It is a time tested truth that nostalgia fogs up one’s memory of the past worse than downpour hitting the windshield of a bus careening down a highway during a rainstorm. One cannot truly remember without that said memory being filtered through every feeling, obsession, interaction, and nuance that existed in the time in which the memory takes place. When one recalls the past, the past is shown cloaked in a blanket of personality and subjectivity. Not many people understand this as well as Cameron Crowe does. With Almost Famous, what is likely the best film he has made, Crowe crafted a lush and wistful portrait of a particular time (based on his experiences reporting for Rolling Stone in high school) precisely as he remembers it: idealized and stylized, laregly uncynical, and most of all, happy.
The memory of a film can be as susceptible to nostalgia as any other memory. If one watches a movie during a particularly happy time in one’s life, that film might retain a happy and memorable place in one’s consciousness. Even if the film is objectively bad, the nostalgia can cloud one’s critical eye. Returning to that film and giving it a hard look can be remarkably difficult, and more often than not, disappointing. Watching Almost Famous for the first time is a whirlwind experience. The quick pacing, the constant music, the iconic”Tiny Dancer” scene– it all amalgamates to be so overwhelmingly pleasant. On a rewatch, one might expect to realize that the film simply isn’t what it once was. That the whirlwind nature of the film covered up all the otherwise glaring flaws revealed on the successive viewings. Almost Famous is imperfect, sure, but the whole film, the Pleasantly Overwhelming Amalgamation, if you will, is so good that any noticeable flaws are forgiven. Crowe’s occasional missteps into cliche territory or semi-underwritten scenes seem comparatively minor to the overall tapestry of the film. What made it so enticing on first viewing continues to hold up with each watch.
Music and film are permanently entwined. The art of film is elevated by music’s inherent power to evoke feelings, often of a certain time and place. That supplementation isso important in Almost Famous. The film is about teenager rock journalist, William (Patrick Fugit), writing for Rolling Stone magazine who goes on a cross country road trip with a band on tour and comes of age on the way. Crowe takes advantage of this music based plot and manages to not only have a great soundtrack, but to infuse the great soundtrack within the story. Most memorable is a scene (mentioned above) where the characters sing along to Elton John’s classic song “Tiny Dancer” while on the road. It’s a collective celebration, bringing themselves and the film out of a sort of hangover depression. The music is a healing mechanism for them, just as it has been for the main character and all of the characters. A way to deal and have fun dealing. The soundtrack becomes elevated from just background to integral plot device, and it’s wholly wonderful. Crowe does this at several other points in the movie, utilizing such tracks as Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” to not only create a feeling, but make a statement.
Almost Famous is totally devoid of cynicism. As he’s aged, Crowe’s personality hasn’t swayed an inch toward the crooked and bitter, but instead has only become steeped in a certain understated mawkishness. At its best, is not naive, but sincere. And sincere without being overly self serious. There is a scene in Almost Famous where Fugit reconciles with Billy Crudup’s rockstar front-man after the tour, where, under less deft hands, the exchange could become overly sappy, or the characters might be dealt with angrily, or the dialogue might shame Crudup. Crowe doesn’t make any of those mistakes. He trusts himself to manage and craft something sincere and touching without bridging into saccharine sentimentality. With the whole film, Crowe takes tired tropes– the American Dream, the cross country road trip, the free-spirited and life-changing young female lover- – and makes it all fresh through a mix of earnestness and exuberance with a hint of healthy sadness. As a result, the movie feels good. It’s whole and fully realized. It’s enjoyable, but not slight. Watching it, one truly understands the time period and culture they way one who lived it might understand in nostalgic recollection.
If one were to equate Almost Famous to a certain type of music, the early electric ramblings of Bob Dylan would come immediately to mind. Crowe is painting the same picture of rambunctious youth against the backdrop of the American mythos as Dylan was back in the mid-60s. They have the same rock-and-roll joy and viscerality. They’re both playing to similar rhythms and both relay a sort of no-holds-barred street wisdom about life and what it’s like to be young. At one point in the film, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) talks to Patrick Fugit’s character about how the two of them are “uncool.” He’s being somewhat facetious and poking fun at the two of them in their profession of writing as opposed to the “coolness” of the actual musicians. Yet, “uncool” seems almost like something one can strive for. It’s better than being “cool.” After all, anyone can appear cool, but it takes real chutzpah to be uncool. Almost Famous is uncool in the very best way possible.
Featured Image: DreamWorks Pictures