03 March 2009

The words she knows, the tune she hums

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[Pics: Dreamworks]

Cameron Crowe’s rock flick Almost Famous (2000) brought together a talented cast, a top-notch collection of period tunes and a story that in lesser hands could’ve been pure cheese.  The movie tells its story well, not only because it benefitted from excellent casting and performances, but also because it was an intimately personal tale, with Crowe spinning his own semi-autobiographical memoir, rich with convincingly executed rock concert footage and realistic tales of life on the road with a band culled from Crowe’s own teenage journey with the Allman Brothers to write an article for Rolling Stone in 1973. 

It's a chance for Crowe to re-live his heyday and bring a relatively accurate picture of 1973 rock culture to the screen.  Still, the notion of 'band aids' - girls somehow distinct from 'groupies' in that groupies are only in it for the sex, but 'band aids' are in it for the music - is probably wishful thinking and a narrative device to soften and sentimentalise the often exploitative relationships that occurred between rockstars and the sometimes alarmingly young groupies who followed them.  And it must be said that it's more a picture of white America than America as a whole.  There are few black faces and little black music on display here.  But despite those caveats, Almost Famous still resonates, with Crowe deploying unashamed nostalgia to best dramatic effect. 

The film's main asset, aside from its tremendous soundtrack, which will be addressed below, is its immensely likeable cast.  Like it or not, this film stars Kate Hudson.  I say 'like it or not' because the film isn't meant to be her character's story – it's meant to be the story of Crowe-as-William-Miller.  But given the opportunity to capitalise on a 20-year-old actress with just the right youthful bloom to capture the exuberant role of Penny Lane, the free-spirited 'band aid', Crowe leapt at the chance.  The movie posters and DVD covers feature Hudson prominently, particularly the cheesecake poses in her knickers that misleadingly suggested the movie was going to be a 1973 version of the Victoria's Secret catalogue. 

Hudson had auditioned for the role of Anita, William's stewardess sister, but knew she wanted the bigger role, and in the end she justified Crowe's decision to cast her as Penny.  She later told Scene Magazine interviewer Pam Baker:

I'd just finished shooting a movie in Ireland. To start out, I just wanted to be in a Cameron Crowe film. I'm a huge fan of his, always have been. So, when I first heard he was doing the movie, I didn't know what it was. I just said, I'll do anything. So walked into their audition and I got the part. And when it went to Ireland to do this other movie, they found out that the Penny Lane character had opened up. At the time, I was getting a few other parts coming in, that were bigger roles, so my agent used that as a way to let Cameron know that I wanted to audition for Penny Lane, that I wanted that role. I was calling Cameron, telling him (whispers) Don't listen to my agent, I'm going to do your movie no matter what. Even if you didn't want me for Anita, I would do anything. I'm going to wait for you. Because he had all this stuff going on with this movie, they didn't know when it was going to start shooting. It was sort of up in the air, and I just stuck in there. And I think when I went in to audition for Penny, that day Cameron told me It was really because we talked and I realized you can bring out a part of Penny that was essential for the character. So I was honest with him and stuck in there.

Viewers with longer memories saw strong glimpses of the quixotic charm Hudson’s mother Goldie Hawn brought to her own early roles.  And everyone who has seen Almost Famous remembers Hudson’s crowning moment in the last reel when William tells her that Russell has acquiesced to her 'sale' to Humble Pie in the band managers' poker game.  It's only a moment, but Hudson's reaction shot makes the scene and caps the film perfectly: it’s the emotional range from deeply wounded to resignedly philosophical to smiling acceptance through blinked-back tears, and the delivery of a great punch-line to show that Penny can rise above the perfidy of rockstars. 

It came as no surprise that Hudson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role.  But my one niggle is near the beginning of the film, where Penny and William bond by each revealing that they're lying about their age.  Patrick Fugit (William) is convincing as a fifteen-year-old (he was sixteen during most of the filming) but Hudson just can't pass for sixteen going on seventeen.  It's a small thing, but it sounds a note of disbelief for the purposes of a joke that wasn't integral to the plot.

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The prize for the best moustache in Almost Famous assuredly goes to Billy Crudup as Russell, the talented guitarist in Stillwater, the band William follows and interviews.  (Co-star Jason Lee, who later went on to excel in the TV comedy My Name Is Earl, sports a moustache and beard combo that's too primped by half).  Crudup was excellent in the lead role in Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, another journey across '70s America.  He's believable and likeable as Russell too - perhaps too likeable, given Russell's willingness to dally with Penny on the road while his girlfriend is at home in New York.  This piggish behaviour was par for the course for rock musicians at the time, and probably still is today, but in the end Crowe settles for a sweet payoff that allows Russell to make amends.  Another Crudup scene to savour is Russell's acid trip at a house party in Topeka, with the famous roof-top pronouncement, 'I am a golden god!', shortly followed by '...I'm on drugs!' and a massive plunge into a swimming pool.  (Crudup will also shortly be seen in the keenly-anticipated Watchmen as Dr Manhattan).      

Frances McDormand was also Oscar nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance as William's mother, and it's a testament to her ability that the audience remains sympathetic to her character, Elaine Miller, rather than resenting her attempts to stand in the way of William's teenage dream of consorting with rock stars.  McDormand is instantly believable as the formidable Elaine, and it is to her credit that Crowe even gets away with using the same joke twice, when a hotel clerk and Russell both tell William that speaking to his mother on the telephone 'freaked them out'. 

The catalyst for William's childhood propulsion into rock fandom is his older sister Anita, who absconds to become a stewardess in the opening scene.  Zooey Deschanel is as luminous as ever in the role – she really does have the most astonishingly beautiful eyes in cinema – and is on top form in the reunion scene with her mother at the end of the film.  In it, Deschanel is the epitome of wary trepidation until she succumbs to relieved yet still guarded affection.  Again, there's a killer punchline - Elaine: 'I forgive you', Anita: 'I didn't apologise...'

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman appears in a few scenes as William Miller's muse, the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs.  He brings the wry cynicism of Bangs' take on the future of rock home to the idealistic teenager, pointing out that while rock might seem eternal, in reality 1973 was the last year in which traditional rock music dominated the American musical scene, before the splintering that occurred throughout the 70s divided the nation into a multitude of listening clans, and before the distractions of prog rock and disco diluted the creative influence of rock until the re-emergence of the punk spirit later that decade.  Part of the problem, Bangs explains, was the commercialisation of the hitherto anarchic and liberated rock environment, when the record business reasserted its control over artists and marketing became the primary goal rather than a by-product.  Bangs also helps William to come to terms with his own innate lack of coolness.  When calling Bangs for advice William expresses his relief that the critic was at home to receive his call, to which Bangs replies: ‘Of course I’m home - I’m uncool!’

Patrick Fugit plays the young reporter William Miller well, as a fundamentally decent young fellow.  (It's hard to imagine Crowe allowing many character flaws to creep in, given that William is based on himself).  He has the required inoffensive everyman cuddliness, but is he just a tad too cute?  And in the scenes in which he is required to express anger he lacks the genuine red-faced irritation and volume to ratchet up the tension.  Certainly, Fugit is clearly superior to the excessively cute child engaged to play William as an eleven-year-old.  

Lastly, it's nice to see young Anna Paquin of The Piano Oscar-winning fame playing Polexia, one of the 'band aids', although it's sometimes hard to hear her lines over the hubbub of the crowd scenes in which she often speaks.  Additional Polexia lines appear in the deleted scenes and extended cut of the movie, and some of these are similarly inaudible.  Perhaps her busy career meant she wasn't available to do retakes or redubbing?   

As I mentioned above, the soundtrack for Almost Famous just about guarantees an enjoyable experience, marshalling a rare selection of choice cuts from the period and deploying them to good effect.  Crowe plays each song like a trump card, knowing that it will lend its quality and authority to the narrative.  The best example is of course the reconciliation scene on the tour bus after the misadventures in Topeka, in which the euphoric bliss of Tiny Dancer by Elton John reunites the warring band and hangers-on as one by one they join in singing until the whole bus is resounding to the chorus.    

At the beginning there's the peerless use of Simon and Garfunkel's America as Anita is packing to leave home and find her own life, followed by Sparks, an effortlessly inventive instrumental by The Who, as the young William delves into his sister's record collection, armed with the knowledge that music will change his life. 

There's plenty of other quality songs here, like the seminal Led Zeppelin tracks that feature (the remaining band members are usually reluctant to permit licensing for films), the menacing strut of David Bowie's cover of Lou Reed's I'm Waiting For The Man featuring Mick Ronson in incendiary form, and the blues stomper One Way Out by the Allman Brothers.  

Almost Famous, then, is a film that marries a strong script, quality performances, a coherent artistic vision and great, great music.  By rights it should have stood as one of the best films of its year, but it was not nominated for Best Picture in 2001, despite arguably being the equal of the five films that were nominated that year (Gladiator, Chocolat, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Wo Hu Cang Long; Gladiator won). 

Despite this, Almost Famous actually lost money, costing US$60 million to make yet only recouping $47 million worldwide at the box office.  For a director of the enormously popular (but too saccharine for my taste) Jerry Maguire, which cost $50 million but grossed $273 million, this must have been a major setback.  Almost Famous has probably made its money back since its release, but I presume the expense of what was at least in part an exquisitely-dressed vanity project will dissuade other directors from trying the same gambit.  Which, in the end, is a pity, because in Almost Famous Cameron Crowe made one of the best movies about rock music that's ever been seen.

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