Rock in a Hard Place
Blessed with a pitch-perfect name for his métier, Lester Bangs wrote on the subject of rock music--writing, for him, being a matter of slamming two nouns together so their heads rang, and pitch being something that was better off bent than perfected. Pugniloquent in style, high in ideals and low in taste, he was to rock and roll what Manny Farber was to the movies: the tough, exuberant, touchstone critic of a popular art form. Little wonder that Bangs (may his memory be a blessing) has now been resurrected as the conscience of Almost Famous: Cameron Crowe's fictionalized memoir of going on the road at age 15, to report for Rolling Stone on the tour of a mid-level rock band.
On one level, Almost Famous turns Crowe's teenage exploits into the story of a love triangle, played out with costumes and music from 1973. On his first night backstage at a rock concert, boyish William Miller (Patrick Fugit) falls for both a guitar king (Billy Crudup) and the queen of the band's entourage (Kate Hudson). William's enthusiasm for the guitarist--the chisel-featured, resplendently mustached Russell--is all a matter of quick, spotlighted glimpses of legs striding to the stage, a chaos of arms and faces simmering somewhere below, a sudden glare, the start-up roar, and then Russell grinning cockily toward the wings, to show that his latest screeching lick was ripped loose just for William. In a flash, the movie shows us how William, who is congenitally uncool, wants to plug into Russell's swagger. It's reason enough for infatuation.
With Penny Lane, the adolescent sophisticate who rules the "band-aid" girls, William's longed-for plug-in also entails a whiff of sex. From the moment William first meets her, waiting in the dark outside the arena's stage door, he's reduced to murmuring and staring. The camera, as if similarly struck dumb, seems always to be hovering near Penny's tidily pretty lips, or getting tangled in her angelic blond curls (which have a counterpart in the fake fur that sprouts down the bosom of her coat). Penny has eyes only for Russell; but she takes on William as a protégé, maybe because he amuses her, or maybe because it's good, for once, to feel more powerful than a man. William doesn't shave more than once a week, and his bowl-cut hair still resembles the mop of a little kid. On the other hand, he can speak in complete sentences when pressed, stumbling over the words only a little, which makes him a flattering and somewhat useful mirror to Penny.
Russell, too, cultivates William, and for similar reasons. "Just make us look cool," he says confidingly to the big-eyed kid, as a first move in controlling a journalist who is, on the face of it, infinitely malleable.
Meanwhile, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is always available on the phone to William, always ready to remind him that he shouldn't make friends with the people he writes about. Rock and roll has been captured by marketers and publicists, says Bangs, including in his diatribe those puff-writers who pretend to be reviewers; so a true fan, one who cares about the soul of the music, must paradoxically keep his distance. "Be honest and merciless," Bangs tells William, establishing (more than once) the movie's theme: Almost Famous is about the practice of criticism. It's a very rare subject for a film--one that's all but unknown, so far as I know, in a story with such a Dionysian setting. And maybe that explains why the love triangle seems curiously lacking in passion. Its function (apart from providing the semblance of a plot) is principally to illustrate the perils and necessity of violating the critic's first rule.
Almost Famous celebrates misbehavior, but not the sex-and-drugs frenzy conventionally associated with rock. When Russell goes on a bender, lording it over a teenage house party in Topeka, William tags along soberly, as a worried and sorrowful observer. As for his experience with the band girls--a kind and generous lot, if a little ditzy--William is usually spared the sight of their ministrations, which are carried out discreetly. On the occasion when the girls decide to deflower him--just to have something to do while hanging around Greenville, Tennessee--three of them dance around his bed in slow motion, like a sweetly redeemed version of Dracula's brides surrounding Jonathan Harker. You'll have to watch another movie if you want to see what happens when the dancing stops. Almost Famous is more concerned with acts of intellectual trespass--disrupting one's standards of judgment, testing personal trusts against larger principles--of the sort that are an essential part of growing up.
I can say this much in favor of the theme: It's refreshingly unformulaic and in keeping with Crowe's past work. Jerry Maguire was no more conventional than it absolutely needed to be to win a big-studio release. Having satisfied the basic requirements (pale-skinned leads, middle-class milieu, a happy and heterosexual ending), Crowe devoted the rest of the movie to wrestlings with conscience, transracial negotiations, an unsentimentalized romance and a roster of characters of whom maybe two were off-the-rack. That's what you got in his best-known picture; but even in the less ambitious Singles, which went into the world as a date movie, Crowe sprung surprises and confounded expectations. Among his achievements: finishing a movie that was set in Seattle's music scene and getting it out just before the rest of the country heard about grunge.
In Almost Famous, Crowe ought to be at his most observant and open-minded, since he's now drawing on direct experience. But strangely enough, the film occupies spaces that seem enclosed by myth. Principal among these is the American road, which by now is arguably the most hermetic feature of our movies. If there's something new to be seen from a bus chugging down country highways, or anything fresh to be discovered within the life of hotel corridors, Crowe hasn't found it. And where does the road lead in this case? By plot contrivance, it terminates twice: at ground zero of rock and roll history (Tupelo, Mississippi) and ground zero of middle-class storytelling (a suburban bungalow in California).
If Crowe fails to break into his settings, maybe it's because his characters are skeleton keys: slightly elaborated blanks that are supposed to work almost everywhere but in fact open nothing. Penny is surely the best realized of the bunch, played by Hudson with teetering worldliness and an almost thoroughly concealed fragility. Hudson shows you that if Penny were a little less pretty and a lot less smart, she'd be a pipsqueak; yet she's conspired with God to give herself some dignity, even within the society of groupies (a word she will never use). Crowe loves her; the camera loves her. But a relatively static style, which relies heavily on the current fashion for isolated close-ups and medium shots, deprives Hudson of the opportunity to influence the actors around her. The character she plays isn't a star, but to William she needs to seem more alluring, more vital, than the rock musicians themselves. How can she demonstrate these qualities when she's so often alone in the frame?
Russell, of course, really is a star--which sets off a large part of the drama that William witnesses on tour. The guitar king has become bigger than the other band members, and they've come to resent the hell out of him. Crowe tosses off a lot of witty observations about Russell as a type; but as a character, he's little more than a bag of self-regard. Crudup gives Russell just the right gait--an ambling strut, or a strutting amble--and he's learned under the tutelage of veteran rocker Peter Frampton how to throttle a guitar in the presence of 20,000 screaming fans. But you can see that Crudup is always working at the character, as he worked his way through Jesus' Son and Waking the Dead. He's an honorable and intelligent actor, who for the moment seems incapable of simply being himself--and being oneself is what stardom is all about.
Most problematic of all is William, who's been conceived almost entirely as an observer. Almost Famous is full of shots of Fugit's round, curious face as he pretends to drink in whatever has fixated William for the moment. What's behind that face? We don't know, except in discursive terms. Crowe takes care to establish that William's mother has brought him up to be articulate, independent and somewhat judgmental. It's given that these traits are always percolating within William--but he's so still and passive throughout the movie that the consequences are scarcely visible. He comes off as the least complicated 15-year-old genius who has yet been put on screen.
So we come back to Lester Bangs, who might have been puzzled to see that Almost Famous is the nicest darn movie ever made about rock and roll. Unlike his prose, it has no excess, of either style or self-revelation. It's a well-modulated, immensely likable picture that's finally too polite for both its subject matter and its critical theme. Don't get too friendly with the people you're writing about, Bangs warned. But in creating the character of William Miller, Crowe got too friendly with himself.