Monday, September 13, 2010

"Almost Famous" is 10 Year Old!

 I've been feeling nostalgic as of late, and as such thought it might be novel to write about one of my favorite films of the last decade.  Appropriately, this one, Almost Famous, is heavily steeped in nostalgia.  Cameron Crowe's autobiographical rock road movie is not only his warmest, and smartest, it's also his very best.  Today, September 13th it turns ten years old.  In it's time, I felt it was the best film of 2000, today my judgment regarding the best of is far more finicky, yet I still think of it fondly.  It works because it's a timely time capsule piece, therefore while motivated to the generation of the boomers, it's emotional capacity stretches far past that and appeals to those to love (or obsess) anything, while simultaneously feeling separated from it.  William Miller (surrogate to Crowe himself) worships the ground of his rock star demigods, and yet, he's also a 15-year-old kid with arrested development issues, whose very un-coolness, isolated and alienates far before it appreciates.  It works within the band (the movie uses the fictional Stillwater as a stand-in for Crowe's real-life adventures with Led Zepplin), the girl (Penny Lane, far and away the cinema's most iconic groupie), even to his family.

I think in that respect I admire the movie more today than ever.  My obsession wasn't rock music, but film.  I was William Miller's age when the movie first opened ten years ago, and returning to my 15-year-old mindset, I felt in all concerns of movie whatever-ness, I ruled.  Ten years later, I've seen more films and hopefully have learned even more over my love, my obsession, and yet as time goes by, I feel as if I have been given the knowledge to readily admit I know nothing, not even about the thing I love the most.  This is something I would never have admitted ten years ago.  And so like William Miller, I am an outsider as well, but worshipful as ever.

Re-watching the movie, it still works and sparks and glows like it ever did.  The humanity, period specificity and good natured generosity of Crowe's Oscar-winning screenplay flows beautifully.  It works as simple character study and wonderful ensemble piece, ably played by game, and ever-eager cast.  Most of whom doing the best work of their careers.  Patrick Fugit, the young star commanded the screen with terrific naturalism, at once displaying the geekiness, but also the attractiveness of his junior rock journalist.  Jason Lee, the former troupe member of Kevin Smith, and future My Name is Earl star, brilliantly nailed the narcissism and naivete or burgeoning rock star; trying desperately to sound intelligent, while also stupidly and freely being quoted as saying, "and the chicks are great."  Billy Crudup, who had a banner year in 2000 with this film, as well as the drastically different Jesus' Son, was just as good as doomed rocker Russell Hammond, whose path of self-destruction was palpable as well as evident from the first glimpse; and yet Crudup's touch made the audience, or at least myself, still sort of respect him in the process.  One must never discount the the phenomenal, instantly quotable, "I AM A GOLDEN GOD!"  It's a shame that that Crudup touch seemed to vanish almost instantly after Almost Famous; sure he's had some success both on stage and in bit parts as varied as Michael Mann's Public Enemies, and most recently Eat Pray Love, but the magnetism dissipated.  Noah Taylor's grandstanding and charm as the loyal manager.  Anna Paquin's enchanting fellow groupie-- ironically her stock has only risen lately (True Blood.)   Even Philip Seymour Hoffman's over doing it feels right, here as his channeling legendary Lester Bangs.

The same appears sadly true to Kate Hudson as well, whose Penny Lane portrait, while likely very true to the daughter of Goldie Hawn herself, was also quite a revelation at the time.  Remember before all the umpteenth disposable (and annual) romantic comedies came her way, this role (and this one alone) made her the It Girl of 2000, as well as a Golden Globe winner, and Oscar nominee.  All of which was totally deserved.  Contemporary punching bag or not, if Penny Lane turns out to be Ms. Hudson's lone signature role, it's a great signature.  For like William, Penny was an outsider as well.  One of Hudson's competitors at the Oscars was Frances McDormand who played the role of William's mother, Elaine.  And in that inspired bit of casting, a thousand cliches were instantly broken.  What may have come across as brittle, or over-bearing, or god forbid, thankless, is a role, not only of great substance, and comedy, but authority.  She's as vulnerable and human as she is a bit frightening.  It's a testament to McDormand's supreme (potentially other-worldly) qualities as an actress that the role resonates so.  Lots of actress could very easily wail a line like , "DON'T USE DRUGS!" to a teenager in front of his peers, but it takes a woman like McDormand to utter said line with supreme authority, isolation, vulnerability, and perhaps a little jealousy.

Almost Famous received four Oscar nominations in 2000, two for supporting actress, film editing, and original screenplay, where it won.  I'm guessing merely as an observer of many Oscar telecasts that it probably was the first runner-up for a best picture nomination.  That despite generally being described as a box office flop, despite it's critical reviews and breathtaking quality that still makes my heart a-flutter a decade later.  I suppose a personal, nostalgic tale was always going to be more art-house than mainstream, but I don't care about that; I feel it's one of my movies, one of which doesn't have to belong to anyone else.  Sadly it appears, at least so far, that after digging deeper and more soberly than ever before, the film seems to have taken the best and most out of Cameron Crowe himself.  Both follow-ups- the ill-fated mindfuck Vanilla Sky (2001) and the nostalgia overload Elizabethtown (2005) flopped artistically; one for going potentially too far outside his limits, and other for not going far enough.  That makes me sad.  Boo!

Yet, just as Penny Lane picks herself up after bouts of melancholy-- her advice is solid, no matter what what one's love or obsession might be; go visit your friends at the record store.  And so journeying back ten years, even back to my 15-year-old self, I love going back on that bus, singing along..."Tiny Dancer," is queuing up.

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