Sentimental Journey

Cameron Crowe returns from the land of classic rock with his coming-of-age epic Almost Famous. 

Almost Famous
Directed by Cameron Crowe
DreamWorks SKG

Cameron Crowe has been preparing for Almost Famous all his life. In the first movie he directed, Say Anything (1989), the hero, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), stands outside the home of the girl who rejected him and holds his boombox aloft, blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in the direction of her bedroom window. I’d never cared for Gabriel’s sappy vocal, but Crowe made the best possible case for it—and for all sentimental love songs that wash over people and make them long to be enfolded in someone’s arms. “This is the sound of my heart,” Lloyd might have said, if he hadn’t been smart enough to let the music speak for him: “I know it’s beautiful. You know it’s beautiful. How can we not be together?”

It’s logical to think that a writer-director with such faith in the power of popular music to dissolve peoples’ differences and transform their lives has a great rock ’n’ roll movie in him, and Almost Famous is almost that movie. It isn’t quite great, but it’s fresh and funny and openhearted. It’s good enough to make you feel the way Lloyd Dobler did with his boombox at full blast: as if anything is possible. That feeling is surprising in light of this movie’s time frame: 1973 and ‘74, years that many of us associate with dead ends—drug abuse, the festering of the counterculture, the start of grisly trends in music and clothing. But it was also the year that Crowe, at the age of 15, managed to land a gig covering bands for Rolling Stone and was suddenly adrift among rock stars and groupies: free birds.

Crowe’s alter ego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), isn’t just metaphorically liberated: He literally uses rock music to escape his mom, Elaine (Frances McDormand), a hysterical puritan with a special fixation on rock ’n’ roll and drugs. His older sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), is even more literal-minded in her flight: In the movie’s prologue, she leaves to become a stewardess and subversively passes along her stash of rock albums. A few years later, William is writing reviews and corresponding with his critic-hero, the most gonzo of romantic cynics and coolest of the uncool, Lester Bangs (played by the coolest of uncool actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bangs counsels William to be wary of trying to make his subjects love him: “Be honest and unmerciful,” he says, and adds that the kid can call him anytime: “I stay up late.”

It’s fun to think of Lester Bangs as Obi-Wan Kenobi in a Star Wars for rock critics, and Bangs did counsel Crowe until his cruelly sudden death in 1982 at the age of 33. In real life, Crowe’s first Rolling Stone cover was on the Allman Brothers Band, and he later got chummy with (and did liner notes for) Peter Frampton (who collaborated on this movie’s soundtrack). But for Almost Famous, Crowe has concocted a fictional group he calls Stillwater, fronted by an archetypal American rock dreamboat named Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). I’ve been indifferent to Crudup in his other movies, in which his baby blues and chiseled visage reinforce a rather bland affect, but here he’s playing an object, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s not too filled-in. That he’s just out-of-reach makes you appreciate the frustration of his bandmate, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), who isn’t so charismatic and who at one point blurts out: “Your looks are becoming a problem.” William doesn’t spend much time with the seething Bebe. The big game is Hammond, who likes the kid but calls him “the enemy” and is apt to yell from behind hotel-room doors: “I’m in too truthful a mood. Go away!”

Crowe’s knack is for capturing how it feels to be on the other side of that door: Resentful but hopelessly magnetized. And William is in beautiful company. Around him are “Band-Aids”—i.e., groupies who see themselves as muses, not sluts. The groupie as life force sounds like a groaningly bad idea. But as the leader of the Band-Aids, who calls herself “Penny Lane,” Kate Hudson is irresistible: William (and the audience) can’t get enough of her warm face and soft curls. The most vivid shot in Almost Famous is of Hudson twirling around an empty stage amid debris from the previous night’s concert—it looks like flower petals. Another director might have lyricized the moment, honeyed it up, and slowed it down. But Crowe knows he doesn’t have to force the magic. He also knows to add some dark spots to Hudson’s radiant demeanor. Penny is in love with Hammond but can’t pin him down (he has a fiancee back home), and her anger seeps through: When the tour bus rolls past a troupe of jogging high-school girls, she waves brightly, beatifically, then lets all fingers drop but the middle. The gesture is pure rock ’n’ roll.

It’s every journalist’s fantasy to be taken into a star’s confidence and turned into a “bud.” And it’s every journalist’s moral dilemma whether to use a subject’s candor against him or her. Almost Famous finally turns on William’s struggle to reconcile his personal feelings for Hammond with his ambition to do justice to what he witnessed. What Crowe leaves out of the equation is how much stature Stillwater is supposed to have: Are they an Allman Brothers Band or a Three Dog Night? It matters because great artists should be cut more slack than the other guys. (On DVD, Crowe will reportedly release a longer cut of the film, with 45 more minutes of music: That might illuminate Stillwater’s artistry.) There’s another omission: This movie about the coming-of-age of a writer doesn’t bother to share any lines from the piece William finally writes. Is Crowe unconsciously expressing the tendency of ex-critics to devalue their criticism? If so, he hurts himself as a dramatist: We want to know how William distills this first big experience in the arena.

Crowe doesn’t buy into to the Dionysian bombast of Oliver Stone’s dire 1991 Doors film. (How could he? In Almost Famous, Bangs dismisses Jim Morrison as “a drunken buffoon posing as a poet,” and the movie’s comic high point is a rock star on acid proclaiming, “I am a golden god!”) But he doesn’t risk trying to get inside the music the way Stone does, either. Crowe was part of the scene but also an outsider—sympathetic but detached. He was fundamentally too sane (or too overmothered?) to dive in the way Bangs did. (Bangs should have listened more carefully to Lou Reed, his White Whale, when Reed chastised him for not doing enough research on the drugs he ingested.) When Crowe has Bangs inform William that there’s “fuckin’ nothin’ about you that’s controversial,” it’s like the filmmaker’s (endearing) admission that his work will always be Rolling Stone and not Bangs’ Creem. Where Bangs would compulsively rip the fabric of his own work, Crowe wants to make the fabric stronger—to find the thread that will weave together the sadness and cruelty and beauty and joy. Almost Famous could use some rips. Its smoothness makes it feel smaller than it is.

But that’s a small price to pay for the pleasure that this movie gives. Crowe is the anti-Neil LaBute: Every frame is gloriously open. When you first see a character in a LaBute film—even one that he didn’t write, like NurseBetty—you know everything you’re going to know. But Crowe’s characters are constantly rewriting themselves—redeeming their badness or compromising their goodness. His thumbs-up endings might be disappointing, but what’s behind them is the conviction that even selfish creeps have the capacity to get out from behind their blinders and see the world from another angle. Unlike Nurse Betty, which portrays the longing for a more beautiful world as the root of all addiction, Almost Famous suggests it’s our key to salvation: our most enduring source of connection.

In his film debut, Fugit has a hint of Matthew Broderick’s wiseguy intelligence, but none of Broderick’s Broadway slickness: He’s like a real person who’s in over his head and trying to think up his role as he goes along. Frances McDormand keeps confounding our expectations, too. The part of Elaine could be a Shelley Winters-like nightmare, but the actress never shortchanges this woman’s intelligence. She’s a brilliant hysteric. When she gets Crudup’s Hammond on the phone, she doesn’t denounce him, she appeals to his better nature with a quote from Goethe: “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Even characters seen fleetingly—Fairuza Balk and Anna Paquin as Hudson’s fellow Band-Aids—seem to have complicated inner lives.

So many details in this movie make you laugh: Hoffman’s mopey alertness; Terry Chen’s laid-back pretentiousness as the Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres; William’s mispronunciation of the word “incendiary” and the way he corrects himself; a shot of a pretty girl waving; the organized chaos of L.A.’s fabled Continental Hyatt (a k a Riot) House; the party among “real people” in Topeka, Kan., at which Hammond enthuses, “I grew up with that lampshade, man.” He later tells a stoned dufus: “You, Aaron, are what it’s all about. You’re real.” The exchange is proof that if “real” people project things on celebrities, celebrities project things right back. Crowe’s world is an open ecosystem—transcendentally open. This movie is his boombox held aloft.