All right, folks. I’m home with the sniffles, so let’s roll up our sleeves for this one. I recently re-watched my VHS copy and am ready to get into it. At length. Double-album style. Watching the movie on video means I didn’t listen to any DVD commentaries to formulate my thoughts. And while I have seen the Untitled version, my opinions will mostly be generated from the theatrical release version. Keep this in mind reading on, but feel free to mix it up in the comments section.
Now, this is a movie that pushes and pulls me like few other. As I’ve grown older, depending on how I felt when I watched it, I waft somewhere between charitable introspection and vitriolic rejection, one time even going so far as drunkenly telling a friend who likes this movie to shut up (sorry, Leigh!).
I wasn’t always this way. When it first came out during my senior year of high school, I looooooooved it. I saw it with my best friend Jamie and a boy I would later regret dating. Jamie was the editor of the school newspaper. I made my extracurricular committment to choir, but wished I had room in my class schedule to write for The Clarion. I wanted to be William Miller, the fifteen-year-old journalist protagonist who fills in for director Cameron Crowe and his own (idealized?) experiences as a writer. Figuring I could catch up in college, I set my sights on UT’s journalism school. By graduation, I assumed I’d be working as a rock critic in New York City, perhaps following bands like Stillwater, the fictitious classic rock band based on The Allman Brothers Band that breaks (then promises to make) Miller’s career.
My hope of being a rock journalist was officially dashed the second time I was not hired as a writer for The Daily Texan‘s entertainment section. After this rejection, 19-year-old me reasoned that these fat cats were shills for the man with terrible taste in music. I might have even phrased it that way at the time. From here, I officially cast my lot with college radio.
It’s important to bring up music journalism, not only to burn on it out of bitter feelings of rejection. When this movie originally came out, it was a dangerous time for print publications like Rolling Stone and Spin, much like the early 70s was a dangerous time for rock music. 1973, the year this movie takes place, was a harbinger of the bloated, corporate, cool-hunting enterprise the mainstream music industry would become. By 2000, it had completely transformed into a deregulated, conglomerate behemoth, peddling a handful of marketable, palatable, and safe talent that could sell ancillary products and jack up the retail prices on those ancillary products, which the compact disc had become. Music listeners, irritated by ever-higher CD prices, began downloading illegally in earnest. Sometimes they were met with arrests and lawsuits. Sometimes those lawsuits were filed by the popular musicians they idolized. As a result of these actions, and some truly stupid strategies the music industry has used to push units, people are more incredulous of the music industry than ever.
It’s important to bring in the Internet and the ubiquity of digital technology too, as online communication affected print journalism. Throughout the 2000s, publications scrambled to keep up circulation and readership. Some were bought and sold to other conglomerates. Some turned from monthlies to quarterlies. Some drastically changed their content and marketing campaigns (the saddest one for me was Spin, a high school favorite that was Rolling Stone‘s cool, younger sibling; by the time I entered graduate school, it packaged itself as the hipster version of Us and lagged behind e-zines like Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes in its coverage of new music). Some shilled out to reality TV (looking at you, Rolling Stone). Some simply folded.
Along with publications, staffs shrunk due to budget cuts. Some folks survived the fall-out. Rob Sheffield came into the field from the academy and penned a touching memoir. Eric Weisbard became part of the academy, currently an American Studies professor at the University of Alabama. Some folks, like Sarah Lewitinn and Chuck Klosterman, became cults of personality. But others didn’t fare as well. Sia Michel lost her position as Spin‘s editor-and-chief, though was hired on to be The New York Times‘ pop music editor. At some places, an entertainment staff was whittled down to one person, if there was a department at all.
With the implosion of print-based music journalism came the advent of e-zines like Pitchfork and, of course, blogs. These folks, for good or for bad, may shape what criticism will look like in this century. I, for one, do see some good to blog culture (barring, you know, my recent public involvement with it). The principle assets I have found with it are its immediacy and DIY ethic. I couldn’t get a staff position at the Texan. I wasn’t financially able to take an internship. In short, traditional modes of ascension in the field weren’t available to me or many others. But blogging allows (some) writers to continue researching, hone their craft, and figure out just why they’re so interested in their subject of analysis.
Of course, there are hazards to blogging. Our collective attention span for new sounds has diminished. Furthermore, a considerable amount of misinformation gets reported. However, while I’m tempted to attribute this to a lack of fluency with journalistic principles of investigating, reporting, and fact-checking, I don’t know if it’s that simple. I’d hasten to point out that blogging and traditional journalism are both vulnerable to errors, unfair coverage, unequal time, and other ethical issues in the wake of the 24-hour news cycle.
In short, I watch this movie and think three things: 1) I don’t know if William Miller would be a journalist today, as the publications he would want to work at might not be able to hire him, 2) I do think he’d be a blogger, as the fan-critic and musician-journalist binaries in media culture have been considerably blurred since the early 70s, and 3) while this movie seems quaint in its depiction of a just-booming American music industry, it still seems completely relevant, maybe even more so than when the movie was originally released.
So, you would think based on all of this fodder, I’d love this movie. But it’s not so simple and the movie itself is only partly at fault. A major issue I have with the movie isn’t so much to do with its gender politics as it is with the gender politics of its fanboys. I have heard too many fanboys talk about this movie with fervor, as if God touched Cameron Crowe’s camera. They’ll regale folks with abstruse bits of commentary from the Untitled version and quiz people on what songs like Stillwater’s “Love Thing” and “Fever Dog” are really about (I think love and kicking addiction, respectively). They are often humorless, especially if you point out any similarities they might have to Vic Munoz, the movie’s Led Zeppelin devotee. Oh, and they always love Led Zeppelin. Always.
But Alyx. Smelly zealot fanboys shouldn’t keep you from liking a movie, you say. The movie has a lot of good things going for it, you add. There’s even a lot of interesting female characters walking around, being smart and human and brave, you note. You might even say they’re more interesting than altruistic protagonist William Miller, you whisper emphatically. Fair points all. So, let’s do what Mary Kearney did when I watched this movie in her gender and rock undergrad class and run through the women and girls we meet in Miller’s coming-of-age story. Note that many of them are autonomous beings, free agents on the road:
1. The Band-Aids, especially one Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson in what many argue is her only credible screen performance). They are not groupies and consider themselves fans who are autonomous, exercise sexual agency, and are not disposable, though some musicians have trouble seeing them the way they see themselves.
1A. While Penny Lane is clearly the Band-Aid leader, I’ve always loved Sapphire (played by Fairuza Balk). Label it blonde antipathy or brunette solidarity, but it’s hard not to love this rough, mischievous, funny, and wise lady. Can you imagine the stories she could tell? She intimates with William’s mother about his travels on the road and how she should be proud of her son from a hotel phone. She’s responsible for orchestrating the orgy that takes William’s (who she calls “Opie“) virginity. She’s also the one who delivers the hard truth about Penny and William to guitarist Russell Hammond. And she’s the one who insists that younger groupies take birth control, appreciate the music, and quit eating all the steak at crafts’ services.
2. Alice Wisdom, a deejay whose playlist Lester Bangs rudely rejects. Now I don’t like The Doors either, Lester, but that doesn’t mean you should shout over her opinions and discredit her taste in music. Unless you’re actually discrediting the radio station’s taste in music, in which case the deejay’s role becomes even more compromised. And this woman is already compromised by having the regulatory whiskey-throated voice that all female deejays seem required to have or emulate.
3. High school girls running for gym class. Stillwater bassist Larry Fellows perks up at the view from the tour bus; Penny Lane gives them the finger, glad that she’s playing hooky. That she’s not them.
4. Fans. Some of whom are Band-Aids or groupies, most of whom are regular girls and women with jobs and parents.
5. Band wives and girlfriends. They were there before the band got signed, are not often there for the shenanigans on the road, and probably won’t be there after the break-ups and divorces.
6. A particularly shrill feminist stereotype of a Rolling Stone journalist billed as Alison the Fact Checker. Sadly, she probably has to be in order to be heard in staff meetings. Plus, wouldn’t you be pissy if you were trying to forge a career, were all-too-cognizant of sexism and misogyny, but also loved writing about popular music? This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask Ann Powers, Dream Hampton, and Lorraine Ali.
7. A singer-songwriter jamming with another singer-songwriter who appear to be modeled after Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. William sees them playing in a hotel room during his first visit at the Riot House.
8. William’s big sister, Anita. She has a turbulent relationship with her mother and leaves home to become a flight attendant, leaving her kid brother a haul of amazing records, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue. She even gives him some good advice about how to listen to The Who’s Tommy that seems to have a lasting impression.
9. And, of course, William’s awesome, anti-establishment, overprotective mother Elaine, who is a college professor in San Diego. She is also the family matriarch, and probably was even before her husband died. Besides Lester, Ms. Miller is one of the few rebels. They both hold the distinction of being the only people who recognizes that rock culture, and its attendant cheap thrills and promises, is just another corporate enterprise.
Now, now. The dudes are interesting too, you might say. And masculinity is a discursive minefield here. So let’s walk through it. Let’s make like the movie and use William Miller to do this.
1. Miller himself is a soft-eyed, feminine boy played by then-unknown Patrick Fugit. He is hopelessly in love with Penny, a girl who may be his age but is out of his depth and hopelessly in love with someone else.
2. Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond is the talented, aloof, and cowardly lead guitarist for Stillwater. He’s technically better than his bandmates, and is quick to hover it over them. He takes William under his wing because he’s a fan, only to dismiss him when Bob Dylan makes an appearance at Max’s Kansas City. He also nearly ruins William’s journalistic integrity when his own credibility is on the line. He’s also in love with Penny, but more in love with becoming a rock star. He’s not so in love with his wife, Leslie. He loves himself more than anyone, and hates himself for it.
3. Stillwater lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) feels differently toward Leslie. He also has considerable animosity toward Hammond, whose emergent fame and skill is threatening to eclipse him and the rest of the band.
4. Bassist Larry Fellows and drummer Ed Vallencourt round out the band. Fellows (played by singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, who I named my cat after) seems only interested in barbeque and high school girls. Vallencourt (played by John Fedevich) is silent through most of the movie, until he announces that he’s gay during a traumatic airplane ride.
5. Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) and Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) manage the band. Fellows has been with them for most of their career. Hope convinces the band to cash in and sell out, most symbolically by trading their bus for a jet. They will regret this decision.
6. Jann Wenner and Ben Fong-Torres, Rolling Stone‘s respective editor-and-chief and senior editor, who serve as William’s bosses. Note the Wenner is gay, though at this time in his career, he was married to a woman named Jane. They would go on to have three children before divorcing in 1995. I haven’t read anything on Wenner, but am fascinated to learn how he negotiated all of this. Note also that Fong-Torres is Chinese American and one of the few people of color in both the movie and perhaps the emerging mainstream rock music industry. Note also the “Torres” surname, which his father adopted, dropping “Fong,” in order to pose as a Mexican in order to be granted U.S. citizenship while Chester Arthur’s Chinese Exclusion Act was still on the books. The family later kept both surnames.
But William doesn’t really have much in common with Stillwater. He wants to be them, but is in actual fact a music geek. Two like-minded male characters empathize, and share a relationship that is at once classically masculine in its indexical organization of rock’s ephemera and, at the same time, feminine in their romantic, homoerotic obsessive fandom.
1. Lester Bangs, William’s mentor, played by the formidable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is one of the main reasons I’ll be seeing Pirate Radio. Reportedly, his scenes were filmed while he had the flu. Bangs hates what rock journalism has become.
2. Vic Munoz, played by longtime Apatow mainstay Jay Baruchel. He’s the Zeppelin fan who follows the band everywhere, clutches a marker frontman Robert Plant once held, and wears his “Have you seen the bridge?” t-shirt at all times.
I should point out, however, that the girls index too. Penny Lane may not want William to take notes during Stillwater concerts, but that doesn’t mean that she, her peers, or William’s sister Anita, can’t rattle off band line-ups, industry players, and song lyrics.
And lest we forget that William actually forges strong relationships with his sister, his mother, and the Band-Aids. While Sapphire, Polexia, and the gang seduce William, they also believe in him, intimate secrets with him, and provide him support, though they sometimes treat him as a minion and less as an equal.
I should also point out, since I opined that Miller doesn’t have much in common with Stillwater, that he does have an interesting relationship with Hammond nonetheless. Miller, a kid brother with an older sister, doesn’t seem to have any male friends or role models before he takes Bangs’s assignment to cover Black Sabbath for Creem, a band for whom Stillwater is opening and launches Miller’s almost-too-good-to-be-true feature assignment for Rolling Stone.
I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Hammond as a friend or role model. Perhaps he’s better suited for an older brother position. At first, Miller looks up to Hammond, calling his guitar-playing “incendiary” and trying (largely in vain) to emulate his slingin’, ‘stached bravado. But, despite a Band-Aid orgy (controlled by the women who believe that “Opie must die”), Miller clearly doesn’t have that kind of swagger. He also doesn’t seem to want it, seeing Hammond’s cowardice beneath it. He also recognizes the irony of such inauthentic displays of machismo and ego in a form supposedly as authentic, romantic, and pure as rock is supposed to be, and is quickly unbecoming. Perhaps he also notices the rigid gender roles and chauvinism that inform the supposed gains of free love and the sexual revolution. This hypocrisy, along with the band’s quick rejection of real fans for industry success and the promise of rock mythology, make Miller able to put Hammond and his band mates in their place during the climactic plane scene. His honesty and integrity also earns him their trust, especially Hammond’s, who finally grants him a real interview at the end of the movie.
As an aside, if Hammond is Miller’s imperfect older brother, he steps right into the role by sassing Ms. Miller when he first talks to her on the phone, immediately snapping into a “yes ma’am, no ma’am” routine when she admonishes his behavior and values.
Miller’s character also wins the respect of Penny Lane, even when she’s ignoring the icky realities of seeing yourself as a fan but being treated as a groupie, as disposable as a real Band-Aid.
Note that it doesn’t win Lane’s affections, at least not physically. She may be too hard for or scared of Miller’s feelings (which are announced, unfortunately, in a scene where Miller kisses Lane, who just overdosed on Quaaludes). She may not be ready for rejecting her own rock star mythology in order to be truly intimate with someone (though she suggests she might when she tells Miller that she came into this world as one Lady Goodman). Maybe doing so would make her the typical teen she (and William’s mother) see little value in becoming. Maybe not consummating this relationship suggests they have no interest in typical interactions with one another.
Yet Miller’s and Lane’s relationship, which seems built on male fantasy, is an issue I have with this movie. I don’t get what the fuss is about, frankly. I understand that Lane is pretty, savvy, and well-traveled, but don’t understand why Miller has such a crush on her, primarily because I don’t understand how loving a band’s music leads you toward doing their ironing backstage while the boy you love in the band can’t be bothered to love you back. More importantly, I don’t know who she really is. Maybe the self-mythology is part of what prevents me (and certainly Miller) from getting close. Maybe the challenge of trying to find out who the real Penny Lane is warrants enough of a fascinating exercise for Miller. And maybe it isn’t any of our business who Lane really is. But I sort of wonder if she’s perfectly matched with Hammond, a man who wants desperately to be the myth he’s created for himself. Maybe this suggests that both of them have something in common with Don Draper. Here’s one scene where I think Lane, alone after a concert, drops the masquerade (note that the scene follows Stillwater’s treacherous meeting with super-manager Hope).
Admittedly, perhaps my problem resides in Kate Hudson’s performance. Perhaps I want her not to channel her mother, herself a manic pixie dream girl of this era, so much. Perhaps I’m projecting Goldie Hawn’s presence and ignoring how Hudson is making this role her own. I do think Hudson does a good job balancing Lane’s contrasts and contradictions, perhaps a better job than Kirsten Dunst (who almost got this role, but was cast in Crowe’s Elizabethtown instead) would.
And I do think I’m being unfair in my dismissal of Kate Hudson and Penny Lane. Because I think my real problem, as it usually is with Crowe’s movies, is the director’s unfortunate habit of crutching on the magic of pop music. Admittedly, this might be a hard habit for a music geek director to break, but it has kept me from enjoying his other movies (including, yes, Say Anything). And it’s probably contradictory for a music fan not to like pop music playing such a pronounced role in Crowe’s work. To me, however, Crowe’s use of pop music suggests the necessity of delicate application. Because I hate how he uses Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in one of the movie’s big reconciliatory moments, as its obvious that he is making the case for how pop music’s universality heals all psychic wounds. When Lane tells Miller that he is home, all I can think is “fucking duh.”
While I feel like the movie’s score adds to the treacle (especially during the scene when Miller runs with Lane’s departing plane), I do admire Cameron Crowe’s ongoing collaborations with wife and Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. We’d do well to remember Wilson’s rock legend status, score work, and Crowe’s relationship with Wilson when making sexist assumptions about Sofia Coppola’s relationship with Phoenix’s Thomas Mars, who is working on her next movie, Somewhere. We might also like to keep it in mind when thinking about Karen O’s involvement in ex-boyfriend Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Going back to Crowe’s unfortunate flirtations with the obvious for my closing remarks, he does make a few other points in this movie in highlighter yellow that I love anyway. So much so that I’ve shaped my life around them. In the interest of full disclosure, I will share them now, suggesting that sometimes flirtations with the obvious are essential and humane.
1) The introductory scene between Bangs and Miller, when Bangs talks about staying up all night, writing about music. Whether or not he was high on cough syrup and speed or the tomes he devoted to The Faces or John Coltrane were dribble didn’t matter. The objective, as William knows well, is “just to fuckin’ write.” It’s an objective I know well too. It’s a key reason why I put this blog together in the first place, and I’m certainly not alone.
2) Lane has a great line as well, one that has stayed with me as I age. I’m a firm believer in the advice she gives Miller when she drives them to the Riot House: “if you ever get lonely, you just go to the record store and visit your friends.” The comfort I have found in record stores cannot be overstated, and I only hope that, as I get older, at least a few of them don’t get completely mowed down to make way for more lucrative businesses. I might have to stay in a city that shares kinship with Austin to assure this, but I think it’s worth it. I’d rather live in a city that appreciates the cultural and communal value of record stores over a city that only sees value in their market returns.
After all this, I believe Almost Famous to be an interesting and challenging movie at times marred by its idealism, sentimentality, and emphasis on one very lucky boy’s experience following around a band and writing down what happened. Thus, it’s a movie I keep coming back to, even if I don’t feel the need to replace the tape.