Friday, November 14, 2003

I could have SWORN that "Stillwater" was a real band!

I watched the film Almost Famous the other day, and I really enjoyed it. Films about rock music have a tendency to go overboard with their sense of the cosmic importance of it all; or, on the other hand, they can err too far on the other side, which if you're intending to make a comedy like This is Spinal Tap is fine, but if you're not, well, it can kill you.

This is a film that explores the lifestyle of a touring rock band that hasn't quite yet made it, and its effect on a young man just entering this world. With the film's endless bus rides, the strange groupies who make this band the center of their existence, the odd doings at various concert venues, and the occasional forays into sex and "what it all means", I suddenly realized after watching it that Almost Famous is actually Bull Durham, but about minor-league rock-and-roll instead of minor-league baseball. Cameron Crowe (who wrote and directed) brings the same sense of affection for the subject matter to Almost Famous that Ron Shelton did to Bull Durham, with much of the same effect: one realizes, watching this film, that there are entire lives being lived in the rock music world that only once in a while, and very briefly, come into contact with the rarefied air of the Led Zeppelin's and the Rolling Stones of the world.

The story is inspired by Cameron Crowe's own life. A 15-year old boy named William Miller somehow gets Rolling Stone Magazine to give him an assignment: get an interview with up-and-coming rock band "Stillwater". Through a long line of delays and stalling efforts, though, William ends up actually joining the band on its tour through the United States, during which he often calls his mother to tell her he's OK. (She is very worried about him; she completely distrusts the rock music world and at every interaction tells her son, "Don't take drugs". Good detail there: a lesser writer would have used the more commonly-known construction "Don't do drugs".) And along the way, William falls in love with a groupie who goes by the name Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson, who may be the most luminous person on earth today), who is already in love with Russell (Billy Crudup), the band's guitarist, who is in turn a guy whose heart is in the right place but nevertheless continually blunders and mistreats people.

Almost Famous is a virtual study in naivete. William is naive about pretty much everything; Penny Lane carefully constructs an air of wisdom about her, but it is eventually exposed as pure sham; William's mother is naive in her exclusively-negative view of the rock world; Russell is naive about pretty much all of his interactions with others; et cetera. The movie conveys a world in which everybody is wise about some things and totally clueless about others, and the only real difference is in the way some people's areas of cluelessness are more disastrous than others.

I've read a few reviews of Almost Famous since I watched it, and I've read some that take the view that Crowe's depiction of the rock world is too positive, and that the film is lacking in "edge". I don't know about that -- I can sort of see their point, but I suspect that Crowe adopted this tone purposely, because he's a guy who has made it big from pretty much the beginnings that we see for William. I just don't think that extra "bitterness" would help this movie; in fact, it would add a certain false note, a kind of "If I knew then what I know now" quality that's not always appropriate, because not every lesson needs to be learned in the manner that one learns not to touch a hot stove.

Now, if Cameron Crowe ever wants to make a movie about that period in rock history that does have more edge to it, all he has to do is make an entire film about rock critic Lester Bangs, who shows up as a supporting player in Almost Famous (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Now there is a movie I'd like to see.

(Incidentally, I'm now dipping into the book Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. This guy was fascinating. You can tell a good writer when they captivate you while writing about music groups one knows nothing about.)

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