Almost Famous (2000)

Almost_famous_poster1Almost Famous is almost so many things. There are truly wonderful moments that channel certain aspects of our culture’s infatuation with rock n roll.

It’s easy to become entranced with the opening moments, not necessarily because we are introduced to William, his protective mother (Frances McDormand), or even his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) who looks to leave the nest behind to go off and find herself. To steal a line from Simon & Garfunkel, she goes off, “To look for America” and we can ride the wistful waves of Paul Simon’s lyrics to understand exactly what she means.  But she also leaves behind a gift for her little brother under his bed. It’s easy to surmise that it’s drugs, something to “expand his horizons” but instead it’s so much more. It’s what this entire film hinges on: Music.

And when he opens the treasure trove of records his sister bequeathed him this is an initial kairos moment that also manages to be one of the most magical in the film–one that leaves goosebumps from sheer recognition. He flips through the albums. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and on and on. Enough said. Each of these bands means so much to so many people as do some of these albums.

Almost Famous is at its best when it’s channeling those very things. Its soundtrack has the propitious fortune to include some authorized tracks from Led Zeppelin as well as Neil Young, David Bowie, and of course Elton John, his “Tiny Dancer” filling up the band’s bus with a chorus of voices in one of the most remembered sequences.

The film’s story is intriguing for the very fact that it has the potential to feel so personal in nature. It functions as a fictionalized autobiography of Cameron Crowe’s foray into rock journalism as a bit of a teenage prodigy from sunny San Diego who first wrote for Creem and then in the big leagues for Rolling Stone Magazine circa 1973.

That’s a narrative ripe with possibilities and anecdotes sure to pique the interest of anyone who loves music and there are certainly some of those moments. People jumping off rooftops into swimming pools their heads spinning on acid, tour buses crashing through gates to make a quick getaway from a horrible gig, and plane flights on the edge of death that elicit a long line of last-minute confessions.

But we are also reminded that life on the road is a grind, it can be dangerous too but more often than not it’s surprisingly dull. What happens to William (Patrick Fugit) is that he gets subjected to this life and far from changing, it simply changes how he sees these people. Ultimately, there’s a bit of disillusionment and alienation with getting that close to people you idolize. In many respects, he looks ridiculously out of place in this lifestyle of groupies, tour buses, backstage antics, sleazy hotel rooms, and sex, drugs, and rock n roll.  He’s too clean cut. Too much of a straight arrow. And that’s part of what’s interesting.

But while it’s easy to latch onto the trajectory of our character and care about his growth and maturity, the themes of Almost Famous feel muddled and not in a way that’s  enigmatic and mysterious. It just drops off at a certain point.

It’s almost transcendent, almost a masterstroke, almost captures our heart but it’s not quite there. Despite its best efforts it somehow still feels slightly removed from the moment it comes out of–a moment that now is easy to eulogize about as both electric and exciting in a way that the band Stillwater never is. Maybe that’s the point.

We can reiterate again and again that the music is phenomenal and while the situations had potential to be gripping they never quite reached that apex. Everything is quite satisfactory, it’s enjoyable watching this wide-eyed lad follow around this rock band, but there are moments when the film drags. Take the rock and roll out of these people and they aren’t altogether compelling. That might be an unfortunately cruel thing to say too.

But Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the famed rock critic repeatedly notes that rock is on the way out and this film seems to surmise as much. At times it doesn’t feel completely caught up in the throes of its time, it’s not caught up in the moment as if there’s this subconscious feeling that it will all come to an end.

On the reverse side, William lives life alongside some of these figures who are never truly all that magnetic or memorable whether Russell (Billy Crudup) or even the iconically named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). The name dropping and connections to others make them the most intriguing. Dinner with Dylan here, something from David Crosby there. Led Zeppelin fanboys, David Bowie’s manager, and so on and so forth. Those connections have cultural clout still but once again the fictional Stillwater were only almost famous. Their name whether in fiction or reality has been lost to time and there’s no aura to them. Because we have nothing to sink our teeth into.

Maybe it’s the very fact that the film does this so well that it feels unremarkable. It takes time on those who really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of rock ‘n roll when the critics and pundits got together to write the narrative that would be accepted for a historical fact from that point forward.

However, Almost Famous also takes a particular care to show what it was and still is to be a rock star in this kind of volatile lifestyle always on the road. The fame and applause are amplified but so in many ways are the heartbreaks and ultimately the scrutiny that can either make or break you.  There’s no privacy in the general sense. But that’s the point, as a rock star you give much of that up. The question is, what happens when you’re in the middle ground? You’re not quite there but the journalists are still looking for their story, digging through your music, life, and affairs. No one has ever desired to be Almost Famous because, in some cases, you get the worst of both worlds.

4/5 Stars


Jerry Maguire (1997)

Jerry_Maguire_movie_posterJerry Maguire is your typical feel-good sports story, but it has a different angle. The eponymous character, Jerry (Tom Cruise), is on top of the sports industry. Not as a player, executive, broadcaster, or anything like that, but as an agent. His job is to make his clients the big bucks and protect their interests while also thinking about his own. He’s constantly on the phone cajoling and soothing big time egos so they stick with him and do as he desires. A lot of it is a flattery game, and Jerry is the best of the best whether it’s face-to-face or over the phone. He knows how to play the game.

In a brief moment of so-called weakness, however, he writes an impassioned memo after he realizes he has gone away from his initial values of being a sports agent. The idealistic magnum opus he comes up with late one night is well received and yet it signals a real hitch in his career, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

He gets let go at his agency, and he struggles to hold on to any clients he can, but slowly, bit by bit, they leave him. First one, then two, and then on and on they went. When a top prospect leaves him it looks like Jerry is sunk. And then there was one. Loud-mouthed, prima donna Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) known for famously uttering the phrase, “Show me the money!”

All the while, unassuming single mom Dorothy Boyd (Rene Zellweger) buys into his dream when no one else will and in the process, she begins falling in love. He’s not quite at the same place she is however.

Jerry Maguire is invariably sad, but it is an ultimately uplifting look at the sports drama told from the sidelines which are still chock full of drama, conflict, and romance in its own right. By consolidating and getting smaller, Jerry learns what is truly important. He finds who his true friends are in Rod and Dorothy. And he learns what it means to truly love someone, not only in a cheesy romantic sense (You had me at hello), but as a true blue friend.

So although not always a great film, Cameron Crowe’s story holds some of the same sensibility of Say Anything… and Almost Famous. It shows that something as big and blown up as professional sports can always be brought down to a more basic level of humanity. It falls somewhere in between films like The Blind Side and Moneyball and that’s not necessarily too bad a place to be.

3.5/5 Stars

“And I’m free, I’m free fallin'”

Say Anything… (1989)

Say_Anything“How’d you get Diane Court to go out with you?”
“I called her up.”
“But how come it worked? I mean, like, what are you?”
“I’m Lloyd Dobler.”

She’s a brain, he’s not, sounds simple right? For such a basic premise Say Anything… has surprising depth. A lot of this is a credit to the performances of John Cusack and Ione Skye, along with the script by Cameron Crowe. The story is this: high school is over and the unknown future is what looms ahead. For Diane Court that means college, a fellowship in England, and the like. For Lloyd Dobler, we do not know what that means and he doesn’t either. For the moment he still has time, and he wants to use that moment to pursue Diane, the seemingly unreachable girl.

First of all, you have to understand how insane that goal is for a guy like Lloyd. He is a lover of kickboxing, The Clash, and he is an average student who lives with his sister and little nephew. Diane is the class valedictorian, doted over by her loving father, and she is a surprisingly sweet girl who dresses well and is a cut above. Not in a million years is he supposed to get her, but I said that already.

Anyways, Lloyd is a straightforward and to the point kind of guy, so he simply calls her house to ask her out. She finally gives into to his requests, and they go to a party to celebrate the end of their high school career. For him, it’s their first date, and she sees it just as a very nice evening. Diane leaves with a new found appreciation for Lloyd because he’s not like other guys. He periodically checks on her during the party to make sure she is alright and points out broken glass on the pavement for her to avoid. He is a gentleman in a trench coat, a strangely vulnerable figure.

Lloyd’s only future plans are to hang out with Diane as much as possible and as far as career plans he is not really sure. When everyone else, even his high school counselor, worry about the future, he always seems strangely, even naively, content.

Diane and Lloyd are slowly growing more and more connected and intimate. However, when Mr. Court goes under criminal investigation things begin to change. At first, everything is the same, with Lloyd teaching Diane how to drive stick shift and Diane growing more and more comfortable with him. And yet, with the familial situation at hand, she feels it necessary to break it off with him, leaving him a pen to write her with. Lloyd is especially wounded, confessing to his sister over the phone, “I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen.”

Soon enough Mr. Court’s account is cut off and in some ways, I felt strangely sorry for the man, but more so for Diane. One day Lloyd comes by with his boombox in tow, standing outside her window in one last monumental act of devotion. Nothing happens right then. Diane is still struggling with her father who it turns out has been swindling his elderly clients, but all for her future. She feels lied to and the only person she could run to is Lloyd, so she does and he takes her back.

Later on, he sees her father in prison and shares that his plan is to go to England with her, despite all the objections that come with it. The two jet-setters are together again proving all the doubters wrong. They wait for the ding of the smoking sign signaling the beginning of the rest of their lives.

This is perhaps one of the greatest high school romances ever, because it is far from the typical superficiality. Lloyd Dobler is played so wonderfully by John Cusack. You cannot help love this lanky guy who is fearlessly straightforward and willing to take a chance. Ione Skye is a bit overshadowed, but she is still convincingly sweet as the victim who finds the perfect guy. John Mahoney’s character is a despicable man and yet it is a credit to him that he actually makes us feel a bit of pity, for an instant. Obviously, the boombox scene is iconic, but I think it is the little things about Lloyd that make this film great. Every person could probably take a page out of his playbook by being honest, vulnerable, and most definitely loyal.

4.5/5 Stars