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Thursday, 31 March 2011

Film Review: Almost Famous

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There was just no way I wasn’t going to like this film. An aspiring writer’s journey through the realm of 1970s Rock and Roll? Sign me up. When showing up with the promise of Rock and Roll the opening scene, with Alvin and The Chipmunks accompanying inoffensive suburban America, can be a little jarring. But every journey has humble beginnings and our protagonist William Miller’s is about as vanilla as they come. Oppressive mother Elaine, portrayed by Frances McDormand, has had his entire life on lockdown. She lied about his age and forced her family to celebrate Christmas in September to avoid commercialism. Her tyrannical nature drives William’s sister, Anita away. Anita, played by a young Zooey Deschanel who is finally residing in the era that she appears to come from, is instrumental in her brother’s musical enlightenment. She leaves home to become an air stewardess leaving him her entire record collection. Resulting in a sublime scene as William flicks through great album after great album focusing on their striking imagery. He ultimately comes to The Who’s “Tommy”, and a note of one of my favourite Non-Verbal film quotes of all time (a short list undoubtedly) “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future”. He drops the needle on “Sparks”, the bass fades in, and there is no going back.

Skip to 1973. William, now played by Patrick Fugit, is 15 and gunning to becoming a music journalist. He seeks out Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who takes an interest in him and becomes a sort of mentor. He tasks William with writing up a Black Sabbath concert, being an eager naïve journalist he tries to blag his way backstage, where he will eventually meet the rest of the films principal cast. Also trying to gain access is groupie troupe calling themselves “Band-Aides”. Among their ranks is Anna Paquin, playing Polexia, two other actresses who haven’t been in much else and their leader Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). William is left outside as they gain admission easily; life’s hard if you’re not a beautiful young girl.

He later runs into opening band Stillwater. They initially ignore him presuming him a fan but after he launches into an insightful critique of the band’s music they ask him to tag along and grant him an interview. Lead Singer Jeff, played by the actor I most disappointed to find out had converted to Scientology: Jason Lee and lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) take him under their wing. William is then approached by Rolling Stone magazine who want him to go on tour with Stillwater and write a cover story for them, a plot point that may seem a little farfetched given that he is 15 but this exact thing happened to the film’s director and writer Cameron Crowe when he was just 16 years old.

From here on the film transforms to a cultural time capsule, I wasn’t there to prove it or know for sure, but this film looks and feels just like the 1970s rock scene. All the acid, alcohol and music from the over spill of the summer of love is still in full force. Yeah, it’s probably a romanticised view of a time that was on its last legs but who doesn’t want to believe that is was a fucking great time? The whole notion of a band against the world is getting increasingly foreign; with the advent of the internet a band can become huge without ever playing a show. While I think that looking back at something with nostalgia that you were never even alive for is a waste of time, there really was something lost. The idea of a band conquering the planet by driving from city to city and playing straight up Rock and Roll is just fucking cool, but it has always kept a mysterious aura around it. What exactly does happen when you get a band of egocentrics, throw them some drugs, and ship them around together for months at a time? Well Crowe’s autobiographical content in the film must give it a sense of believability, and since out protagonist is unfaltering in his belief in absolute sincerity in his journalism it would be very surprising to find the film dishonest. It’s not all ‘super fun times’ though, the dreaded rock star ego’s that tore so many bands apart begin to surface in Stillwater. The bands chief creative force Russell confesses off the record to William that he may leave the band at any moment, and is only still present out of loyalty to his friends than of want. The others are fully aware of his lack of commitment causing resentment when he is still considered the bands most famous member. Tensions erupt when Russell is the only member featured in the foreground of an image on the band’s first t-shirt. The clashing feelings of distaste but reliance between Russell and Jeff mirror that of most major turbulent band of the era. They are so close to getting everything they have ever dreamed of, and they are even closer to fucking it all up for themselves.

Russell is the biggest contributor to the films dramatic elements, his masked unfaithful love for Penny Lane is one of the best plot elements. It helps identify one of the darker sides of 1970s rock bands, its treatment of women. I suspect that few females can identify with the film due to its female characters. Three quarters of them are groupies; another is a crazy over protective mother, the only real normal female character is Anita whose rebellion sets her free on her own journey of independence. The other girls just seem to be tagging along onto someone else’s journey. Sure girls did choose to be groupies but seeing the way the band treats them they just seem stupid, as Russell eventually trades the “Band-Aides” group off to another band for a case of beer. The film doesn’t shy away from showing the 70s Rock culture in all its misogynistic ways. Rock is clearly still a predominately male genre, and the film really taps into the lifestyle as a male fantasy but also has a perspective that shows what damage was done.

Cameron Crowe never really set the world ablaze as a director. But Almost Famous is crafted perfectly. It has many fantastic set pieces set to music that remind me of Martin Scorsese, William’s musical revelations set to The Who, the bands arrival at a bustling hotel set to David Bowie’s cover of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”, or the famous bus scene with Tiny Dancer. Plus any film that features a single Led Zeppelin song is such a rare occurrence that one featuring five has to be taken notice.
Music takes the back seat occasionally and allows the acting to shine through. Hudson, Hoffman and Crudup all provide stellar performances, each representing an entirely different area of Rock and Roll. The film peaks at a phone conversation between Lester Bangs and William; they discuss being uncool and what real friendship is. See it once and it will stick with you for a lifetime.

The film captures a time and culture perfectly, showing the good and the bad but does it so well that it doesn’t make those ideals seem horribly out of touch with the modern world, and all the while possessing enough perspective to get away with every clichéd rock radio staple that it throws at you. It’s a perfect look into everything Rock and Roll and will leave you wanting to get on the tour bus.