To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)

We learned more from a three-minute record, baby/than we ever learned in school’ (Bruce Springsteen, No Surrender)

With the end of the 2000’s fast approaching, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous in my opinion is still the best feel good movie of the decade. Every time I re-watch it however (I guess about once a year on average), I’m temporarily struck by a sense of guilt (then again, according to mentor and rock scribe Lester Bangs, eminently played by chameleon Phillip Seymour Hoffman, that’s probably a good thing, considering how much great rock music that feeling has fostered). I feel guilty, and Lester Bangs encourages me to embrace that guilt. But why, exactly, am I feeling guilty? Oh, it’s the same old fear of wasting my time on lesser activities. Why am I watching a movie in which Lester Bangs lectures me on the primacy of rock, when I could instead have listened to some music, trying to become as fat, ugly, knowledgeable and ruthlessly self-confident as he is? It’s an interesting paradox that Crowe via Bangs uses a movie to hammer home the point that all things considered, music is probably a superior art form anyway. It’s somewhat weird and I don’t know if it’s my inner wannabe rock scribe talking or if it’s simply because I so admire the sheer force of the argument, but for a moment I’m not sure if I’m supposed to like movies at all. Movies are not music, after all. But then, finally, I get it: I love movies (too), because Almost Famous always  makes me remember just how much I love music.

No doubt Almost Famous, about a young rock enthusiast who miraculously lands a writing gig for Rolling Stone Magazine that takes him on the road and up in the sky with the egomaniacs of fictitious 70’s rockers Stillwater, is Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece.  Sure, Say Anything was quite decent, Singles definitely had its moments, Jonathan Lipnicki saved Jerry Maguire from Cuba Gooding jr., and Vanilla Sky was marginally better than its admittedly lousy reputation (Elizabethtown, on the other hand, is every bit as bad as everybody says it is, and then some), but considering Almost Famous is his only really good film, the sense of it being the cornerstone of his filmography becomes even greater. Rumor has it the film is at least partly autobiographical, based on up-and-coming rock writer Crowe’s experiences with ambitious proggers Yes in the 70’s.  True or not, it offers one possible reason why the film feels so lovingly energetic. ‘Cause in the end, of course, it’s all about love; loving the music, even loving journalism. Most of all however, it’s about loving those who give journalists their mission, the musicians and their fans. And as with all true love, it can feel liberating and inspirational, but also painstakingly direct and embarrassing – all at once. There’s never any real distance between the worshipper and the worshipped, which means that Stillwater’s every ego trip is laid bare out there for all to see. At times it can actually be quite painful to watch, as in the constant rivalry between lead singer Jeff (Jason Lee) and guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) over who should be in front at the press photos. But most of all it’s oddly human, I think. And hilarious. Because we’re never like that…are we?

This might sound a little odd, but what I like most about Almost Famous is that it never gives in to the natural desire to be a satire, with all the inherent cynicism that comes with something like that. Sure, all the regular caricatures are there; the cynical corporate manager; the lead singer who thinks he’s more important than the band; the cool-headed groupie, the overly independent rock writer (Lester Bangs); the protective who’s afraid that sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll might corrupt her son. But soon we realize that they’re all there because they’re necessary, and that they should be taken at least somewhat seriously. In the hands of a lesser actress than the consistently brilliant Frances MacDormand the concerned mother could easily have been reduced to a hapless caricature, but instead she comes off as the most complex character of all. In the end, this film is an appreciation of rock music, and a shout-out to all who saw it prosper. I suspect you have to be a rather ingrained cynic not to appreciate it.

How about backward-looking then, doesn’t it have to be backward-looking? I’d say not more than the average viewer. Much like I once in a while need some for someone to tell me that my film fascination is nothing to be ashamed of, I’m more than ready for anything or anyone who wants to remind me that rock music was once important, and that it should still be a force to reckon with. Almost Famous‘s broad 70’s nostalgia could  actually make people of my generation feel a certain connection with our parents, and also remind us that history repeats itself. Just like 70’s rock meant a lot to our parents when they were young, there were made some excellent records in Seattle in the early 90’s, and they meant a lot to me. This film gave me a chance to remember this period of my childhood and early adolescence, without ever feeling that it’s somehow too recent to feel nostalgic about. It gave us Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Singles, after all. Almost Famous opened my eyes. Again. That’s not looking backward. It’s about understanding yourself in the light of what has come before. I love it for that.

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6 Responses to To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)

  1. This post is a nice change to your other entries. I liked “Almost Famous” but I didn’t love it the first (and only) time I saw it. Maybe I need to see it again so I can fully appreciate it.

    Would you care to share some of those “excellent records… in the early 90’s” that you speak of? I need some “new” albums worth listening to. =]

  2. queerlefty says:

    I’ve seen ‘Almost Famous’ so many times now, I’m starting to become unsure whether it’s my nostalgic feelings toward the film itself, or the 70’s nostalgia contained within it that I love most, but in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s still an inspirational and entertaining story for anyone who once had a dream of living by writing. Also, the soundtrack is great.

    The early 90’s stuff I alluded to was mainly the hightlights of the grunge rock era (Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, ‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam, ‘Superunknown’ by Soundgarden, etc), but it had some upshoots even outside of the Seattle area (I would put Smashing Pumpkins’ still excellent ‘Siamese Dream’, in there, and it could be argued that both Weezer and Green Day drew some inspiration, whether explicit or not). Much of what came out of the grunge wave feels hopelessly dated today, but all of these are still worth a shot.

  3. poeticgrin says:

    First of all, you’re quoting Ryan Adams in the title. And I absolutely love you for it. Me and Ryan go way back…. Second of all, you are talking about what probably is very close to my favorite movie of all time. Third of all, you could write for Rolling Stone yourself. You’ve got the music-writing talent TOO! How many times do I have to tell you that you should be getting paid for this stuff?!?!!?!

  4. queerlefty says:

    Well, Bryan, I love you back for your always encouraging words.

    I’m thrilled that you caught my Ryan Adams reference. Shamefully, I gotta admit that I have only passing knowledge of his Whiskeytown material, but I really admire him as a solo artist. Like so many others, I discovered him trough ‘Gold’, but while that’s certainly a great album (‘New York, New York’, ‘Answering Bell’, Rescue Blues’, ‘La Cienega Just Smiled’, ‘Harder Now That It’s Over’, ‘Goodnight, Hollywood Boulevard’, ‘Sylvia Plath’ etc.), I think ‘Heartbreaker’ is his best record. Over the last couple of years I’ve become more of a country person (or ‘alt country’ or ‘country rock’ or whatever), and it’s never ever wrong to do a duet with the great Emmylou Harris. ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ is probably one of the best songs recorded in this decade. ‘I’ve never been to Vegas, but I’ve gambled all my life’ is a very beautiful line, and ‘I miss Kentucky and I miss my family’ always gives me goosebumps. I love ‘Heartbreaker’ for how rich and diverse (wrong word, I know) it is, from country to blues (‘To Be Young’) and something that resembles 50’s rock ‘n roll (‘Shakedown On 9th Street’), painfully somber love songs (‘My Winding Wheel, ‘In My Time Of Need’, ‘Come Pick Me Up’, ‘Amy’).

    That said, I think ‘Jacksonville City Lights’, he’s purest country album, was great too. It seems his co-operation with The Cardinals was not only productive, but also had him mature as an artist. It took me a while to come to terms with ‘Cold Roses’, but last year’s excellent ‘Cardinology’ sort of became a way in to that record as well. His main weakness has of course always been his penchant for releasing practically everytime he has ever recorded. While I appreciate every new song personally, I may have denied some of the recognition he deserves. ‘Demolition’ and ‘Love Is Hell’ were positive results of this hyper-productiveness, while I think less of ’29’ and particularly ‘Rock & Roll’.

    Speaking of country (sort of), I finally just have to recommend Emmylou Harris’s ‘All I Intended To Be’ (2008).

  5. Okay, so I was at Rasputin (kind of like a thrift store for CDs, DVDs, cassettes, posters, records, etc. in the Bay Area) and saw an “Almost Famous” DVD. I completely thought of you and how much you loved the film so I decided to buy it to see if I can love it more than I did the first time. lol. Hopefully, I’ll rewatch it ASAP.

    Your writing inspires me to give certain films a second chance because you do make great points!

  6. queerlefty says:

    I hope you’ll love as much as I do. Maybe I’ll rewatch it too, simply to keep up on what made me love it in the first place.

    Thanks for the praise. Just keep your critical eyes open, so we can continue to battle it out where we disagree. You make me a better viewer as well. While we still disagree on both ‘The Reader’ and ‘The Wackness’ (among others), you made see it some things I didn’t before.

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