Friday, December 25, 2009

Almost Famous

Had anyone else directed Almost Famous, its syrupy sweetness would put its audience in the cinematic equivalent of a diabetic coma. But Cameron Crowe is no ordinary purveyor of the saccharine; his biggest influence may be Billy Wilder, but Crowe's ability to pen stories of endless optimism and idealism without drowning them in sugar edges him closer to Frank Capra than any other major American filmmaker. All of his earlier films contain some nugget of his own life, but Almost Famous is full-on autobiography, with names changed to protect the, well, anyone but innocent.

Crowe's doppelganger is William Miller (Patrick Fugit in his teenage years), whom we meet as a wee lad discussing his love of
To Kill a Mockingbird with his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), a supportive but firm matriarch who wants her son to be the country's youngest lawyer. Therefore, she skips him several grades but keeps this a secret from the boy, who doesn't realize anything is wrong until all his peers start growing moustaches and, frankly, look like they could babysit him. His sister (Zooey Deschanel) can't stand Elaine's restrictive parenting, so she runs away to become an air hostess; before she leaves, she gives her secret record collection to William, with specific instruction to play The Who's Tommy (the clear inference here being that the boy's about to head on an amazing journey of his own).

At age 15, he's a rock-crazed youth who writes articles for local underground papers, but his popularity has scarcely improved. One day, he has the good fortune to stumble across Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the greatest of rock critics. This moment draws a line in the sand for potential viewers, as it clearly establishes Crowe's sense of nostalgia. Anyone who's read but a single article by Bangs knows that Hoffman's teddy bear portrayal of the addled, tortured writer requires the sort of selective memory that normally comes only from years of hard alcohol abuse. If you can't accept this portrait of Bangs, just pop this out of your DVD player and watch something else, but if you find something charming about Crowe sifting through Bangs' various hangups to find the nice guy beneath, then you'll get along with this movie just fine.

Bangs sends William to cover a Black Sabbath show, where he meets some groupies, no,
band-aids, who follow groups around for spiritual support, not sexual (though the two overlap frequently, it seems). He also makes the acquaintance of Stillwater, a fictional band that serves as a loose amalgam of early '70s guitar rock bands -- primarily the Allman Brothers Band -- who take a shine to the kid and invite him to follow them as they tour the country. As they never seem to answer his questions, he continues to tag along, hoping that they'll divulge information by the time they get to the next show and never quite able to outpace the long-reaching arm of his mother.

Crowe frames
Almost Famous as a coming-of-age tale, of a young, virginal geek suddenly thrust into a traveling circus of hedonism. William cons Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) into believing he's an adult and paying him to get a story out of Stillwater, but Billy spends most of his time too bewildered by the world he's just discovered to jot down anything longer than a brief quote or random note. He's drawn to legendary band-aid Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a presence every bit as inspiring -- more so -- than the not-quite-stars Stillwater. She and guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) exchange sideways glances, obvious even to the naïve, lovestruck William, and he can only watch helplessly as the rock star lands the girl he can never have.

Mercifully, Crowe does not play William's virginity for laughs -- perhaps because William reflects the director's own life -- and when some of the other band-aids finally lay the kid down and make a confused man out of him, it's an anti-climax, merely another stepping stone in his maturation. Furthermore, William isn't the only subject of this coming-of-age story: lead singer Jeff (Jason Lee, who steals all of his scenes) and Russell are vainglorious, preening wannabes. Both possess the talent to survive and even thrive in the music climate, but they're too busy fighting amongst each other and blinding themselves in the vices of the road. The memorable scene in which Russell follows some teenage fans to their house for a part and drags poor William along for the ride. William can only stand by and watch Russell load up on acid and proclaim himself a "golden god" before leaping off a roof into a swimming pool, and for all the humor of the scene it clearly reveals Russell's self-destruction.

Perhaps the character most in need of maturation is Penny. Kate Hudson has spent her entire career fiercely chipping away at the clout this performance bought her, but it's a testament to the overwhelming strength of her work here that she still ultimately hasn't put a dent in it. She captures Penny's magnetic allure perfectly: there's a subtle debate among the band members who view her with alternate reverence and weariness if she's the Madonna or the whore, failing to realize that she's tapped into the unexplored balance between the two. But she's also just a girl whose vague pop-philosophical musings mask a deep insecurity and a lingering culture shock that never faded no matter how many miles she put between her and the normal life she left behind. Russell wants her around because he's confused convenient sex with love, which in turn convinced her that their relationship is meaningful, yet Russell quickly shuffles her out of the entourage when his wife joins him on tour. William overhears Stillwater literally trading Penny to another band as stakes in a poker game, he confronts her with the truth. "They sold you for a case of beer!" he thunders at her happy-go-lucky attitude toward Russell, and we see in her eyes the wheels at last turning, shaking off rust and grinding until the full impact of the lie upon which she's built her current existence hits her. But all Hudson does outwardly is shed a single tear and muster the courage to ask, "What kind of beer?" Later, she attempts suicide by overdose.

Wait, wasn't this supposed to be a cheery bit of nostalgia? Yes, but it works precisely because Crowe injects drama into the proceedings.
Almost Famous is a snapshot of a watershed moment in rock history, when young fans like William/Crowe came of age and could fully appreciate the music just as the people who'd been since it exploded in the mid-'60s -- Bangs, Penny -- are victims of the post-Altamont comedown (well, Bangs probably didn't give a damn about Altamont, but he viewed the rise of art rock as an international tragedy). When William meets Stillwater outside the stadium and tells them he's with Creem magazine, Jeff calls him "the enemy," but they warm to him when he proves that he actually knows their names and songs. Crowe gently fashions the band into a symbol of rock 'n' roll on the brink: these guys clearly care deeply for their music, but they argue when a batch of T-shirts arrives with a photo of the band entirely blurred save an in-focus Russel. Their manager (Noah Taylor) is a close friend but a bit clueless in the actual performance of his duties, and the band faces the option of selling him down the river when an officious super-manager (Jimmy Fallon) arrives and promises heaps of money under his guidance. These guys adamantly told William that they "make music for the fans, not the critics," but they all change their tune when William mentions they might make the cover of Rolling Stone.

The way Crowe captures these moments of the uncertainty of rock's future provides the sweetness I promised all those paragraphs ago. The actors who comprise Stillwater are absolutely the most convincing fictional rock stars ever placed on the screen: Lee and Crudup channel the love/hate relationship that was all over the place between the two founding members of Anvil in this year's
Anvil! The Story of Anvil, always at each other's throats but closer than blood relatives. (In some amusing additions found in the director's cut of the film, William interviews the bassist and drummer, both of whom are about as bright as shattered light bulbs and an inevitable but fun gag on the much-maligned rhythm section.

In my extended review of
Adventureland I mentioned this film in relation to Mottola's use of songs to evoke a time period, and the simple purity of Crow's music selection fuels the nostalgia. I've gone off classic rock recently, shifting the age limit forward to around the late '70s and listening to post-punks like The Fall, Joy Division and Nick Cave, but Almost Famous never fails to make me break out Zeppelin, Sabbath and The Who (note: it's always a good time for some Who). The joy of Crowe's use of music is best evidenced in what might so easily have been an utter disaster of a scene, when the passengers on Stillwater's tour bus break into a spontaneous singalong of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." For Crowe to insert such a moment -- using a song I don't even like -- and make it one of the purest examples of movie magic in contemporary American cinema is an incredible feat.

Of course, Crowe's autobiographical, humanistic style of writing requires actors who can bring something to the table, and I can't find a bum note here. Hudson gives one of the best performances by an actress of the decade, an almost supernatural charmer who fools everyone, including herself and (I would wager) much of the audience with her hollow confidence and know-how. McDormand manages to portray the harping mother without ever making her a cliché, and she's actually one of the most likeable characters in the movie -- try not to laugh and root for her when she tells off Russell over the phone for keeping her son out on the road, reducing the smiling, cocky rock star to a timid mouse. Hell, you can hate Jimmy Fallon all you want, but anyone who cannot see how wonderful he is as the professional manager is simply blinded by irrational hatred. Perhaps the weakest note is Fugit in the lead, but his flat awkwardness strikes me as more human than the Hugh Grant stammering or Michael Cera ironic panic that seem to constitute the only actorly depictions of nervousness; plus, he's clearly a cipher for Crowe and the audience, channeling our own emotional connection to the story so well that even viewers like myself, born long after this film's '73 setting, can tap into its nostalgic effect.

Deciding whether
Almost Famous best Crowe's other masterpiece, Say Anything..., is no easy feat -- my own preference depends entirely on which one I've seen more recently -- but if Almost Famous lacks the taut emotional impact of his directorial debut, it compensates in its variation: it's a coming-of-age tale, a road movie, and a nostalgic autobiography. It's also, despite the borderline saccharine feel of Crowe's reminiscence, somewhat of a eulogy: near the end, after Penny has left in disillusionment and the band turned on William for writing the truth of the band's vain infighting and thinly masked greed and killed his story, band-aid Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) talks to Russell about the new batch of girls who now follow the band. Even among the quasi-feminist band-aids, these new additions are nothing more but groupies; "They don't even know what it is to be a fan, y'know?" Sapphire rants wearily, "To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts." Perhaps rock never was the same after this period in time. Indeed, Stillwater appears to be well on the way to commercialization. Yet they also have an epiphany and a self-reevaluation, and Crowe ends the film with the bright suggestion that some groups can retain integrity and love of the craft and play the big venues.

P.S. This review concerns the vastly superior director's cut, which is sadly out-of-print in the U.S. but can be acquired easily enough on DVD through used online vendors (I got mine through Amazon Marketplace) or in a region-free Blu -Ray UK import. The director's cut adds a whopping 40 minutes, but it scarcely feels longer. Some scenes are unnecessary but fun -- the bassist/drummer interviews, Kyle G as a stoned, narcoleptic late-night DJ conducting an interview with Stillwater -- while others are absolutely vital, such as a brief moment where Russell explains to William that the most memorable parts of music are the mistakes or the little asides, or the scene at the end where Jeff and Russell have a heart-to-heart about their crumbling relationship (why this was cut from the theatrical version is beyond me; in that cut, their dynamic is never resolved). The theatrical version is still a great movie, but the Untitled cut makes it look like a hatchet job.


  1. I still find it hard to fathom how Hudson can have sucked so hard in every movie she's done since. Just perfect casting, I guess. I just re-watched Shattered Glass and was struck by how damn perfect Hayden Christiansen was in that, when he licks monkey sack in everything else he's ever done.

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