by Lucius Shepard
"I got a fortune in my veins,
The lyrics quoted
above state with some economy my viewand that of most musicians I
knowof rock and roll during the 70s. Cameron Crowe's take on the same
subject, as expressed in his new film, Almost Famous, is somewhat
different. Where I saw dope, massive stupidity, women used as drains, psychotic
drummers, deviant businessmen, corporate coke whores, suicides, broken lives,
and brain damage on a generational scale, Crowe apparently saw a more benign
landscape, a happy playland populated by sensitive guitar heroes and
intelligent, compassionate teenage groupiesa place where there was minor
marijuana use but no powders or injectable potions (unless one counts an
overdose on Quaaludes which is played for laughs); where the music was
everything and dreams could come true.
policeman's askin' for my name,
his flashlight's drivin' me insane
He says, 'Hey, man, what you been
I say, 'Nothin', I'm just fakin','
He says, 'Son, you're mistaken
I say, 'Gimme a break, huh!
"'See, I ain't holdin' nothin', man,
'cept my baby by the hand,
and we jus' hangin' with the band,
Hey, all we wanna do is
"'SEE ROCK CITY
"'(Oh, yeah! I wanna
"'SEE ROCK CITY
"'SEE ROCK CITY
"'(Aw, it's so damn pretty!)
"'Before I grow too old to stroll
The idea behind the film is this: William Miller (Patrick Fugit, an actor who
has mastered two whole expressions: a cute smile and an even cuter look of
puppydog bewilderment) is a fifteen-year-old fledgling rock journalist who
lands an assignment for Rolling Stone and goes on the road with hot new
guitar band Stillwatersaid tour forms the backdrop for a coming-of-age
story based on the true-life experiences of director Crowe (Say Anything,
Jerry McGuire). While on the road, William develops a crush on Penny
Lane (Kate Hudson), a groupie whoshe claimsis not really a groupie
but a "band-aid," a term implying a more elevated status; she, in turn, is
infatuated with Stillwater's resident guitar god, Russell Hammond (Billy
Crudup). William, too, is infatuated with Russell, albeit in a fanboy sort of
way, and this loose triangle, along with the band's internal strife, provides
what passes for a dynamic.
Through William's widened, worshipful eyes we are shown (ostensibly) backstage
life at big-time rock venues, the secrets of the tour bus, an overdose, band
squabbles, the infamous Riot House (International Hyatt House), LA's
home-away-from-home to Zeppelin, Bowie, and the entire rock pantheon. None of
this, as presented, has more than a superficial connection with how things
actually were during the 70s. Crowe is not after gritty, he's after warm and
fuzzy, and he delivers those qualities in pillowy buffets of sentiment backed
up by a soundtrack heavy on the Elton John/Cat Stevens/Simon and Garfunkel
spectrum of soft rock, music poorly suited to the milieu he's purporting to
capture, but perfect for the squishy feel-good story he's delivering. When
Russell Hammond trades Penny to the Brit band Humble Pie for $50 and a case of
beer, he gets all misty-lookingyou know he feels awful about the deal,
and he'd pull back from it if it wouldn't make him seem like a wimp. And Penny,
that plucky sixteen-year-old groupie with the consoling patience of a
kindergarten teacher, a boy-toy whose sweetness and purity remain unsullied
despite the degradation attendant upon her way of life (it's not really that
degrading, according to Crowe)
well, she's a wee bit sad, but she
understands. There is minor band dust-up but no sign anywhere of the egos
bloated to the point of disease such as have always dominated the landscape of
rock and roll. And in the end everyone gets their wish, just like in a
fairytale. Miller grows a little, writes his story, and loses his virginity;
Penny goes to live in Morocco; and Russell winds up on the cover of Rolling
Penny is the most problematic figure in the film for me, though none of the
characters have the ring of authenticity, not even the cutely bewildered
William (except for the scene in which Crowe, in imitation of his rock heroes,
sees fit to pad William's briefs so that it appears he's wearing a diaper
beneath them). True, a number of groupies emerged from groupiedom more-or-less
whole and went on to have successful lives; but I daresay not one of them was
as wise and composed and balanced during their teenage years as is Penny. As
untouched by the slime through which they had belly-crawled.
There's a song about one particular groupie that includes the following lyrics:
she come up to me, open wide,
The agitated neuroticism of
these few lines expresses the quintessential psychology of the groupie, the
desire to master those who master them, the use of sex to achieve equal footing
with the musician, the contending strains of violence and passivity. There's
none of that in Penny. She's just a nice teenage girl with the savoir-faire of
Hilary Clinton and the soulfulness of a Renaissance saint who really likes
she said, 'Baby, you're sick, let's get
I got a gun between my breasts
that y'oughta see.
If you can get it out without shootin'
then I'll be yours for tonight,'
she sang between her teeth.
'But please don't attack me
'less you gotta
It's not necessary, of course, that a film accurately portray reality for it to
be judged successful as an entertainment. Rock and roll may not lend itself to
prettification, but hey, if a film such as "Life Is Beautiful" can treat
whimsically of the Holocaust, why not a fairytale set in a rock milieu? And if,
as advertised, Cameron Crowe has fashioned a rock and roll fairytale, then it
should be critiqued as such
given that it satisfies the requirements of
But does it?
All fairytales, however sugary their surface, have at their heart some poignant
truth. So far as I can tell, all Crowe's movie has to say is that 70s rock and
roll was fun, the people involved in it were basically goodhearted, and like
that. Hours of close analysis have revealed no cautionary subtext, no
leitmotif, no "message" of any sort. Therefore we must conclude that the movie
is not a fairytale except as regards its glossing over of reality.
Is it, then, a comedy?
If so, it's not that funny. Which is surprising, given that Crowe has proved
himself a consistent writer of clever dialogue. Sentiment, I suppose, clotted
his wit in this instance. But there have been several films released during the
last two years, most notably Still Crazy and Sugartown, that
reference similar materials and are immeasurably funnier than Almost Famous.
The more I pondered this film, the more perplexed I became concerning Crowe's
choices, especially the toned-down-to-a-whisper sexuality and drug use. He
could have told the same story far more effectively and humorously by keeping
in some of the sleaze, so as to contrast the sweetness of his
charactershe didn't have to wallow in it, merely add a dash or two of
bitters to give his fairytale cast a context that would have caused their
actions to seem moral choices formed amidst an infectious immorality. Perhaps,
I thought, Crowe was responding to the dictates of commercialism. Saccharine
sells in the good ol' US of A, and no one ever lost a buck by giving the public
what they want. But then another possibility occurred. A couple of years ago
Hollywood began to get the message from Washington, D.C., that if they didn't
clean up their act, something might have to be done by way of monitoring the
industry. At this point the studios greenlighted a bunch of "positive message"
projects and ordered a large number of previously greenlighted scripts to be
rewritten and given an uplifting gloss. Among the first of these movies to go
into distribution is the forthcoming Kevin Spacey-Helen Hunt-Hayley Joel Osment
vehicle, Pay It Forward, a piece of heartstring-tugging dreck so cloying
it would choke a garbage disposal, a minty-fresh mouthwash of a movie that will
cause all the bought-and-paid-for, blurb-giving critics to gargle in unison, a
synthetic tearjerker that will start ducts flowing in every quarter of the
land, a glutinous wad of glup that twenty years from now will be remembered
only by archivists.
(Thanks, Tipper. You too, Mrs. Cheney. I can't hardly wait for the heartwarming
tsunami of triumph-of-the-human-spirit bullshit that will soon wash away
whatever vestiges of creativity remain in the Hollywood brainpan.)
It might be, I told myself, that Crowe's movie was a victim of the same
ludicrous and no doubt fleeting attempt at moral renewal that spawned Pay it
Forward. Certainly, although Almost Famous will do big box
office and earn several Oscar nominations (director, script, supporting actor),
a similar fate awaits it.
Whatever the reason for its shortcomings, Almost Famous is in sum almost
insubstantial, an exercise in flavorlessness, a veneer without noticeable
underpinning, and wastes solid performances by Frances McDormand as William's
eccentric mom Elaine, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the rock critic Lester
Bangs. In a recent TV interview, Cameron Crowe has remarked that he intended
the film to be a poem to the people he met when he was fifteen.
okay. It's a poem.
Unfortunately for us all, it's a Rod McKuen poem.