' ' Cinema Romantico: Almost Famous.....13 years burning down the road

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Almost Famous.....13 years burning down the road

Recently I sat down to watch a movie I had never seen, got about three minutes into it, realized I wasn’t feeling it, switched it off, turned to my DVD case, mystically, magically, grabbed "Almost Famous" for, I believe, the first time since I moved to Chicago, put it on, and let it wash over me. Dear readers, it was like seeing Mary in the beer-soaked graffiti of a highway underpass. It wasn’t like falling for the first time, but it was close.

Anita (Zooey Deschanel) has chosen to leave the “house of lies!” governed by her restrictive mother (Frances McDormand) to go out and look for America. But before she does she pulls her then 11 year old brother, William Miller, our protagonist, close in an embrace and whispers in his ear, “Look under your bed. It will set you free.” She is referring to her impressive collection of vinyl, which he leafs through, as if at the altar, finding a record by The Who which comes attached with Anita’s handwritten note: “Listen to 'Tommy' with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.” So tell me, if I have a son or daughter and yearn to arm him or her with Tift Merritt’s "Bramble Rose" how would the note that says “Listen to 'When I Cross Over' with a candle burning and you will see your entire future” look if it’s attached to an mp3? How can you “go to the record store and visit your friends” when you get lonely if there are no record stores and your friends all cost 99 cents on iTunes?

I don’t mention all this merely to rant and rave about how eventually our souls will merely be apps on our mobile phones but to say that this time around with "Almost Famous" I found myself most caught up in the movie’s exploration of – to quote the esteemed Roger Ebert in his original 4 star review – “the time…when idealism collided with commerce.” This is the sensation summarized by the real life rock critic, the late Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in a brief but deft performance), whom the real life journalist Cameron Crowe knew, in a scene near the beginning of the film when he councils the 15 year old version of William Miller (Patrick Fugit): “It’s just a shame you missed out on rock ‘n’ roll. It’s over. You got here just in time for the death rattle. The last gasp.”

William, though, is not only young and naïve but entirely idealistic. He doesn’t seem to quite believe Bangs. Thus, when Rolling Stone magazine’s Ben Fong Torres (Terry Chen), having read William’s work in underground rock papers, utterly oblivious to his real age, offers the burgeoning scribe a chance to go on the road with the rising rock band Stillwater and write a big time article, William, who has to first convince his mother to let him go, takes it. And so he finds himself on Doris the bus, hauling from town to town, watching as Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the axe man, and Jeff Beebe (Jason Lee), the front man, wage war, sometimes psychologically, sometimes openly, eventually threatening not only the tour but the entire existence of the Zeppelin-esque quartet.

As fate would have it, William is not the only idealist on this melodic odyssey, the other being Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, nominated for an Oscar), not a groupie, mind you, but a band-aid, the queen of the band-aids, young feministas who tour with rock bands not to be close to someone famous but “because of the music.” And you believe her. Yes, you do. William falls for her with but a glance except Penny has fallen for Russell except Russell is a rock star with a potential harem anywhere he goes and a wife back home who he doesn’t seem to like as much as Penny, not that he necessarily realizes it. Round and round they go. Ultimately they will all individually have to, as they say, come of age.

It’s telling that Crowe does not insert the brief scenes of the high school graduation ceremony William does not attend over the sequence in which William loses his virginity at the hands of all the Band Aids not named Penny Lane, but rather over the sequence in New York near the end when he turns up at Penny’s hotel to save her from an overdose. This is not merely William becoming a man, this is William truly losing his innocence. As such, the question then becomes whether or not you can – as Planet Earth Poet Laureate Bruce Springsteen once so elegantly posed – “hold onto your idealism after you lose your innocence?”

As Penny, Hudson literally glows almost every time she appears onscreen. She has never managed to re-capture the decided spark she had in this role and it is entirely possible this is because the part she is playing is so close to her own personality. But that does not mean her acting here was not top notch. The way she phrases “You okay?” when she opens the door on William to reveal she’s in Russell’s bedroom when our young scribe is trying to get an interview is so caring, so hip motherly-henish, when considering she is about to close that same door and go sleep Russell. And her scene on the airplane at the end is the inside of an active volcano. You can SEE her heart breaking, you can SEE this whole thing that has played out for the last couple of hours ending and now she realizes it and she doesn’t want it to – more than anything in the world, she doesn’t want it to – and so she presses her hand to the window as the plane taxis in a moment that has its roots in a thousand other scenes but transcends every one of them to become a spiritual sledgehammer.

Crudup is her equal, though he stupefyingly did not so much as sniff an Oscar nod. Why? The movie gods only know. As critic Jeff Labrecque once lamented, “If Crudup’s marvelous performance in …Almost Famous didn’t make him a star, maybe it’s not meant to be.” No matter. He’s charming and a pig, a friend and a foe, truthful and a bullshitter, craving the spotlight and shying away from it, saying it’s just for the fans and knowing it’s not, smiling sincerely and sardonically. He has a mystique all right, a mystique that he slowly strips away while simultaneously reinforcing without any effort. The phone call he fields from William’s mother is the high point, the moment when he shows how he is unafraid to let the character not only be vulnerable but also a little clueless about his station in life. “Uh, yes, ma’am.”

McDormand (also nominated for an Oscar – and, thus, likely splitting the vote with Hudson and opening the door for Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock" which was a nice little performance but, eh, seriously), meanwhile, on the other end of that line, and in the whole movie, would seem on paper to nearly be a caricature. Yet she comes across consummately true to life. How? Let’s not even analyze it. It’s ineffable.

For a movie set in, as William’s mother puts it, “a Valhalla of decadence”, of sex and booze and drugs, the film prefers to stay on the sunny side of the street. This was the sole sticking point of a film that otherwise registered very well with critics. The venerable Andrew Sarris wrote: “For whatever reason, too much of the dark side has been left out.” Mr. Sarris is without a doubt correct that the dark side – the dark side I’m well aware existed, I mean I’ve read Stanley Booth’s book about The Stones – is rarely glimpsed but, seriously, Sarris, you cynical bastard, can’t you just go watch "Sid & Nancy" and leave the rest of us alone?

One moment you might miss, the segueway between Russell screaming “I’m a golden god” from a fan’s rooftop and the now famed "Tiny Dancer" sing-along, is the band’s harried manager (Noah Taylor) telling the kids who have hosted Russell so long and then the shot of one young girl blowing a kiss goodbye to the guitarist in the early morning light, a shot which suggests that lucid dream all of us have every now and then of spending one night, one afternoon, one morning, one moment, with a musician who means so much to us. Did that really just happen? Was that real? Was I dreaming? No, I don’t want to know. Either way, just let me have it. Please. It’s a moment only an earnest romantic could create and Cameron Crowe, believe me, fits the part.

"Almost Famous" is an older Crowe looking back through the prism of time and remembering what he wants to remember, and if he excises the dark parts in the name of earnestness and romanticism, well, I, for one, stand firmly on his side. Penny Lane lives. Stillwater doesn’t break up. William’s story gets published. Mother and Daughter re-unite. And, contrary to the otherwise esteemed opinion of Lester Bangs, William Miller, and the lucky rest of us, did not miss out on rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not over. It’ll never be over. They didn’t ruin it. They didn’t strangle everything we love about it. Rock ‘n’ roll will live forever.

One could say when considering all this information that even upon losing his innocence the real life Cameron Crowe maintained his idealism.


Dusty said...

Very nicely written piece. Would you believe I had the same reaction when I watched Almost Famous? I was totally and completely charmed with it in 2000. However, age and experience broaden (or darken) your perspective. The last time I watched it (about a year or so ago) I intuitively felt like the story had been a bit sanitized. And that goes back to your question: If Almost Famous had been rife with over doses, rampant nihilism, and the "die young and leave a beautiful" corpse mentality...would it be the same film? No, it wouldn't, and that's okay. The characters' real counterparts might not have grown up...but why not let their fictional alter egos do it for them?

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, man. Thanks for reading. Love the comment. My perspective has darkened as well with age but there is something about this film - and this happened again on Tuesday when I saw it - that just takes me back to my mentality of 13 years ago. I just always figure that's how Crowe must have felt when he sat down to compose the screenplay. Do I include everything I saw or just what I'm choosing to remember? I'm still ok with his answer. I think.

Bob Turnbull said...

I've got "Laurence Anyways" and "Place Beyond The Pines" sitting on BluRay at home, but screw it - I'm watching this again (for the upteenth time) tonight.

I showed this to my son last year (can't remember if he had turned 12 yet or not) and it was one of those great bonding moments...