‘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.