Crowe’s ‘Almost Famous’ Characters Succumb to Temptation

almost famous

All right, this is kind of cheating. I had to pen this for a class last year. But I liked the result, so I cleaned it up a bit and threw it up on here. Sue me.

Few directors have a more interesting résumé than Cameron Crowe does. The former Rolling Stone writer turned auteur began writing for the famed publication at 15, covering legendary acts such as Led Zeppelin, Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd then turned his hand to the film industry in 1989 with Say Anything…, simply, the account of two high school-aged lovers with differing backgrounds and worldviews. He followed up that teenage standard with Singles, a low-budget flick set out to capture the Seattle scene of the early nineties amid the grunge wave. Crowe bested himself with his next project, Jerry Maguire, which pits Tom Cruise as the titular character, a sports agent who’s caught a bad case of gaining a conscious, desiring to better serve other people’s interests than his own.

The use of natural personas in Crowe’s films is his strength, which appeals to the audience’s pathos. Who didn’t empathize with Say Anything…’s Lloyd Dobler, a lost Gen-X-er who fell in love with valedictorian, all-American gal Diane Court? Dobler’s ambivalence toward college congealed the youth’s complacency, ultimately giving the generation a needed victory by winning the girl’s affection. In Jerry Maguire, the namesake’s nearly sociopathic desire to perfectly serve his one client strained the relationship with his lone co-worker and wife, Dorothy. He became disenfranchised with the corporate game and wished to have a less conflicted, more honorable job: actually serving his clients’ needs. After seeing his sole client recover from a heart-dropping hit, Maguire rushes home to his wife to win her back with a final realization about his love for her. Most Crowe films share a common thread (with varying degrees): love, corruption, and struggles with conventional, socially accepted forms of success.

Crowe combines all three themes in the director’s cut of his 2000 film, Almost Famous, Crowe’s semi-auto-biopic ode to Seventies music and lifestyle. The bildungsroman in film form spices up the genre and mixes it with the ancient “heroes’ journey” formula with a groovy, “Tangerine” (a Zeppelin song found on the soundtrack, a rarity in cinema) twist. Instead of starring the warrior Odysseus, it’s 15-year-old budding rock journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit). There are no mythological monsters to impede the protagonist: just rock stars who want to look cool and overbearing editors. No sirens exist in this tale, only high-class groupies known as “Band Aids” (which, really, are the Seventies’ equivalent). The journey remains steady: Williams travels with one of his favorite bands, Stillwater, and delves into his self, learning about who he is and all that feel-good stuff. But at its heart, Almost Famous documents human dynamics in an often-mysterious arena, the rock band, asserting it as a revealing pseudo-documentary into how fame and power can corrupt innocence and our passion. William and the misguided band’s adventure fracture the former and rock and roll’s innocence while Crowe grounds the film with authentic characters, filled with wants and desires, making a perceived happy coming-of-age adventure anything but, enthralling the audience.

Regarding love, William is hopelessly infatuated with the older, experienced Band Aid Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who has star guitarist Russell Hammond’s (Billy Crudup) eye. And William is enamored with Russell, too, Stillwater’s incendiary creative force. For that reason, William cannot resist either tempter’s advances, as Penny and Russell continually persuade him to follow their every whim. William’s original puppy-like enthusiasm diminishes as Russell continually delays William’s interview requests and Penny sends mixed signals, conflicting the young innocent. By the time the tour hits New York, and Penny overdoses on Quaaludes (I bet Jordan Belfort skipped that scene), William is discouraged with the Stillwater touring experience and rock and roll lifestyle, bursting out against the band’s antics. The youthful exuberance he displayed at the film’s beginning dissipates in seconds, as the crew believed it might die in a tragic plane crash a la Buddy Holly. While they survive the turbulence, and all seems right with the world, the experience sours William. The Seventies catchphrase “It’s all happening” is uttered innumerable times by the film’s characters. While William originally embraces living that expression, it wears thin; the carefree attitude often associated with the 1970s eludes William, causing his ultimate frustration. He consults his mentor, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who reminds him to be “honest and unmerciful” in the forthcoming Rolling Stone feature. As Greg Allman once did to a young Crowe, Russell denies William’s 100 percent factual account, the final discretion that crushes William, forcing him to retreat.

William’s departure was not a weakness — rather, it represents his strong character. The young writer does not exclusively follow Bangs’ maxim – he acts as a young Atticus Finch. Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird’s benevolent lawyer. But why him? The very first scene of the film features William and his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand) leaving a theater after seeing the Gregory Peck-starred adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, seven years after the film made its theatrical debut in 1962. Elaine asks the younger William what about Finch’s character he found inspirational, noting his staunch morals and honesty. Consequently, William adopted those traits; he is the central good in the film. While those around him are attracted by fame, William remains true to his character. In the world of rock and roll and, as William’s mother states, “compromised values,” her son never wavers. Elaine aspires that her son becomes Finch, wishing he chooses law as his profession, but in a culturally repressed household, the natural inclination is to rebel, which William ultimately does. Not in the stereotypical parental-hate fashion, just forming his path like his sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who leaves home at 18 to explore America as a stewardess. He wants to pursue his dreams as a rock-and-roll writer. Through all the flattery of the band members, from jokingly referring to him as the enemy to entrusting him to judicially ignore facts and events to create a glowing image of the band, the young journalist stays true to his journey by flexing his writing acumen and innate mores. Though he endures the band’s efforts to limit his Finchian qualities, William is hardened on some level as the previously magical veil of his heroes, sans flaws, is removed.

That is what William and Crowe dispose of: the human dynamics of the rock band. This is the film’s crux. It centers on Russell and singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), and how their rising popularity amplifies the issues between one another. Throughout the annals of rock history, the guitarist-frontman duo has often driven the most popular bands: Led Zeppelin had Jimmy Page and Robert Plant; the Rolling Stones have Keith Richards and Mick Jagger; and Deep Purple featured Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Gillian. During a fight between Jeff and Russell, the singer cites all those examples of how the band was supposed to operate, declaring, “From the very beginning, we said I’m the frontman, and you’re the guitarist with mystique! That’s the dynamic we agreed on! But somehow, it’s all turned around. We have to control what’s happening!” As the band gains popularity, Russell treats it with such nonchalance that it flusters Jeff, believing his partner thinks so little of him. Only so much is known of how Page and Planted co-existed or how John Lennon and Paul McCartney fought, and although Jeff and Russell are amalgams of various acts Crowe covered, the personages just feel real. They risk their mutual success due to clashing egos; Russell and Jeff are unable to get out of their own way. The latter possesses genuine aspirations to become successful and great, and while the former does, too, his self-importance warrants his status as the band’s most talented member. Though he is not incorrect, the struggles Jeff faces ultimately allow him to understand that the band’s success relies on Russell and interfering with him hurts his own interests. He eventually realizes this, admitting to Russell, “I’m the you they get when they can’t get you.” The ego hit would damage any frontman, but as a result, the band continues on, and as Jeff gives way to Russell’s virtuosity, mutual respect is achieved in the face of jeopardizing the humane qualities of their art, losing its purity. Rock is dying.

“The day it ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real.” Truth, Lester.

The decline of rock and roll, as it slips into commercialism, plays heavily into characters’ actions, and instigates conflict as the form loses its purity. At the film’s beginning, Hoffman’s Lester attempts to dissuade William from becoming a rock journalist, stating the genre is at its “death rattle.” In addition, Lester has few praiseful words for then-current (1973) rock, as he asserts, “Ninety-nine percent of what passes for rock and roll these days, silence is more compelling.” Yet William is unencumbered by his idol’s declaration. Tragically, in the end, he witnesses the transformation on his own. In a poignant scene comparing and contrasting the two ideologies of music, commercialism versus purity — music for the sake of music, akin to the Aesthetes’ philosophy during England’s Victorian Era — the bands plays its best show. After, all-star agent Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) meets with the band to see if he wants to represent them. Immediately, he pushes one result: money. At first, the band hesitates to part with its tour bus, the band’s soul affectionately named Doris, in lieu of a plane, which would boost profits. But the guys give way to Dennis’ wish, compromising their beliefs and desires, and, as a result, lose their soul. At the same time, after viewing a tremendous show, Penny revels in the venue of the show’s unadulterated glow, peacefully dancing by herself. Before cutting to Penny, Lester’s wise words are voiced over, declaring, “They (presumably record executives) will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.” Penny shamelessly and unknowingly rejoices as Jeff and Russell’s greed sacrifice rock’s sanctity. Lester, ever the ominous sightseer, affirmed to William, “The day [rock] ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real.” After the deal with Dennis, the band becomes hedonistic. Russell and Jeff obsess over expensive dinners, their imminent Rolling Stone cover, and meeting Bob Dylan, not the actual musical product or their adoring, loyal fans. To some degree, they cease to care. Stillwater becomes what they vowed to never evolve into: a corporate tool.

To the band, William was an instrument toward their success. Nothing more, nothing less. Even when William’s story is about to be printed, Jeff, who was generally warm toward William, said he was “never a person. Always a journalist,” diminishing any humane quality the young writer has. In the fated plane sequence, during his tirade against the band, fueled by Russell’s treatment of Penny, he exclaims, “You guys, you’re always talking about the fans, the fans, the fans; [Penny] was your biggest fan, and you threw her away! And if you can’t see that, that’s your biggest problem.” The band finally reverts to its original ideology after Russell reflects — and encounters some guilt tripping from Band Aid Sapphire (Fairuza Balk). The band, a formerly wayward institution, rediscovers its soul through its trials. But not all bands, fictional or otherwise, could have been able to endure such hardships. Namely, Eric Clapton’s influential band, Cream, broke up after a harsh Rolling Stone review. And that was just some critic’s words, not a comprehensive philosophical shift.

As is the case with most Crowe films, the ending satisfies with a predictably happy ending. Why would he allow his life story to end on a dreary note? At the end of Almost Famous, William asks Russell, “What do you love about music?” It is a giant question for anyone to answer, much less one who dedicates his life and craft to creating melodic constructions. But really, what do we love about music? There’s too much to delve into. The way the sonic powers resonate in our souls, the manner which poetic lyrics cure or further damage our hearts — any number of reasons can be selected. It’s everyone’s own opinion. Simply, Russell begins by earnestly grinning and saying, “To begin with? Everything.” While there are some issues with Crowe’s film — for one, the director’s cut is nearly three hours, and the theatrical version misses the key transitions added in for Crowe’s preferred version — few music films have inspired and enlightened audiences to this extent. The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night comes to mind, as the Fab Four comically traverses Liverpool in a delightful satire. But that does not uncover the human desires of being famous, nor was it the film’s purpose to try. In a candid moment when William interviews Jeff, the frontman details the line between selling out to achieve popularity and producing excellent music. “Show me any guy who ever said he didn’t want to be popular, and I’ll show you a scared guy. Most of the time, the best stuff is the popular stuff,” he pines. “It’s much safer to say popularity sucks, because that allows you to forgive yourself if you suck.” While Crowe’s film bombed at the box office, the film is a deserved artifact for his most personal work. And he’s probably just fine with that.

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