William’s local music articles, and is interested in using him for the magazine. William suggests continuing his initial contacts with Stillwater, and is immediately assigned to their tour – $1000 an article, with all his tour expenses paid for by the magazine. Of course, he’s fifteen, but Fong-Torres doesn’t know that.

What follows, making up the majority of the movie, is the William’s-eye-view of life on the road for a rock and roll band aspiring to the big-time. But it’s also the story of William’s finding himself, away from home and school and out in the world. How strong are his own convictions? How impressionable, gullible, corruptible, or vulnerable will he prove to be? Who, and what, will he accept or reject along the way? How will the music he’s crazy about, and trappings thereof, shape him? Who are the true friends? Who are the opportunists? But, wait, there’s more! Because it’s also a larger pastiche of the ubiquitous role popular music played in the lives of all the people coming of age in the seventies and eighties, or, rather, the role it played in our lives before we got hip to the ubiquitous advertising, marketing, celebrity-whoring and commodification that inevitably followed. Of course, those caveats had been there all along, years before, for the people making music. But the excesses that the general public, i.e., the fans, were subjected to at that time was a major socio-commercial action that spawned its rightful artistic reaction – Punk and the New Wave. I’m sure glad that turned everything around, aren’t you?

Don’t get me wrong – I discovered far more to like about the movie than before. The performances, foremost. Patrick Fugit as William is the protagonist – who we follow, the viewpoint from which we see everything else. But Fugit, as was William in the film, is wise beyond his years, turning the seemingly functional neutral-observer role into a genuinely identifiable and uniquely active real person. Kate Hudson as Penny Lane is outrightly radiant – she owns practically every frame she’s in, and brings a self-possession and intelligence that the character-as-written may not have warranted. Frances McDormand, creates a wonderfully complex and contradictory real person as William’s mom, Elaine. Phillip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t actually given the true Lester Bangs in Crowe’s script (probably on purpose – I imagine Lester could be a mess, certainly in writing and likely in real life), but I can’t imagine a more affectionate or reliable representation of why Lester was so important. Most of the lines you’ll remember are Hoffman’s – there’s a reason.

When you rent or buy the DVD, you’ll notice that the scene index isn’t titled according to what happens – it’s titled by the music in the background for each scene. ‘Sparks’, ‘Search and Destroy’, ‘Your Move’, That’s The Way’, ‘Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere’, ‘Future Games’, ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Tangerine’. As well as telling the story, Crowe is intent on sharing the notion that the music we associate with a moment can be as important an element of memory as the time, the place, the particular event, or the particular people. Most filmmakers are pretty slapdash about this, cramming period hits or evocative musical styles obtrusively into scenes as an expedient substitute for generating a genuine feeling or mood the hard way – good writing, good acting, good design, good visual composition. Two people, off the top of my head, who are really good at pumping the music with the other good elements are Tarantino and Scorsese. (My favorite goat for the slapdash contingent is ‘Forrest Gump’ – a tolerable movie that was not improved or enhanced one whit by the wall-to-wall onslaught of period signifier ‘hits’).

Many of my initial problems with this film started with that. No need for a well-written mother-daughter conversation to create sister Anita – just play Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’, and her wanderlust magically appears. No need for Penny to express any real gravity or passion for Russell – Cameron’s plays Joni’s ‘River’ underneath, and it’s all filled in. Need some bittersweet loss-of-innocence melancholy? Zep’s ‘That’s The Way’. Need some pensive mellow atmosphere? The Beach Boys’ ‘Feel Flows’ provides instant “ahh”. Need some emotional regrouping after an awkward silence? How about a ‘Tiny Dancer’ singalong?! And did you know Penny is prone to ‘listen to the wind, to the wind in her soul’? On first viewing, these were red flags for me. I got the idea that Crowe simply wasn’t director enough to earn these emotions the old-fashioned way.

I ended up giving the movie a lot more credit on second viewing. A lot of the music-signified feeling ends up being there anyway, in the script, the direction and performances. But I still wish he hadn’t relied so much on his assumptions about what those particular songs would evoke from the audience. Nancy Wilson’s intermittent original music is very good – I would’ve liked to have heard more of her music rather than the umpteenth ‘Voodoo Chile’, ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’ or similar trademark 70’s anthem.

Some of the criticism on its release focused on the overall sunniness of the film’s attitudes – no O.D.s, no drunken blowouts or trashed hotel rooms, no group sex or herpes or unwanted pregnancies. Many wanted the most sordid and sensational aspects of the rock and roll lifestyle – ‘Crowe covered Led Zeppelin; where’s Peter Grant, damnit?!’ I actually think it’s a better film for not bothering with a lot of that. It’s hinted at, the potential for it is generally there, but Crowe was wise to not start playing Can You Top This with himself, and just stick with who the real characters are at heart.

I came away the second time thinking it’s still not a good film, but it’s a great movie. Know what I mean? I’m interested in chatting up some 15 and 16 year olds now, and finding out if this movie is as much straightforward fun for them, without the pop-culture historical baggage that I inevitably brought to it. I’d like to believe it’s a good movie anyway. But I’d be disappointed, if not surprised, if the movie ended up having a pretty short shelf-life for non-boomers.

Recommended, nonetheless. A very nice coming-of-age story, and lots of memory triggers for boomer ilk like myself.

I always read other criticism of films I’m inclined to write about. I especially liked Stephanie Zacharek’s original review in Salon magazine. Check it out here – she’s always excellent.

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One response to “Movies – Almost Famous

  1. Well, thank God you came to your senses…I had the good fortune of seeing this movie on the big screen… and it had me from the pencil-scratching title sequence. Maybe it's that I related to William Miller… when I was a kid I felt out of place in world I lived in; always wanting a bigger, more expansive reality than my comfy suburban existence.. waiting for dad to walk home from the train so mom could start dinner.Or, maybe, like you, I found Kate Hudson's Penny Lane to be so goddamn radiant and engaging… I'd never seen her before this movie. She was so *clearly* the beautiful, quirky (seemingly) worldly-wise girl that we all wanted when we were William Miller's age. Hell, I want her now.Or maybe it was Philip Seymour Hoffman… geeze, I'd watch that guy tie his shoes… and his character is just so fabulous… when he's telling William that he often stays up all night and then lapses into a brief suggestion of cough syrup and… wait.. William's just a kid, I can't tell him about that… I've sometimes thought of Almost Famous (which I've watched far more than your paltry two times) as a more expansive John Hughes movie. It has all of the coming of age bits and pieces, but *everyone* comes of age, not just the teenagers. I'm glad you watched it again… we can still be friends now.

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