Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe)
Will you indulge me enough to let me talk about my late adolescence for just a moment? I was a rabid consumer of rock & roll-related literature as soon as I could get my hands on it, and a story that always intrigued me was that of Cameron Crowe, who at a tender age had made his way into gigs writing for Rolling Stone and Creem through various backdoors. Then, when not much older, he abandoned this field and became a screenwriter and filmmaker. I was never that much of a fan of his journalism, but the thing was that he lived what sounded like the ultimate fantasy as a teenager: to be there, to observe and witness so much that others his age would only ever conjure up in dreams. It was like while the rest of the rock target audience of kids and fans experienced the ’70s from a safe distance, he found a way to live through it and even become a part of it.
I longed to know more, even as deep down I sort of knew that rock journalism was (as I would eventually discover firsthand) vastly more mundane a lifestyle than Crowe’s mythology implied. Crowe was a bit of a sycophant to the rock stars he profiled, much more a fanzine writer than a reporter, but in many ways that’s the reason that he is the right person to make a film like Almost Famous. Unshaded by cynicism or the jaded feeling of lost opportunity that might have overtaken others in his place, Crowe had the wide eyes and the attention to detail that would allow him to render this someday into a beautiful, vivid piece of atmosphere and storytelling. He didn’t just witness these times, rock’s most communal moment and the unfortunate turning point of it corporatization, they happened to him, and at an age when he — like anyone else — was extremely vulnerable.
And so: Almost Famous is the first movie whose existence I deeply wished for long before it was made. What no one could have imagined was how personal, how deep he would go. Crowe’s filmography as both writer and director is spotty at best; he wrote Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, one of the very few realistic films about teenagers and a stunning accomplishment, but it comes from a pedestrian bit of undercover journalism he did, he later admitted, because he felt empty about missing out on a normal adolescence. His directorial debut Say Anything… is a genuine and refreshingly sweet capturing of first love; Singles retains the “sweet” part but feels far too much like a studio-sanctioned advertisement for the Seattle grunge trend and suffers from weak characterization and tonal confusion. Vanilla Sky is a pointless thriller and I can speak to nothing about his subsequent work except its tepid reception.
But the big offender is really Jerry Maguire, Crowe’s most commercially successful film — a marathon of yuppie angst and sports-related schmoozing starring Tom Cruise and supposedly inspired by The Apartment; he and most critics considered it a quantum leap forward, but the best reason for its existence is simply that its vast box office returns permitted Almost Famous to exist, and with little to no outside interference. (DreamWorks head Steven Spielberg in fact requested that Crowe film his screenplay with no changes, an unheard-of opportunity.) The film couldn’t be more of a world apart from its predecessor, and really seems more of a piece with Say Anything…; more than anything, and really more than nearly any other mainstream American film of its era, it plainly emanates from the soul of someone.
Crowe translates himself as one William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a bright child who becomes an alienated teenager; his mom (Frances McDormand) is overprotective and dotes on him, a tendency that already drove his sister (a young, bright-eyed Zooey Deschanel) away as far as she could get. William pores over Creem and hooks up with its editor, the hallowed Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman, as perfect as can be) and through sheer pluck picks up a series of assignments that in turn lead him to fancier digs — a big-time profile for Rolling Stone, eventually a cover story, about a struggling second-class hard rock group called Stillwater. Though there was a band with that precise name, Crowe (for reasons unknown) interpolates it for a fictionalized hybrid of the many artists he interviewed, in particular the Who and the Allman Brothers Band.
The sense of the period and the world of the touring rock band circa 1973 is relentlessly vivid in a manner that is constantly apparent, but you have to do a bit of extracurricular research to realize just how accurate everything is. Not only are the vast majority of the events and exchanges in the film taken from things Crowe witnessed, we often are seeing them happen in the actual places where they occurred. Early on, William makes his way backstage at a Black Sabbath concert against the wishes of a surly door manager; by the by he is introduced to the charismatic groupie Penny Lane, “like the song” (Kate Hudson), who lectures him on the ways of the Muse and takes him under her wing for a bit before we quickly learn she has a past with Russell (Billy Crudup), the guitarist of Stillwater. All this happens in a nondescript alleyway that could be just about anywhere, but it isn’t anywhere; it’s the precise location where Crowe experienced this pivotal moment in the real world.
Later on, William loses his virginity in “boring” Greenville, Tennessee to a triad of young women who’ve been traveling with Stillwater; the episode of Midnight Special playing on TV, with Steely Dan slogging through “Reelin’ in the Years,” is in fact the actual program that was playing when Crowe lived this. Does this authenticity make as much a difference to the viewer as the attention paid to just upholding the general feel and energy of the period being depicted? Maybe not directly, but it’s just an extension of the feeling we get that this is a film and a story that comes from a place of deep love, of caring toward every trace of its dreamlike evocation of not just “the” past but very specifically one’s own past. Such personal sincerity indicates what’s really at the heart of Almost Famous, and it has very little to do with rock music.
It does tend, of course, to be judged and thought of as a rock film, and there are pieces of mythos and privileged backstage dirt here that get us caught up in a whirlwind of genuine excitement, because it feels just busy and overstuffed enough to be a genuine document rather than a narrative film. Personally, this isn’t the kind of music I respond to; not a big classic rock fan, I tend to swerve to early rock & roll, garage bands, soul and punk, and Neil Young is the only one of the soundtrack’s heavily featured artists I really love, David Bowie the only worshiped figure I too idolize, but even I get caught up in the sensation of being there, so complete is the illusion of another time. The nature of the music itself doesn’t really matter because the film so lovingly captures the sense of being infatuated with music — and with writing about music (though I do wish we got a better sense of the latter).
Where it excels even further is as an American road movie; there aren’t many examples so strong of such a believable, hefty sense of journey — on which relationships are built that are meaningful but may or may not continue after the completion of the ride. And though it sometimes threatens to descend into the obvious, the fly-on-the-wall glimpses of band infighting among Stillwater, especially between Russell and lead singer Jeff (an enjoyably obnoxious Jason Lee) do seem transplanted from a lot of moments of ill-advised drunken confessional. When Russell starts ranting about only wanting to know about what’s “real,” when Jeff goes on and on about “chicks,” when the moronic redneck bass player talks about “gettin’ some barbecue,” or when Jeff gets left behind in a gas station bathroom despite being the “fucking lead singer,” it’s messier than a Behind the Music documentary but it’s born of that world in an oddly trustworthy manner.
But alas, Almost Famous remains touching and truly resonant because of what it tells us about Crowe himself, and those are the universal things. As in Say Anything…, his script convincingly piles up the small incidents and knowing asides that add up to a first serious crush and half-formed relationship. Fugit and Hudson, the former older than he looks, the latter younger, give beautiful, nuanced, intriguingly sad and complex performances — in his eyes especially is the entire story of a hopeless but instructive crush that builds into a mutually caring, robust friendship. It isn’t immediately obvious onscreen, but Penny and William make immense sacrificial gestures for one another in the third act that are enough to make you well up if you really think about it, and both sell their full-bodied characters with aplomb. As the picture’s inevitable straight man, Fugit will never get the credit he deserves for the inner life he crafts here, but not one of his many facial grace notes rings false even if Crowe’s dialogue for him periodically can. As for Hudson, giving a star-making performance if there ever was one, she walks a tightrope; her every movement seems carefully conceived, including her faux-casually graceful walk, but that’s perhaps because she is portraying a person who is herself constantly playing a part. Since she is based on a real person whom Crowe longed to be with as a teenager, it would be easy to decry her characterization as an MPDG stereotype (and it was a later film of Crowe’s, Elizabethtown, that in fact prompted Nathan Rabin to create that infamous term), but it’s telling that Hudson retunes her performance entirely in her last few scenes, after Penny stops setting out to uphold an image.
Almost Famous carefully withholds information — one of its themes: the weight of the unstated — about the inevitable future and its comedowns despite a satisfying but vague closing montage; we don’t really know where Penny and William’s lives go next. All we know is that the band basically makes it, but that’s small potatoes for us — they’re public figures living public lives, helped along by the likes of William to enable that. But we end the film on William and his reunited family, and on the vague suggestion that he and Penny might share a knowing glance now and then, a memory of what they’ve been through. The return to San Diego feels frankly like a wish-fulfillment fantasy; it’s as though, after growing up too fast, these two really can go home again. Maybe it’s nonsense, but it’s achingly moving, all the more so if it’s a fabrication. Reality — including about the relationships we really have, rather than those we yearn to keep but can’t — is captured in William’s continued late-night conversations with Lester Bangs, his monologues puffed-up but heartfelt. Crowe emphasizes how lucky we must be if we have someone to call who, as Lester puts it, is “always home” because he’s “uncool.” (The only reason that line hasn’t made it into my regular lexicon is because of what Holly Hunter says to Albert Brooks in Broadcast News: “Call if you get weird.”)
That speech about being “uncool” and Hoffman’s gloriously warm reading of it defined my transition to adulthood. Crowe gets credit for at least four culture-permeating phrases in Jerry Maguire: “show me the money”; “help me help you”; “you had me at hello”; and the particularly creepy “you complete me.” They all sound like empty buzzwords to me, but it’s not my culture. But the repetition of “It’s all happening!” in this film — sometimes an indication of a flurry of activity that’s really storming around the characters, sometimesly mostly wishful thinking? Those three words felt like motivation to me back then, and now on seeing the film again they capture what I now know what it does feel like when you have a Nostalgia-Free Moment — when you are completely aware that what’s going on right this minute is one of those things you’ll remember as long as you live. Not just the events, but the feeling, the air around you, all of it. And as someone who very much needed to get away from the home where I grew up and then did, that lovely, iconic sequence in which a chorus of “Tiny Dancer” breaks out on a tour bus — which could have been so artificial but isn’t, even before you know it was a real event — and Penny announces to a frantic William that he is home, well, there have been times when that was exactly what I needed to hear. Just like “I’m always home — I’m uncool” is what everyone needs to hear when they’re alone.
Crowe is more a writer than a director, but this by far his most nimble film visually (Singles having been a surprisingly clumsy, scrappy effort as studio pictures go). His and John Toll’s camera is admirably invisible, influenced apparently by Francois Truffaut’s work in the ’70s. Crowe’s most impressive feat is in part as much the work of production designer Clay Griffith as of himself, but having been on the sidelines for so many big rock shows in the early ’70s he plainly injects every bit of his heart into reviving that intoxicating environment. Next to the transcendent “Tiny Dancer” moment, the electricity and depth of the crowds of fans awaiting their heroes within and outside of shows and hotels and the oddly stirring sequence of Kate Hudson dancing in an emptied-out ballroom to Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” go a long way toward making this world seem palpable anew, and full of breath, affection, beating hearts. He shows a sense of profound loss when he rhymes Billy Crudup’s exit from a private exchange to a mobbing, furiously buzzed audience with Fairuza Balk’s similar entrance to the room of a lonely, sparsely occupied cafe after the foggy bliss has lifted.
It’s hard to suss out in all this, but Almost Famous is in fact a comedy; Crudup’s sojourn to a gathering of “real Topeka people” at which he has an acid freakout high on kitchens and mouse-eating snakes, Fugit’s unjustified explosion over being asked to take out laundry by the woman (Balk) who’s just helped deflower him, and Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres’ phone conversation with the same sleepy young maiden would each be the highlight of a less densely packed film. But in a movie full of telling, affecting moments, the standout is Hudson’s: told she was sold to Humble Pie’s crew for a pittance and a case of beer, she looks distraught and hurt and gives a long pause before, in Leonard Cohen’s phrase from “Chelsea Hotel,” fixing herself: “What… kind of beer?” This was the line that made Billy Wilder chuckle at a private screening. It is everything about pluck and the human resistance to being destroyed. It serves as a microcosm of the entirety of this film: it carries the wit and sparkle of a refined, expert pen — but more importantly, it has the ring of a heartfelt truth that no amount of abstraction can dissipate. As Russell would put it, it’s real.