The Best Of All Possible Worlds: Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous
There comes a point where hyperbole and cliché begin to make sense, when all those endless tracts of Aristotle, Shakespeare, Foucault, Arndt, and Hef suddenly click: a moment where childhood ends and self-consciousness begins. It happens to people and it happens to art. The beauty of the best is in the moment before the dawn, just before the eating of the apple, before all of that.
Kurt Cobain once said that, given his druthers, he would quit Nirvana and join another band that was right about to make it big. There was something about the energy. Listen to the tracks on the posthumous live Nirvana album “From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah” that were recorded during the fall of 1991 (just as “Nevermind” was breaking big) and the ones from afterwards. There’s a difference. Something dropped out of Cobain’s voice, and a certain methodical brutality began to creep into the band’s playing.
Somewhere in there, a switch was flipped. There is that moment, though, the fraction of a second while the electric impulse is in transit from the switch to the bulb, where everything is just what it seems – if just for that moment – before the room is suddenly illuminated with a clean white light. Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” captures that moment with a deft precision.
Distilled down to vinyl (its most base element), rock and roll is nothing but that electrical current, traced by a gently rising and falling needle like an EKG reading, mapping out a pulse, with an energy undiluted by anything except the air between the speaker and the ear. That’s where the movie begins. William Miller – played with a wide-eyed innocence by newcomer Patrick Fugit – might as well be Jenny from Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll — or maybe, more accurately, the little brother who inherited her record collection.
Set in 1973, Crowe tracks three different, though quite related, trajectories which boil down to well-worn coming of age stories. The first is of the 15 year-old William, who finds himself on the road, Rolling Stone assignment in hand, covering Stillwater — a (fictional) mediocre cock-rock band touring America in pursuit of fame, fortune, and lots and lots of pussy. The second is of Stillwater, who are caught mid-flight, somewhere on the verge of success.
The third is of rock and roll itself, proclaimed to be almost dead, corrupted beyond recognition, early on in the film by the late gonzo (real-life) rock critic Lester Bangs (portrayed by the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman). Here lies the tension of the movie — Stillwater and William both being pulled towards a black hole by a great gravitational force and the audience rooting for them not to get swallowed. Stillwater begins the film looking as if they’ve long since been sucked in, though reveal moments of humanity over the course of the film, usually in the form of small fractures in the utterly cool facade of Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).
The real center, of course, is William who, for the first time, is exposed to the holy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And so begins the demystification process. Those who were once Gods, a mysterious force erupting thunderously out of a stereo like a message from on high, become all too human. Throughout the film, his charmingly tender relationship with groupie – err, “band aid” – Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) comes on like a surprisingly traditional love story placed in a slightly unconventional context. It’s unabashedly sweet.
This is the film’s primary flaw: its reliance on the cliché to both establish and forward the plot momentum. In places, it’s almost absurd. Usually, though, Crowe has just enough of a sense of humor about it all to pull himself out of it. The film is undoubtedly a comedy, though it occasionally gets lost in its own melodrama. Thankfully, there are characters like Jeff Bebe (played by Kevin Smith regular Jason Lee) whose absolutely over-the-top performances bust up routine, at least for the duration of his screen time.
“There is a way to do these things,” Lester Bangs wrote in a 1969 review of Alice Cooper’s debut album “Pretties For You”. “I think simplicity and the imaginative use of the cliché are at the essence of rock; but the clichés have to hit you a certain way, with a certain conviction and energy and timing, to get it on, to spark that certain internal combustion of good feeling and galvanized energies that lifts you out of your seat irresistibly and starts you dancing, balling, just whooping, or whatever.”
Crowe explores a series of simple lines – fandom, friendship, and professionalism – and what it means to cross them. Ultimately, it must be dealt with: both in the film and in real life. Any two in combination causes something of a paradox, at least in the traditional sense. Throughout, Crowe seems to be looking for a humanistic solution to the problems posed — almost like a letter of advice to the 15 year-old version of him portrayed in the mostly autobiographical film.
At what point does music cross the line from being made by a bunch of regular guys to being made by golden Gods? At what point does it cross the line from an unexplainable force to a form that can be deconstructed? At what point does it become acceptable to analyze? At what point does someone turn from fan to critic? At what point does one become aware of it?
It happened in the jambands scene — maybe even with the launching of this site (though that would be a ridiculously presumptuous assumption to make). Still, at some point, it happened. There was a point when bands like the Ominous Seapods, in their original Max Verna-led incarnation, could go about making damn fine generic music in the best of all possible worlds without anyone ever batting an eye. There was a moment between the death of those Seapods, and the birth of Rana – a completely self-conscious, self-parodying rock group from the wilds of New Jersey, fast on the rise – where everything intersected.
A recent debate on a mailing list I’m on has been somewhat indirectly centered around this issue — and this in particular, with some arguing that the site features almost uniformly good reviews of bands. While I don’t find this to be necessarily true, I still find it to be a valid topic. JamBands.com was launched as a site run by fans and, for the most part, still is. In a scene as insular and cozy as it is, many of the fans who write about the bands are, as such, friends with them.
On one hand, this may eliminate a certain kind of objectivity from criticism. On the other hand, I think it has the possibility to introduce a very particular brand of trust into the equation. This may come off sounding a bit like a plea at hippie-dippiedom but I really believe that true friends are perhaps the best critics imaginable. The jamband scene, in its own way, is starting become a slightly more corporate entity with record labels devoted to it (Flying Frog, Phoenix), websites and publications (JamBase, the Pharmer’s Almanac, JamBands), publicists, festivals, and all the other things that go along with the rock world.
It’s nice to think that we might be able to do things differently this time around… though that’s probably a naive assumption. Maybe it’s alright to be a fan, a critic, and a friend at the same time. Maybe it’s possible to avert a slide into this corporate muck. Probably not, but it’s worth a shot. Is it possible to uphold these tenets while still holding strong to a belief that a certain band sucks? I’m not sure. It would probably be shallow to assume that such a thing is possible. Maybe all that’s needed is a little gentle respect. (There goes that hippie-dippiedom again.)
It’s something that’s going to have to be dealt with sooner or later. For now, it’s probably best to see “Almost Famous” and use that as an oblique kind of starting point. It captures an intersection between life and art — real life or real art? Fuck, it doesn’t matter — that’s rock and roll. It’s awake to the possibilities.
Jesse Jarnow is uncool.