Almost Famous (2000)
R, for what I was unaware years ago was some very gross stuff. There's language, sure. But this is a movie that has a constant throughline of statutory rape and a fairly gross moment that is played for romance. It's filled with drugs and awful people doing awful things to each other in the name of art. There's very brief nudity, but that nudity is for a character that may be any age between 15-18. R.
DIRECTOR: Cameron Crowe
How can I interpret a movie so differently as an adult than I did as a kid? This movie came out my junior year of high school. I used to think it was super cool to be this kid who just loved music and toured around with a bunch of rock stars. Honestly, I used to think that the main conflict of this movie was about this kid who had to keep his age hidden from Rolling Stone magazine so that he could continue writing this article. I'm so dumb. Okay, I used to be so dumb. I'm only kind of dumb now. By-the-way, for the people who read my stuff fairly regularly, you are going to notice a motif throughout my reviews over the next few weeks with the exception of the horror stuff. I'm taking this World Lit course (don't ask) and I'm writing a paper about the visual travel narrative. This means that I'm going to be watching a bunch of movies that are fundamentally about the journey than the actual goal. If I didn't have a bunch of stuff that I was already excited to watch, I would be super jazzed about this assignment. But I guess I'm sticking new stuff on the back burner because I need to take hardcore notes about movies that I've already seen.
Almost Famous is kind of a creepy movie the more I think about it. It wasn't that way when I was growing up. I mean, I was a junior in high school. This movie was talking to me. Honestly, I didn't even get that hard into music. Around this time, I thought I was hip enough to say that I knew rock 'n' roll (I had to look up the apostrophes, I'm such a noob). I knew soundtracks and that's it. I'm a movie nerd through-and-through. But there was that Hunter S. Thompson attitude (aw crap, I have to add Fear and Loathing. Remind me later.) / Jack Kerouac mentality that came with this. There was this romance to the road and if you could stick a cool soundtrack over that, that would somehow make me a rebel. (I'm wearing a Darth Maul tie. I'm not a rebel. Pun intended.) But this movie is actually fairly troubling. William's journey is still romantic, but Lester Bangs' (portrayed by the amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman) advice is the most telling moment that I should have been paying attention to. These people weren't his friends. They were just using him. Perhaps it wasn't in the way that William or young me took it, but they were using him as a joke. They were using him for his adulation and what they could provide for him. The joke, of course, is that these people were so broken that they still messed up the plan to manipulate him despite the fact that William never really stopped them from doing that. There's a line that Penny Lane says early in the movie. She establishes that she is in love with the music and that she doesn't sleep with the artists. She has this whole mantra that follow the Band-Aids attitude. But she constantly sleeps with them. She is also wildly underage. Like, I'm not sure. It's implied that William is younger than Penny, but they are pretty close in age. But William is 15 and Penny isn't that far off. And there she is, sleeping with Russell, who is just a piece of human garbage. The only reason that this relationship is tolerated for the length of the film is because he's a charming piece of human garbage. It's so weird that over the course of eighteen years, I've gone from relating to William to relating to William's mom.
Now, do I consider these moments faults of the movie? Oddly enough, maybe not. I mean, it's kind of irresponsible of Cameron Crowe to romanticize his childhood this hard. (The movie is semi-autobiographical, so the very nature of nostalgia is going to play throughout the piece.) But the movie really does condemn Russell for his affair with Penny. It's so odd how perfectly Penny is crafted. She is this powerhouse of a liar. She lies to herself most of all, but in high school, that's what was attractive. To William, she has all of the answers. To the adults watching this movie, Penny is such a victim in this scenario. She is this broken little girl who has dreams, but naive dreams that are harmful to herself and the people around her. She should act as cautionary tale, but my kids and I would take away a totally different message about Penny Lane. Penny Lane, to other sixteen year olds (I'm settling with 16 as her age, just so I don't have to keep explaining it), is someone who has broken free of the system. She is a dreamer and a goal setter. But it is in isolation of responsibility or a framework of good role models. This changes everything. I'm watching her as an adult, as is Crowe --I think--and seeing someone who just needs a stable home life. She is this victim throughout. Whenever she opens the doors for William after she sleeps with Russell, I don't weep because Russell's heart is breaking. I'm sad that she is being spent for someone who should be responsible's joy. Crowe stresses the irresponsibility of Russell and the members of Stillwater throughout. But he never outright condemns them, which is an interesting choice. The ending seems to grant Russell redemption, which is kind of awful. But it is his life and that's how he viewed the scenario at the time.
I have all kinds of notes for the first time. I always wanted to have a film notebook full of observations, but I also like being completely engaged with a movie, regardless of how many times I've seen it. The point of this blog is to watch movies critically instead of passively. I think I've achieved a lot of that without a notebook, but the notebook introduced a whole new appreciation for some of the choices with this film. I think I would like the guy who is dismissive of Almost Famous. It's kind of cool to hate Cameron Crowe, but I can't help but like this movie. Again, I'm not a music guy, but I definitely lean hard into music movies. Like, I never really caught the importance of the bus. There's a line, "Doris is the soul of the band." Immediately after saying this, they betray the bus and take the plane. There's this really sad moment when the bus is just sitting on the tarmac as they all walk away. It's such a strong symbol throughout the film. I always treated this line as a joke, especially when they return to the bus for the second tour. But in terms of analyzing travel narratives, it's interesting to show the bus as a character. Often, we see this with science fiction: the DeLorean in Back to the Future; the Enterprise in Star Trek; Baby in Supernatural. (I get that Supernatural is fantasy horror. Shut up.) But it's odd that for a travel narrative, the cities are really a secondary element to the road itself. We normally have in the travel narrative major landmarks. These are done in sweeping shots. Crowe actually uses the interior of the bus and the interior of hotels to show the importance of the journey. This is coupled with a completely rad soundtrack that explains the importance of the journey itself. We only get the interior of the airplane for one moment that stresses the broken nature of the cast. It is during an electrical storm when everyone begins confessing how they have hurt each other time and time again. The lack of soul shows their evil. The bus has "Tiny Dancer". The plane has reminders of how Russell almost inadvertently killed a sixteen-year-old girl.
SPOILER: There's one moment that is gross that isn't meant to be seen as gross. Penny Lane is dying from ingesting quaaludes. Russell, appropriately, tries saving her life. Great. He even tells her that he loves her knowing that she won't remember. Nothing too evil right now. But then he kisses her as she's falling unconscious and comments on the fact that she has slept with lots of guys. What? Um...Cameron Crowe. That's not okay. I know. I'm being 2018 woke. But it is pretty gross if given any kind of inspection. Really, a lot of the movie kind of should take that into account. Crowe has to be aware of a lot of the gross stuff in his film because we have William's mother, flawlessly portrayed by Frances McDormand. When I was a kid, I saw William's mother as a jokey character. She kept seeming overbearing. To a certain extent, that carries over. But she is also remarkably prescient. Everything she fears comes true. She also has this amazing moment where she, without ever raising her voice, destroys Russell. It's great. It's played for laughs, but it is a powerhouse of a performance. It is the expectation of what parenthood is versus what is the true. I know that there had to be a temptation (I keep writing this!) to do the worrying mother archetype. Rather, McDormand is in command of every situation she's presented with. She is a character who is constantly losing her battles but is keeping control of the losses as they keep coming. The message from McDormand isn't to not follow your dreams. It's to know that your dreams may not always be what you think. The two real adult characters come from opposite sides of the coin, but they are far more alike than you would think. Lester Bangs and William's mother are actually oddly the same character, only with different attitudes to the whole situation. Bangs warns William that they are going to manipulate him and wreck him, but he is also a torchbearer to William. His words are on point, but his attitude is understandable knowing that William can't ignore this dream and he'll only understand betrayal after he's experienced it. Bangs also doesn't love William. He was William. He likes him a lot, but that's very different from Mom's attitude. She loves her kids. She already lost one of them by holding on too hard. She is a woman presented with two bad options and can do nothing about either of them. It's great. Slash, it's also really sad.
As gross as this movie is, I think I might always love it. I don't want to be a guy who says that it is a product of its time. I used to think that this was a romantic story. I thought it was one of the few romances I liked at the time. Well, it isn't romantic. It is more of a cautionary tale of youth and growing up. I didn't have William's adolescence. I was the guy who wrote movie blogs with a lot more language. But the movie explores the joys and pitfalls of being a fan. I will always encourage passion, but I love that the movie kind of explores the dark underbelly of passion as well. It's a movie that works weirdly great for teenagers and adults. I kind of want high schoolers to watch this, but also with the knowledge that it is meant to be a morality tale. It's that whole thing of making a kid smoke the whole pack. The big risk is...what if they like it?
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.