Sunday, April 19, 2009

Between being a writer and being cool: Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous


The illustrious Ibetolis, of Film for the Soul, has kindly allowed me to write a post concerning Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous as part of his impressive "Counting Down the Zeros" multiple-blogger celebration of all films made in the year 2000. Here's the link

And here's the post:

Although one can criticize Almost Famous for being Frank Capra-esquely sweet, sentimental, and nostalgic, I find it compelling because it concerns a young writer and intellect navigating the decadent excesses of a 1970s rock and roll.  Whereas I think Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) is ultimately the more seamless film, Almost Famous’ hybrid of memoir, romantic comedy, and coming-of-age melodrama is the more memorable, in part because something like it really happened to the 16 year old Cameron Crowe when he suddenly went off to profile the Allman Brothers band on tour in the 1970s. 

The film begins goofily enough with Alvin and the Chipmunks singing “The Chipmunks Song (Alvin Don’t Be Late)” in a disconcertingly warm 1969 Christmas in San Diego.  The opening credits has the camera panning over various objects such as tickets, photos, and tour memorabilia inside a drawer as someone writes the credits in pencil, a variation on the opening credits of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (another bildungsroman) where the objects are toys in a cigar box and the credits are written with a crayon.  Then we see young William Miller and his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand) walk out of a cinema discussing the movie version of Mockingbird, with Elaine being impressed with his grasp of the movie. Given the consistently winning performances of Almost Famous, it is hard to notice how often Crowe inserts classic film references throughout, including Russell Hammond’s (Billy Crudup) drugged leap into a pool, a nod to the high school pool party scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. Also Penny Lane’s (Kate Hudson) attempted suicide towards the end of the film alludes to Fran’s similar attempt in what is reputedly Crowe’s favorite film—Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

At any rate, soon after the opening scenes, family drama ensues when William’s sister Anita (the impossibly blue-eyed Zooey Deschanel) sneaks home a Simon and Garfunkel album.  While busting her daughter, Elaine emphasizes how both of the pop artists are into “drugs and promiscuous sex.”  In this way, Crowe sets up the film’s thematic conflict between appreciating classic 1970s rock and resisting the corrupting excesses of its lifestyle.  William grows up some to be a budding rock critic played by Patrick Fugit, and then after meeting up with legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (the excellent Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who ironically proclaims that rock is dead, William manages to finagle a Rolling Stone writing assignment to cover Stillwater (read Allman Brothers) on tour.

While much of the remaining movie concerns William’s gradual immersion into the rock and roll lifestyle of Stillwater (with lead guitarist Hammond often being resented by this band mates, and Penny Lane leading a gang of teenage “band-aids”), I was struck by the many barricades that William has to surmount to gain entry into this magical, creative world.  For one thing, a bouncer refuses William entry to the backstage of the very first concert he tries to attend.  He is repeatedly shut out until the band happens to arrive.  William has to make an impromptu speech showing off his knowledge of the band’s talent and history, and this persuades them to let him in.  For the rest of the movie, even as he enjoys touring with the band, William is repeatedly stuck behind a hotel room door, unable to get his interview with Russell so he can return to his highly annoyed mother in San Diego.  Through it all, William’s status as a Rolling Stone critic, what the bandmates call “the enemy,” gives the viewer a more objective perspective on the tour, saving the film from the usual rock and roll cliches.

And I was impressed with Frances McDormand’s performance as the mother who is smart and verbal enough to consistently “freak out” people she talks to on the phone.  What could easily have become a nagging, conventially hateful authoritarian role becomes, through the writing and McDormand’s talent, oddly sympathetic.  She eventually embodies the conscience of the film, offering a corrective to any temptation on the viewer’s part to idolize the rock star lifestyle.  I imagine it helped when Cameron Crowe’s actual mother showed up on the set of the production and spent some time sharing notes with McDormand. 

And what of newcomer Kate Hudson?  After seeing her in such generic recent fare as Bride Wars, I am surprised by the excess of talent she displays as ready-fantasy-worthy Penny Lane.  In a way, her role is a deliberate construction (stewardess, hippie goddess) designed to appeal to rock stars, but Hudson infuses her performance with an enthusiasm and a emotional dexterity scarcely seen in her work since.  When she learns that Russell traded her and the other band-aids to another band in exchange for fifty dollars and a case of beer, Penny cries for a moment, and then, wiping her eyes, sweetly asks “What kind of beer?” Cameron Crowe said that he only had to keep the cameras rolling to have her gradually unfold multiple sides of her character.  She can be assured, knowing, and extremely vulnerable all within the same scene.

Hudson is so good, she sometimes inadvertently calls attention to Fugit’s weaknesses as an actor.  Late in the movie, when she says “If I ever met a man in the real world who looked at me as you just looked at me,” Fugit can’t live up to the lines of the script.  They demand a camera presence that he simply does not have.  Fugit works best as the wide-eyed witness of the world of the band, sometimes working in the same vein as nearly invisible reporter Jerry Thompson searching for the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, his quest always stymied by circumstance.  Whenever Crowe places the film’s emphasis on William front and center, such in the scene where he loses his virginity to the “band-aids,” what Crowe called a “real squirmer,” I question how well Fugit can handle the attention.  Like the celebrated and central “Tiny Dancer” scene where the band reunites by singing along with that song, Fugit ultimately comes off as bit too naive to be totally convincing. 

I like the film’s switchback twists.  For instance, right after William loses his virginity, he wakes up the next morning to the editor of Rolling Stone remonstrating him for his lack of professionalism.  As he says, “We already have one Hunter S. Thompson.”  Then, the band-aids humiliate William by asking him to take out the laundry.  Soon after, he’s reduced to tears outside of Russell’s hotel door because he still can’t get his interview. By the time the film climaxes with the band’s multiple confessions in a small jet threatened with crashing in an electrical storm, Crowe has brilliantly fleshed out his themes.  Lester Bangs tells William, “Friendship is the booze they [the rock stars] feed you.  They make you feel cool,” but William realizes that he can never be cool.  That is the writer’s peculiar curse, but William can write not only the Rolling Stones cover article, but also the film itself, what Crowe has called a “love letter” to his first forays as a rock critic, and there’s no doubt some consolation in the continuing achievement, charm, and relevance of Almost Famous.

4 comments:

J.D. said...

Hey! I found your site via the Film for the Soul blog. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your ALMOST FAMOUS post (I left comments there). Look forward to your SAY ANYTHING post as that is one of my fave films of the 1980s.

Just curious what did you think of another Cameron Crowe film, SINGLES?

FilmDr said...

Thanks for both of your comments, J. D.

Also thanks for reminding me of Singles. I've seen it, but it didn't leave much of an impression since I tend to get it confused with Reality Bites. I will rewatch Singles soon. I was also very disappointed in Elizabethtown, in part due to the limitations of Orlando Bloom's acting. But I've been looking into Say Anything and thinking that I'm seeing classic film references to movies such as Out of the Past.

Also, in Almost Famous, Crowe includes two tracking-type shots of someone trying to keep up with a bus and a jet taxiing out to the runway. I was wondering if Crowe got that from some classic film--perhaps Benjamin chasing the bus in The Graduate?

J.D. said...

I get all nostalgic whenever I watch SINGLES as it reminds so much of the Seattle scene and the rise of alt. music in the 90s.

Ah, don't even get me started on ELIZABETHTOWN! Crowe's usually uncanny knack for casting really misfired on this one. You are right on the money re: Bloom. Not to mention, he and Kirsten Dunst have ZERO chemistry in this film, which is kinda the kiss of death. I sure hope he bounces back with something good. It looks like the Pearl Jam doc. is gonna be his next film.

As for refrences in ALMOST FAMOUS. Not sure about filmic ones but he buries a lot of references to famous album art in this film (DARK SIDE OF THE MOON for example).

FilmDr said...

Yes, I also like the way Crowe lightly mocks Robert Plant saying "I am a golden God!" while looking down at the Sunset Strip from a hotel room. Billy Crudup's character yells out the same thing on top of roof while high on acid. How lucky Crowe was to know Led Zeppelin well enough to lampoon them.