Tuesday, November 30, 2004

" The only true currency in this bankrupt world... is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." - Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock critic Lester Bangs

Watched one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time again last night -- Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (or, in the extended 2 1/2 hour DVD cut, "Untitled," as it's called). This is one of those rare movies I can watch over and over again, and get something different from it each time. Cameron Crowe is probably my favorite current movie director, a direct descendant of Billy Wilder with his ability to balance funny and heartbreaking and never fumble the ball. A loosely-based autobiography of Crowe's years as a teen writer for "Rolling Stone" in the early 1970s (the prodigal Crowe started writing for them around age 15), "Almost Famous" follows Crowe stand-in "William Miller" (a nicely naive Patrick Fugit) as he tours with the band Stillwater, an Allman Brothers-esque rock band "struggling with their own limitations." Miller falls in with the band's groupies or "Band-Aids," including the luminous Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, in the only movie in her career so far she's been worth a damn in), and makes the cardinal sin of becoming friends with the band as he tries to write his story.

I think what I love so much about "Almost Famous" is it digs deeply but smartly into the romance of rock music, in a rose-colored view that still doesn't hide the potential for rot inside. Penny Lane's near-overdose at the film's end, or the viciously funny airplane scene where the band and its hangers-on unleash upon each other with hard-earned bile, show us rock ain't all pot and girls. Sure, it's nowhere near as real as, say, "Sid & Nancy," but I don't think I'd want to watch "Sid & Nancy" over and over again, either. "Almost Famous" has hope. Miller starts the movie as an innocent and ends it battered but still optimistic. Although Crowe seems to be telling us 1973 might be the last year rock 'n 'roll was "honest," he doesn't say it with loathing.

Crowe is a filmmaker who isn't afraid to be sentimental, yet he never feels cynically manipulative even when he's got Tom Cruise saying "you complete me" to Renee Zelwegger in "Jerry Maguire." Moments like Lloyd Dobler doggedly lifting the boom box to Ione Skye in "Say Anything," or Penny Lane's broken-hearted good cheer as she finds out exactly how much she means to the band in "Almost Famous," are the kind of scenes that skate right through sappy and into the realm of hard truth. Very few directors could pull off a scene like the "Tiny Dancer" sing-along in "Almost Famous" without falling on their faces. Crowe doesn't, because he believes it.

Each of Crowe's movies -- "Singles," "Say Anything," "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" and the underrated mind-trip "Vanilla Sky" -- traffic in characters who still want to be optimistic, no matter what they've seen. Depending on which day of the week you ask me, I might pick a different movie of Crowe's as my favorite (well, except for "Jerry Maguire," which I sure like but has too much football and Cuba Gooding Jr. mugging for my liking). But as his objective "best," "Almost Famous" inches out above the rest. It's a pure labor of love, loaded with inside jokes about '70s rock culture, cameos and fanboy pleasure (is that Peter Frampton in one scene playing a roadie for Humble Pie? It is!). There's also some fantastic acting - Hudson, Hoffman, Billy Crudup as Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond, and an Oscar-nominated Frances McDormand as Miller's domineering mother. As movies about rock music go, "Almost Famous" is right up there near the top.

"If you never get hurt then you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely you can just go to the record store and visit your friends." - Penny Lane

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