Time seems to be standing still in pop culture.
Can Almost Famous really be 20 years old? Cameron Crowe’s coming of age opus feels like it was released yesterday, yet at the time – a sprightly Millennial feel-good vessel – it pointed itself towards another world, the lumbering rock dinosaurs of the early 70s, ambling across North America with beers, double-necked guitars, and quaaludes, an era just before punk’s meteorite struck.
Re-visiting the film, though, it’s striking how much has changed since its release. Rooted in scenes from Cameron Crowe’s own life – himself a teenage Rolling Stone correspondent – its rose-tinted nostalgia masks scenes and attitudes that are deeply problematic, while the film fails to offer any real critique of the era it is located in.
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Take Penny Lane. Based on a female promoter with the same name, it offered a breakout role for Kate Hudson, a Band Aid whose character adds a little of the agency found in contemporary accounts such as Pamella Des Barres’ memoir I’m With The Band. Yet it still falls victim to this numbing, Golden Age halo, constructing someone who is more of a manic pixie dream girl, a portal for a young male journalist to enter the adult world through.
Philip Seymour Hoffman get some scene-stealing lines as Lester Bangs, and he certainly occupies some of the writer’s iconoclastic flair. A real life mentor for Cameron Crowe, in the film Lester Bangs warns the young writer William Miller avoid friendships with bands at all costs – sage advice, given that they (spoiler alert) betray him on a base level several times over.
Yet this depiction, too, offers a watered down, very safe vision of Lester Bangs. A troubled supernova of a critic, he was capable of great cruelty in his own right – describing David Bowie as a “limey faggot” at one point, for example, deploying casual racism at others, or eviscerating Kraftwerk’s stunning electronic futurism with some troubling Nationalist tropes.
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Perhaps Cameron Crowe can be forgiven for a little dewy eyed creativity – after all, it is essentially his life. The script was based on his own experiences, and many of the characters are reflections – or his interpretations – of the world he saw at the time. Some aspects retain their warmth; Frances McDormand is on typically imperious form as William Miller’s imposing mother figure, for exampole. The woman she played – Cameron Crowe’s own over-bearing parent – even made visits to the set, but the pair seemingly became close throughout the shoot.
When it comes to its depiction of a culture fading into the night, however, Almost Famous pulls its punches. Penny Lane – and her fellow Band Aid groupies – are bartered during a poker game, while the ages of the women involved are never disclosed. If they were to more accurately reflect the culture of the time, it would probably label some of those relationships as abusive, or at least profoundly problematic.
Indeed, Cameron Crowe seemed to reach some kind of sanguine reflection both the era and Almost Famous itself when re-cycling the script for a stage show. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, he struggled to pin down his aims and motivations, and admitted that he wore “rose-coloured glasses” during the creative process.
“I just figured, let’s not invite the wrong kind of debate,” he reflects on the ages of the Band Aid women. “Penny in the day was an adult to me — they all felt like adults, even though they were adolescents — and I never really felt there was some kind of predatory experience going on. Maybe that’s because I was 15 and 16, and people just knew that I had some rose-coloured glasses on because I just loved music.”
In spite of this, Cameron Crowe would later make two substantial changes to the script of Almost Famous when it hit the stage – a sign, perhaps, that even his hard-rooted nostalgia was beginning to be shaken up.
Just as much a cultural object as the albums it utilises on its soundtrack – Kate Hudson’s wardrobe is essentially a Woodstock costume party staple – Almost Famous has also become subject to revisions, allowing it to be seen in a fresh light. It’s something that even impacts on its cast – in a real punch to the gut for a film that studiously avoids portraying abusive behaviour, Mark Kozelek fulfils the role of bass player in Stillwater, a man currently defending himself from multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.
Indeed, perhaps that the only real truism that Almost Famous gets right: bands – and indeed films – will always let you down.
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