The relationship between William and Penny in Almost Famous was so deep and true that ... oh jeez, I'm gonna lose it again.


Art inspiring art, a tribute to Cameron Crowe's masterpiece


Popping a DVD into the player this evening revealed a sobering truth: I don’t devote enough of my free time to movies.

Predictably, music takes up a great deal of my free time, digesting albums, songs and the history and motives behind them all. I get obsessive about the artists I’m obsessive about, delving into back stories, motivations, and the kind of beautiful accidents that have conspired to create my favorite pieces of art. How John Lennon wanted “Cold Turkey” on Abbey Road, for example, and how that would’ve changed the entire mood of that record. How the introduction to Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day” was accidentally erased, necessitating the droning segue from “Friends” on Led Zeppelin III. How, in the throes of writer’s block, Eddie Vedder picked up a ukulele, channelled Pete Townshend, and wrote “Soon Forget” to snap out of it.

It’s these stories that take my love of music from something recreational and fun to something that has truly worked to shape and change me as a person. It’s this deep connection with music, however, that sometimes works against my best interests. I don’t read as much as I’d like, or as I should. I take far too long to finish books, and it takes even longer for me to work through an actual recommendation. On the same token, I don’t spend nearly enough time digesting and enjoying movies.

More than any other medium, film can work to quickly and completely transport you to a different time and place. When done correctly and fully, movies, for about two hours or so, can grab the viewer’s brain and erase any and all stress, filling it with images and stories of love and betrayal and redemption … and even though that sounds like the teaser to a bad romantic comedy, damn it, it’s true.

I have a small stable of “favorite” movies, or Top 5 movies, whatever. I loved The Departed. Having grown up in Massachusetts, I get homesick watching it, and it’s such a pure example of Martin Scorsese’s brilliance. I must have seen Office Space a hundred times at this point, but if it come on, you can believe the remote is relieved of its duty. Apocalypse Now has to be the most intense film I’ve ever seen, and the making of it reflects that. Also from Francis Ford Coppola, the first two Godfather films, are … well, what more can you say about the understood-greatest-film-ever?

But none of those top my list. Depending on my mood, I’m just as likely to list those five as favorites, or five others I’m completely forgetting at the moment. But one movie completely grabs me every time I watch it, and I do make a point to watch it semi-regularly:

Almost Famous.

I missed out watching it in the theater, but I first saw it on DVD in late 2000, and instantly knew I had to see it several times over. The next year, the “Bootleg Cut” edition was released, which saw Cameron Crowe’s original vision of Almost Famous (with it’s original title, Untitled) brought back to life with additional scenes, all key to making the film even better than it already was.

The story resonated with me on so many levels. The music, first of all, is incredible, and it’s probably what drew me into the film to begin with. When this was first released, I was deep into my immersion into classic rock, and at this point I’d already come into owning and memorizing every album by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix (Experienced and otherwise), and the Allman Brothers Band. And lesser bands got plenty of air time in my Saturn’s cassette player, too: Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Guess Who and Black Sabbath, for example. Most of those folks are featured prominently in the movie, especially Zeppelin and the Allmans.

But with Almost Famous, it wasn’t just the music I knew that sucked me in. It was also the music of the not-so-fictional Stillwater. I was enthralled by them. The bonus CD in the deluxe edition is still featured in my iPod. The studio musicians (featuring Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready) melded with stars Jason Lee and Billy Crudup to create a band so convincing as to make me an honest-to-goodness fan. Ridiculous! Watching them on stage, I felt like I was witnessing an early version of the Black Crowes. They were brutal, authentic rock and roll, and represented everything I loved about my favorite bands. Upon their entry, I was totally on board with Stillwater.

The characters themselves are sympathetic, flawed and just so real. Russell Hammond is a good person and a gifted musician who can’t recognize how selfish he can be. Penny Lane is a beautiful, exciting girl who doesn’t see how blind and naive she truly is. And William Miller is so innocent and bewildered by the entire scene that he becomes the conscience of the movie. Whether it’s his fractured family or the tense band dynamics, the viewer sees it all through William’s eyes.

I’m no student of film, by any means, but I can recognize a beautifully shot movie when I see one. The warm tones and intimate frames of Almost Famous are nearly enough to bring a tear to my cheek. Whether it’s the bus rolling down the freeway, a tired stack of Polaroids on a table, or William desperately holding up Penny, everything is filmed in such loving, detail-driven fashion that the director’s passion and belief in the story becomes palpable.

Which brings us to Cameron Crowe. The director and writer of this film happens to be a personal hero of mine. At 15 years old, Crowe began traveling with the likes of the Allman Brothers Band and Deep Purple for Rolling Stone after writing for underground ‘zines and corresponding with Lester Bangs and Creem. If you’ve ever read his stories (or, for that matter, his liner notes for The Song Remains the Same or Frampton Comes Alive!), you’re already familiar with the deep love Crowe has for music and his subjects. In an era where “look at me” journalism was really starting to get its legs, Crowe’s youthful approach proved he was miles ahead of schedule in the wisdom department.

Rather than crafting tales of debauchery in order to expose the artists in question, Crowe zoomed right in on the music — what made it great, what inspired it, and how recreating those magical moments night after night on tour took its toll on the artists. Were drugs present? Of course. But drugs weren’t what people were getting when they bought the record; they were getting music to live their lives by. As a writer, Crowe worked to bring the stories and emotions of that music to the pages of a magazine, back to another fan wanting to know more about what made this band or that singer tick. Crowe, through it all, never forgot what it was like to just be some kid completely and totally in love with music.

It’s that love of his subject and that connection to the inner fan that has turned Crowe into such a fantastic director and storyteller. Pop Say Anything or Singles in some night, and watch how he shares the lives of his characters, reveals their flaws, and works with them to overcome their great conflicts. Crowe is as respectful and affectionate towards his art as his heroes were, be it Pete Townshend or Harper Lee. He takes no shortcuts and treats every project with the greatest of diligence. And between his writing and films, he has an incredible body of work to show for it.

I don’t typically write movie reviews, and I don’t necessarily feel that this is one. Instead, it’s a personal thank you to Cameron Crowe for creating such a beautiful film. True art inspires art, and the music of the era first inspired Crowe to craft excellent articles, and 30 years later, inspired him again to direct one of the finest films of this decade.

It’s not much, but I’d like to offer this tribute as a continuation on that, a creative endeavor inspired by a true piece of art. It may not be much, but I’ll stand behind it.

January 17, 2009

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