Pretty But Vacant
In 1973, when Cameron Crowe was 15, he was writing for Rolling Stone. Since then he has written the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the book on which it was based. He became a writer/director beginning with Say Anything in 1988, following it with the “good date movie”, Singles, in 1992. His last film, Jerry Maguire, received several Oscar nominations, winning the Supporting Actor award for Cuba Gooding, Jr. It also gave us the line “Show me the money,” with which we’ve been beaten to death, but we’ll forgive him, I suppose.
According to Robert Draper’s book, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, the young Crowe was valued by the older writers on the staff for his writings about acts such as David Bowie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young, the Allman Brothers, and Led Zeppelin: all bands not embraced by those writers (to say the least). An unabashed fan of then-mainstream rock as only a teenager can be, Crowe kept lines of communication open for a magazine that, without writers like him, would have been filled solely with writings reflecting the limited tastes of publisher Jann Wenner, who by all accounts has never really progressed past the 1960s.
Most popular music, the kind Crowe wrote about for Rolling Stone in the ‘70s and the kind that gets on the radio in almost any decade, is of a proscribed length, easy to sing along to, and generally inoffensive (Eminem notwithstanding). Crowe’s new, semi-autobiographical film, Almost Famous, is the equivalent of that music. Cut down from 160 minutes to 120 minutes according to an interview with Crowe on CheckOut.com it has funny, if sometimes predictable, dialogue, and is unlikely to offend anyone not currently running for office.
William (Patrick Fugit) is a 15-year-old writer on the road with fictitious ‘70s rock band Stillwater to write a piece for Rolling Stone. This is Fugit’s first part in a major motion picture, after his appearances in episodic television and a TV movie, and based on his work here, he isn’t up to carrying a film. He is simply too bland-looking, and as an actor does not evidence the intelligence his character should most certainly have. True, William is a 15-year-old boy but he’s a 15-year-old boy whose writing is supposed to be good enough to invite commissions from Rolling Stone (whose editors do not know how old he is when they hire him by phone). The film doesn’t display this ability. It does include a promising exchange between William and the late real life critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) about the love of writing, but Fugit never shows us the mind of a young writer at work. Instead, Bangs is the “voice” for writing: he urges William not to imagine he is his subject’s friend and reminds him that he must be “honest and unmerciful.” It’s a good performance of a role written with insight. Crowe did indeed have a similar relationship with the real Bangs, and he took pains to present him accurately. I wanted to see more of Bangs, but I’m a writer. When he speaks to William about the times he has stayed up all night writing, just for the sheer joy it gives him, well, I’m right there with him. Still, if the appearance of Bangs in this film motivates anyone to check out his writings, it may be worthwhile.
Crowe’s writing on music seems less likely to last. His Rolling Stone interviews don’t seem all that insightful almost 25 years after the fact. As a screenwriter, however, Crowe appears to have found his niche. His skill is in creating characters that attract good actors, young and old, to bring them to life. I don’t believe his scripts would stand on their own, without strong performances. Without an actor like Ridgemont‘s Ray Walston, lines like “What are you people, on dope?” don’t seem that funny. In the context of the performances and the films, they’re hilarious. This is Crowe’s gift: he gives actors good things to do, and good actors do good things for his scripts. Fugit doesn’t help the screenplay. But at the same time, unlike previous successes, Crowe’s screenplay does little to help Fugit or the other actors. Crudup, so impressive in Waking the Dead, is attractive and largely likable. Through the boy’s relationship with him, we see both the glamour and pain conferred on rock stars and those who travel in their orbit. He charms a house full of partying teenagers when he goes looking for “something real” and takes William along, but we also see him straining to keep his band together, betraying someone who has been a friend to him, and selling out another who loves him. Jason Lee plays the band’s lead singer and has some fun skewering the stereotype, but it remains a stereotype: an egotistical lead singer.
I don’t doubt that many of the things in this film or something very like them happened to Crowe. His story is indeed unique and deserves to be recorded. But, by turning his life into material for a mainstream film, he has sanded down nearly everything that would make it interesting. One key point in the film has William confronting the band about their treatment of their female fans, with righteous indignation, and we are invited to join him on his moral high horse. Crowe seems to want to give William the moral authority to call Stillwater on their selfishness. So it’s ironic that the film itself shows women only as falling into two groups: William’s mother (and sister), and the “band-aids.”
Elaine (Frances McDormand), William’s mother, is an edgy college professor given to pronouncements like “Adolescence is a marketing tool!” She bans rock records from the house on the grounds that they will lead to drug abuse (her prime example being Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends). Though the question of just what the hell is wrong with her is reasonable, Crowe has made her a comic figure, whose role in the film is to embarrass William just when he is trying to look cool in the rock world.
The primary member in the other group is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the object of William’s affection. But she’s a “band-aid” (girls who hang around musicians and make themselves available to them sexually, but don’t like to be called “groupies,”) in love with Russell (Billy Crudup), the band’s guitarist. Penny is pretty but vacant, and so is Hudson’s performance. During several moments in the film I was struck by what an appealing young woman she is, but never got a sense of the person behind the face. Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk, two of the more gifted and charming young actresses working today, are essentially wasted in their roles as “supporting band-aids.” Along with Penny Lane, these characters exist to lay the rock stars, play damsels in distress, and praise William. When the girls tell Elaine how much William respects women, it comes off as just a little self-serving for Crowe, or as though he were making a preemptive strike on anticipated criticism (like this). Essentially, William “loves” a girl he knows nothing about but that she’s beautiful and blows rock stars. The film would elevate that to something lovely and decent. The lie the “band-aids” tell themselves, and what the film wants us to believe, is that they are more like muses than groupies, and are there for their love of the music. I say, use the duck test: if they look like groupies and act like groupies, odds are, they’re groupies.
And yet, for a rock ‘n’ roll film set in the ‘70s, Almost Famous has surprisingly little sex and drugs on screen (though both are much discussed). Even when two or three of the “band-aids” decide to deflower William, mainly to alleviate their boredom, it comes off more like a slumber party game than an act of real sexuality. Rather, this episode seems, much like the rest of the film, to be Crowe’s look backward through a rose-colored mist. The film is a crowd pleaser and I admit I found a lot to laugh at. It will very likely be successful, but it has all the edge of a rousing chorus of “Sweet Home Alabama.” The moments are too pat, the jokes too predictable, and the whole thing lacks the sprawl of life, the verisimilitude that would sell the story. Crowe is a good filmmaker. He may even prove to be an important one. But here, I suggest that he was too much his subject’s friend to be honest and unmerciful.