What do I love about Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous? To begin with … everything.
Cameron Crowe, teenage rock scribe turned adult film maker. To date, still the youngest ever staff writer in Rolling Stone magazines’ near 50 year history but I’m afraid his years on the road, scribbling about Led Zep and the Eagles came before my time.
He came to wider prominence writing the screenplay for the superb Fast Times At Ridgemont High. His influential script made cinéastes realise that he had more to offer than reviews of Cheap Trick and Survivor. Indy grunge classic, ‘Singles’ followed in the early 90’s but it took the critical and commercial success of ‘Jerry Maguire’ in 1996 to move him up into the big leagues. Although he has his fans, he’ll never be held in awe by the cinema going public the way guys like Scorsese and Spielberg are, but I suspect that’s fine with him. Always at ease on the outside looking in, he has fashioned his own uncool path which he skates down without one f*ck being given. This is a man who has been making his own mix tapes and chronicling his current musical tastes, every month, since 1978. I love how he can make a chemistry free clunker – Elizabethtown – actually quite endearing. Or the fact that he turned the classic Spanish sci-fi, ‘Abre Los Ojo’ into ‘Vanilla Sky’ – more Gap commercial than psych thriller – and made a deformed Tom Cruise more handsome than 90% of the male population. Despite these minor gripes, I still greatly admire his works, even if the film-going public are sometimes slow to recognise their merits. But from John Cusack standing with a beatbox above his head, to the much quoted Cuba Gooding Jnr. catchphrase, he is able to tap into moments and make the unlikely, iconic. And for me, the one movie that deserves your attention is unarguably his most personal; the semi autobiographical, Almost Famous, so I’m going to give you 10 reasons that explain exactly why I am an anorak for this magical piece of celluloid. Needless to say, there will be spoilers!
1. The generational shift – The character of protagonist William Miller (played by film debutant, Patrick Fugit), bears more than a passing resemblance to the writer/director. Like Miller, Crowe grew up in a musically unsympathetic, academic household with a domineering mother at the helm. But rather than following the lazy, Hollywood model of dysfunctionality, Crowe presents the family unit as being caught on a generational fault line. The mother, played by the ever wonderful Frances McDormand, is a soy-cooking, Goethe-quoting liberal who fails to see the irony in her daughter, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), showing the same kind of individualistic rebellion that she herself has, only Anita’s symbols of resistance are Simon and Garfunkel, not Jung and Atticus Finch. Young William, being groomed for a life in law, watches with interest as she states her intent to break free. Paul and Art’s vocal travelogue, ‘America’ plays out. She leaves but not before throwing the points that will change the course of William’s path. A selection of classic rock era albums – Pet Sounds, Disraeli Gears, Tommy, Axis Bold as Love, all the director’s own records! – hidden under his bed, will become his road map.
2. Empowerment through writing – In another parallel with the director’s real childhood, the fictional character struggles with being a pre-teen over-achiever. In one great scene, the camera pans across a mirror in a school toilet. The young adults are preening their afros and prototype moustaches. The camera continues to pan towards the clearly pre-pubescent lead. This ‘out of place-ness’ is compounded when his mother is forced to reveal that William is actually a year younger than she’d led him to believe. But the one aspect of his life where he shows maturity beyond his years is in his writing. Notebooks covered in band names hint as to where his passions truly lie. William’s badgering brings him to the attention of the editor of prestigious music mag, Creem and fellow San Diaegian, Lester Bangs. The legendary rock writer recognises a kindred spirit in William, and no little talent. One Black Sabbath commission later and the youngster is lost to law forever.
3. The casting – A cast of little known character actors knock this one out of the park. Even the more established talents like Anna Paquin, Noah Taylor and Philip Seymour Hoffman (more of whom later) bring a vital touch of freshness to the well established coming-of-age sub-genre. A lot of credit must go to Patrick Fugit who plays the lead role with assuredness belying his callow years. His slide from wide-eyed innocence to jaded disillusionment makes this an exceptional film debut. Kate Hudson at 21, is luminous, self-assured but with a touching vulnerability. Unschooled in matters of the heart, the teenage William falls deep for her. And it’s hardly surprising. Oscar nominated for the part, Hudson has sadly never come remotely close to this level again. The aforementioned McDormand (also Oscar nominated in the same category as Hudson) is magnificent. At times tough and unyielding but with just enough heart and soul to make her character a perfectly observed real materfamilias. Then we have the generally underused Billy Crudup playing guitarist Russell Hammond. Crudup was a late replacement for Brad Pitt and his performance was one of such subtlelty that Pitt, for all his star quality and talent, wasn’t missed. Crudup’s quiet cool, pop star good looks and the chemistry he has with Hudson are as incendiary as his character’s guitar work. Last but by no means least, Jason Lee follows his criminally underrated turn as Brodie in ‘Mallrats’ with this scene stealing turn as the singer, Jeff Bebe, jealous of the attention his musical partner is getting. With future stars in their own right like Jay Baruchel, Rainn Wilson and Eric Stonestreet making small but telling contributions, it’s hard to argue with the assertion that Almost Famous has one of the finest and most complimentary ensembles in recent memory.
4. Elton John’s songs – There’s not another film director that showcases Reg and Bernie’s buried gems like Cameron Crowe. Two of their semi-forgotten gems – Tiny Dancer and Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – from his early 70’s peak feature here. And their inclusion at key moments enhance the mood perfectly, the lyrics of the latter emphasising the tawdry reality of what was once a perceived idyll.
And now I know
Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say
I thought I knew
But now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City
5. The dynamic of the band ‘Stillwater’ – Classic band dynamic at work. Egotistical singer/front man who has love/hate relationship with guitarist ‘with mystique’. Couple that with a ‘happy to be along for the ride’ rhythm section and you’ve just made an identikit 70’s rock band. Only one of the ‘band’ was an actual musician, Mark Kozelek of Kil Sun Moon/Red House Painters but as the actors rehearsed solidly as the band for six weeks solid they pulled off a pretty good grift.
6. The touring – Home from home. Whether it’s on a bus, a plane or at a hotel/motel, when William states that he needs to go home, Penny stops him in his tracks with the killer, ‘You are home’ line. Never a truer word was spoken on the road, that river with a hundred undercurrents. The lines between the real world and this heightened, seemingly utopic one are merging like the headlights on the highway.
7. Lester Bangs/Phillip Seymour Hoffman – The late night loser heart-to-hearts between William and Lester Bangs are the standout moments in the film for me. ‘The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.’ says Bangs to Miller as the latter is left high and dry following the band’s betrayal. Following Hoffman’s tragic death it would be easy to mythologise his performance here but I’d go toe to toe with anyone who refused to see that this was a major talent operating. He’s only on screen for ten or so minutes but every frame crackles with passion, honesty, heartbreak, loneliness, empathy. Not a missed beat or a false note. Sadly, Hoffman’s 2014 overdose mirrors Bangs’ own pharmaceutical demise. This film will be seen as a lasting testament to both of them.
8. The Cameos – The movie is crammed full of excellent little cameos by legendary musicians and some of the small screen’s funniest people. For instance, the scene where Penny is sold to Reg, roadie of Humble Pie for $50 and a case of Heineken, Reg is actually 70’s guitar hero Peter Frampton, once of …you guessed it, Humble Pie. My own favourite vignette is when William is being led down the teeming corridor at the Continental Hyatt (Riot) House Hotel when he stops by an open door. Inside the room, oblivious to the chaos outside are a male/female duo, clearly based on Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. William is caught up in their moment for a mere few seconds but the intensity of their duet remains. Then we have their new manager, played by a youthful Jimmy Fallon. ‘If you think Mick Jagger is going to be strutting his stuff on stage aged 50, you’re sadly mistaken,’ he exhorts, trying to sell the band his type of insurance. A ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment later on, comes when William looks for the distressed Penny in a number of big yellow taxis parked outside of the Plaza hotel. One startled, middle aged passenger is actually Rolling Stone founder – and Crowe’s old boss – Jann Wenner. Anorak off…
9. Near death experiences, roof, drug overdose, electrocution and plane – In this sanitized era, it’s easy to forget how fucking dangerous the world of rock used to be. O.D.s were commonplace and choking on vomit, regardless of whom it belonged to, was a regular occupational hazard. As were fatal transportation mishaps … Jim, Janis, Jimi, Otis, Brian, Duane and Berry … the list is endless. And in this film, it’s poor Russell Hammond who bears the brunt. First, in a mirror of Alex Harvey’s brother Les’s tragic demise, he is electrocuted on stage by a badly earthed mic stand. Fortunately, he survives but his luckless streak continues at the next stop. While blowing off some much needed steam at a party full of ‘real Topeka people’, he unwisely drinks ‘the beer from the red cup’. Out of his chump on acid, he decides to leap off the roof after declaring that he is a Golden God! A subsequent mid air loss of engine power is a walk in the park for Hammond who sings Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’ to the chagrin of his terrified band. And as they plummet to almost certain doom, a painful few home truths emerge.
10. Soundtrack – This is the clincher. Given Crowe’s background in music, the placement of songs from the classic rock era works in perfect tandem to the narrative. And given the film’s musical procurement budget – over double the industry standard at just over $3m – the director gets value out of every cent. From Elton John and The Beach Boys hypnotic ‘Feel Flows’ to a handful of previously inaccessible Led Zeppelin tracks like The Rain Song, the former Rolling Stone writer must have called in a few old favours to get rarely granted permissions. Soundtrack highlights include Stevie Wonder singing over the scene where William declares his love to a comatose Penny Lane just before the hotel doctor arrives to pump her stomach. ‘My Cherie Amour’ takes on a whole new meaning as the medics force tubing down the drugged Penny’s throat. There’s also the ominous tones of Voodoo Chile as they board their tour plane, the brief excerpt of Cat Stevens’ ‘The Wind’ as Penny waltzes around the empty ballroom; the director’s own favourite scene. Joni Mitchell, Allman Brothers Band, Rod Stewart…one killer cut after another. But there is one guitar/mandolin motif written for specifically for the film by the director’s then wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart, that arguably tops the stellar cast of superstars. A lovely piece which frustratingly didn’t make the cut onto the commercially released album but is crucial to the poignancy of two key scenes.
Bonus reason – Too often a well meaning/egotistical director decides that the theatrical cut wasn’t totally in tune with his vision. Usually long after the cheque has cleared. In my view, rarely does a directors cut touch the viewer as keenly as the version they saw and fell in love with. Examples; Cinema Paradiso – what the fuck was Tornatore thinking? And Blade Runner. Sorry Ridley, it’s lipstick on the Mona Lisa. Happily though, in this instance the dreaded director’s cut – called Untitled – actually enhances the viewing experience with extensions to scenes that were trimmed to keep the film within the two hour time frame.
At some point – probably around 1982 – rock started to go down the shitter. Corporations became more involved and MTV was born. Making a piece of art became a secondary concept to selling a product. This movie captures a time when rock music still was cool, fun and still worthy of a second glance.
So there you have it, I’ve given you enough reasons to check this film out. But if your idea of a classic movie is ‘Fast and Furious’, don’t bother.