Friday, February 12, 2010

My Essentials: "Almost Famous" (2000, dir. Cameron Crowe)

I've decided to get one or two films in this series filed every weekend when possible. To do that, I'm giving myself a head start by posting the films on my "rack of honor" that I already wrote about last year when I was doing The Alphabet Project. Not many were done, but this should get us through "Almost Famous," "Anchorman" and the "Back to the Future" trilogy before I double-back and look at "Alien" and "Aliens." Here are my thoughts on Cameron Crowe's wonderful little drama from 2000, which is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Almost Famous

The best movies are the ones in which watching them again feels like visiting with old friends. I'm thinking of "Juno," "Lost in Translation" or "Before Sunrise." Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" is another one of those films, a movie that gives me a great big bear hug every time I watch it and leaves me grinning and with that warm sensation that Roger Ebert has revealed to be "elevation."

This is the pinnacle of Crowe's career. I think "Say Anything..." is one of the great love stories of the past few years and "Jerry Maguire" is a funny and intelligent studio work. But this is his most heartfelt, immersive and honest work. I think both "Vanilla Sky" and "Elizabethtown," his two most-recent works, have their merits and are unjustly maligned, but they are missing that personal, heartfelt charge that flow through his other films and culminated in an gush of nostalgia with this masterpiece--which was the best film of 2000.

William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is, of course, a thinly-veiled version of Crowe as a teen, who is hired to follow the band Stillwater for Rolling Stone at the age of 15 (they think he's much older). Despite the pleas of his tightly-wound, moralistic mother (Frances McDormand) Miller hits the road with the band and witnesses the in-fighting, parties, arguments, on-stage triumphs and love for the music that surrounded the 1970s rock scene. He makes friends with the band's guitar player, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and falls in love with a groupie--er, Band Aid--named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and gets advice from rock journalist Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

It's tempting to describe this movie as a coming of age story, but that would give the impression that this is about William's journey and growth. But watching it again, I found that William does not really change too much over the course of the film--he loses that wide-eyed innocence, for sure, and finds his own moral footing but the thing that keeps him so grounded is that he keeps one foot planted in reality, remembering the teachings of his mother, and is able to see the truth when all the rock stars and their hangerz-on are living in a fantasy world. "It's all happening," is a mantra that Penny Lane and her fellow Band Aids use over and again--near the end of the film William has the chance to challenge them as to what that means. What is happening? When are they going to come back to the real world?

No, the film is not just a coming of age story. Like "The Shawshank Redemption," which is mistakingly thought to be Andy's story instead of Red's, "Almost Famous" is not so much about William Miller but about the effect he has on those around him. This is made even more clear in the "bootleg" DVD cut, simply called "Untitled," which adds about 30 minutes and deepens the supporting characters' plot threats--I loved the original film in theaters, but I always watch the Bootleg cut on DVD; it's a far superior piece.

It's tempting to say that this film resonates with me because of my journalism background, but the truth is that I was still in college when the film was released--and while I was a journalism major, I was never too caught up in it at the time. Having worked as a journalist for nearly four years and having the opportunity to interview some famous people and be close to my passion (film instead of rock music), I think that my love for it has grown. There's something about being the outsider and having a close proximity to those whose life seems to be a fantasy or a fairy tale--you have the opportunity to pick apart the dream, deconstruct it and point out how it's manufactured in many respects, standing apart from the real world. I think the reason many people get uncomfortable around journalists is because of that fact--they have a view of themselves, a reality that makes them feel comfortable and safe...the reporter represents reality, which can pick it apart and reveal it as nothing more than a house of cards.

"Just make us look cool," Hammond tells William. That's a pretty loaded statement--it implies that Hammond thinks he can convince William to sacrifice his journalistic integrity in favor of friendship and coolness. It also implies that Hammond knows that Stillwater is not cool--that there are deep-seated rivalries and factions in the band that, were the public to see them, would reveal that they are just a bunch of young guys playing band.

Of course, that is the truth. Hammond thinks he's better than the others in the band and the lead singer (Jason Lee, pre-sell out) resents Hammond's popularity (I love the line 'your looks have become a problem'). William is an observer when Hammond temporarily leaves the band in Wichita and spends an evening at a house party when he gets high on acid and ends up on the roof of a garage proclaiming "I am a Golden God" before jumping into a swimming pool. The scene is funny--and based on the real-life exploits Crowe witnessed while writing for Rolling Stone--but it also reveals the flaws inherent in Hammond and in the band...and the danger of letting the outsider, a journalist, observe it all.

William is also a danger to Penny Lane, a young girl who has abandoned her regular life in the hopes of escaping reality through rock and roll. She's in love with Russell, but she naively believes he sees her as more than a groupie, that he will leave his wife for him. She knows the reality of the life she's chosen, but she still believes that there's hope in the fairy tale. Watch her reaction carefully when William tells her that Russell has traded her to the band Humble Pie for a case of beer...I think Hudson has thrown away a lot of the potential she's had in favor of frothy, ultra-stupid chick flicks...but here she delivers one of the most heartbreaking performances of the past few years.

In fact, every performance here is fantastic. Aside from "Saved," Fugit has pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth. And maybe that's for the best. His work here is genuine and innocent, maybe because it was his first work. He really appears to be a kid who is wide-eyed and can't believe his luck to travel with his heroes. But that's why it works...William is being formed on this trip; he's a blank slate being molded by what he sees here and is trying to meld the teaching of his mother with the reality he sees on the road. Crowe could have gone the broad route and had William turn into a party-animal who repents at the end...instead, he presents William as a three-dimensional chracter who respects his mother's morals but realizes how uptight she is...and then, on the road, realizes how right she is about many things. That teaching helps him keep objectivity and protects him from getting caught up in the fantasy of traveling with the band.

Crudup is an actor who never really registers with me, although he was fantastic as Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen." Here, though, Crowe's brilliant screenplay has created another fleshed-out and fully-developed character. He's not a rock god caught up in the dream but a young man who struggles with the excitement of fame coupled with his love for music. He can't believe his good fortune and also allows it to sweep him away. He does drugs, cheats on his wife and treats William horribly at some points--and yet we also get scenes where his humanity shows through. The final scene in the movie, when he and William finally get to have their last interview, is one of film's perfect wrap-ups.

I've mentioned Hudson, but it just seems that every role here is wonderfully cast. There are no ciphers here; Crowe, drawing from his own recollections, has lovingly crafted even the most insignificant characters and cast them with careful thought. Jason Lee is scathing and funny as the lead singer who wants to be the most-beloved in the band and yet there's a certain saddness to his character as he's also, well, almost famous compared to Hammond. McDormand is a strict mother but she does it out of love for her children...she has scenes that are both funny, as when she scolds Hammond over the phone, and heartbreaking, when she breaks down and cries over her son's absence. It's well known in these parts that I am in love with Zooey Deschanel and it was here that I first saw her wide-eyed beauty and energy. Heck even Jimmy Fallon is tolerable here as the agent who wants to take Stillwater to the big time...and if you can make me like Jimmy Fallon, you've accomplished something. Phillip Seymour Hoffman never delivers anything less than a fantastic performance and his work as Bangs reeks of authenticity; who else could be so irrasicble, uncool and unlikable than a true journalist?

Crowe's screenplay is the triumph in this movie. Every line of dialogue, every development of character and every detail of the rock scene has the perfect mix of authenticity, heart and humor. The rumor is that Steven Spielberg, whose Dreamworks produced this film, read the script and told Crowe not to cut a single thing from it and film it as it was. Maybe that's why the "Untitled" cut seems so much more alive and energetic. Or maybe it's just that I can't get enough of these characters and the world they're caught up in. Maybe I just want more of the wonderful soundtrack, which is like listening to Crowe's 1970s mix tape. Or maybe I'm like the character--I just want to be in their world for a bit, avoiding my own reality for a few hours.

I mentioned that I don't think it's my journalistic background that first drew me to the movie. I think it's actually Crowe's passion...he's so lovingly crafted this film that it's contagious. It's a movie that makes me smile. In William Miller I see a character like myself, someone who is so very not cool and has the opportunity to see the world he loves. Maybe it's the hope that I can be as grounded and objective as he is, seeing the world and not losing my soul. Maybe I'm also just as in love with Penny Lane as he is and I need this as an excuse to see her again.
Or maybe I need to take a note from the scene in which William stands in the wings watching Stillwater and jotting down his thoughts and Penny takes the pen out of his hand. Maybe I'm thinking too much and just need to put the DVD in and let myself get taken away by the music.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.