Sunday, July 03, 2005

Don't take drugs!

I watched Untitled last night. That's the name bestowed upon the Director's Cut of Almost Famous, a movie that I loved when I watched it a year and a half ago. I'm not sure why the Director's Cut is called Untitled, although I suspect it has to do with the film's subject matter of the rock-and-roll world of the 1970s, when true rock fans traded in bootleg albums by their favorite bands. Many of these boots have seen "official" release in the CD era, but back then, rock fans would (or so I'm told) speak in a kind of code while perusing each others' record collections: "Whoa, you've got the Iggy Pop live album from Denver in '69! Got any idea how long I've been searching for that album?" And so on.

(I made that example up, by the way, so if you know for a fact that Iggy Pop couldn't possibly have played Denver in '69, deal with it, OK?)

Untitled adds quite a bit of material to a film that was already on the long side, but I didn't mind; this is one of those films that immerses you in a world that you either never knew existed or if you did know it existed you either had no way of entering that world or (like me) it didn't matter because that world was gone by the time you were old enough to know about it anyway. Since I only saw the original release once, I'm not entirely sure what material was new for the Untitled DVD release, but there was quite a bit of stuff at the beginning with young William Miller (well, even younger William Miller, since he's only 15 for most of the film) that I don't remember, as well as an absolutely hilarious scene in which Stillwater (the film's rock band) is doing a radio interview with a stoner radio host who falls asleep in mid-sentence. As for that, I'm not sure what else is new.

Here's some of what I posted when I first saw Almost Famous, in November of 2003:

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 I just have to track down a copy of This is Spinal Tap. I'll bet that film, plus this one, would make a wonderful double feature.

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