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Almost…But No Cigar
by Lucius Shepard
January 2001

"I got a fortune in my veins,
policeman's askin' for my name,
his flashlight's drivin' me insane…
It glitters!
He says, 'Hey, man, what you been
  takin','
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 lyrics quoted above state with some economy my view—and that of most musicians I know—of 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 groupies—a 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.

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 Stillwater—said 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 who—she claims—is 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-looking—you 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 Stone.

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,
she said, 'Baby, you're sick, let's get
  acquainted.
I got a gun between my breasts
  that y'oughta see.
If you can get it out without shootin'
  me,
then I'll be yours for tonight,'
she sang between her teeth.
'But please don't attack me
  'less you gotta…'"
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 music.

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 the genre.

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 characters—he 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.

Oh…okay. It's a poem.

Unfortunately for us all, it's a Rod McKuen poem.