Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous should bewilder only two groups: People who don’t like rock music. And people who do.
The sunniest movie ever made about drug abuse, sexual degradation, and rock ‘n’ roll suicide, Almost Famous is the lightly fictionalized, mostly comic tale of Crowe’s first road trip as a 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. It’s set in 1973, a year the film depicts as both a personal watershed and a musical delight. Yet the writer-director is sufficiently unsure of his cultural history to introduce the anti-Crowe, gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs, as the story’s nagging conscience.
Both Bangs and Crowe grew up in the San Diego area, and they did indeed know each other. But Bangs (impersonated energetically if unconvincingly by Philip Seymour Hoffman) went east, first to Detroit and the anti-corporate-rock Creem and then to New York and the radical-chic Village Voice. While Bangs became a passionate scold, Crowe stayed in California and developed a career as a rock courtier. In the movie, Bangs appears periodically to warn Crowe’s alter ego, young William Miller (Patrick Fugit), that ambitious rock stars “are not your friends.” Of course, Crowe’s rock-journalism career was dependent on the pretense that they were.
At their first meeting, Bangs informs William that the kid has started writing about rock just in time for its “death rattle.” Yet Crowe has said that one of the motivations for the movie was to rebut detractors of early-’70s pop music. The movie has almost as many song cues as High Fidelity, from “The Chipmunk Song” and Brenton Wood’s “The Oogum Boogum Song” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and the Brian-less Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows.” A few of these tunes are used ironically, but more should be. Perhaps the film’s most preposterous moment comes on the tour bus, when William joins amiable roadies, fresh-faced groupies, and the members of the heavy-rock quartet Stillwater in singing along to Elton John’s mawkish “Tiny Dancer.” Crowe must know better, but he insists on portraying early-’70s pop as one big happy family, as if FM rock hadn’t already permanently ruptured the consensus.
Stillwater is a composite of the bands that Crowe shadowed in his early days at Rolling Stone, including the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, and Led Zeppelin. The band is essentially reduced to charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), with quarrelsome lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) provided for comic relief. Crowe has said the film is about fame and fandom, but you couldn’t tell from watching Stillwater or William. The band is depicted as indeed “almost famous,” worthy of only slightly more respect than Spi¬nal Tap, and if William is a fan he never lets on. He’s glad to be part of the traveling circus but doesn’t really seem to care who’s in the spotlight.
In fact, William worships not Stillwater but Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the supernaturally benevolent groupie who loves Russell when the guitarist’s wife isn’t around. This premise puts the director on familiar ground. Like Say Anything…, Singles, and Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous features the story of an earnest young man who’s madly smitten with a woman of whom he is somehow unworthy. (In real life, the average-looking Crowe is married to hard-rock beauty Nancy Wilson, guitarist for Heart.) Williams is so enchanted that a scene in which he watches as the suicidal Penny has her stomach pumped is presented as a moment of romantic rapture.
That’s both funny and sweet, which are the strongest emotions this genial film can muster. Almost Famous seems almost uninterested in rock ‘n’ roll, except as a backdrop the director can render with some accuracy, but sycophantic journalism is another matter: Crowe offers not only Bangs but his own mother as enemies of corporate-rock hype; leftist Puritan Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand, shrill even by the standards of her previous work) battles furiously to shield her son from the great rock ‘n’ roll swindle. Despite these homages, however, Crowe’s real muse is Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who appears in a brief cameo, offering a silent benediction for the movie’s sanitized version of rock’s pre-punk doldrums.
The last time a French film staged a factory takeover may have been 1972, the year of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s defiantly unnaturalistic Tout Va Bien. Writer-director Laurent Cantet’s Human Relations is not alone among recent French movies, however. Its depiction of working-class resentment and ambivalence is part of an electrifying new movement in Francophone cinema that includes Erick Zonca’s The Dreamlife of Angels, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, and Bertrand Tavernier’s It All Starts Today. All use documentary techniques, real-life locations, and nonprofessional actors to depict a world far from the Paris where most French films are set.
Frank (Jalil Lespert) is, in fact, coming from Paris, where he’s attending business school, when he arrives to take an internship at a small factory in Normandy. The plant is in the town where Frank grew up, however, and his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has worked there for 30 years. As the executives face the task of introducing the new government-mandated 35-hour work week, Frank imagines that he can be the conciliator between management and the factory’s Communist union. He tells the boss (Lucien Longueville) about a case he studied in school, in which management allowed itself to be guided by the results of a worker questionnaire.
When the boss announces a similar questionnaire for the factory, Frank discovers that workers he’s known all his life don’t trust him now that he has an office job. The young man also gradually realizes that the company’s human resources chief (Pascal Sémard) hates Frank for upstaging him, while the factory executives are using their new intern to undercut worker solidarity. Frank becomes friends with a machine operator (Didier Emile-Woldemard) who at first seems merely sullen but is, in fact, perceptively alienated, and leaks the names of employees about to fired to the factory’s fieriest union representative (Danielle Mélador).
Frank’s father’s name is on the list, but the old man isn’t happy when his son tells off the boss and helps the union radicals shut down the factory. His father is proud of his production recordhe can weld 700 thingamajigs an hourbut even more proud of his son’s upward mobility. His distress shows that the class struggle can be fought as furiously in one man’s soul as at the factory gates.
Cantet’s feature suggests a French equivalent to the films of Ken Loach: earnest and a little clunky in places, but impassioned and determined to depict the blue-collar lives that are rarely shown on screen. The director also borrowed a technique from Mike Leigh: He led the castall nonprofessionals except Lespert, and most located through agencies that serve the unemployedthrough discussions and improvisations that amplified the basic scenario into a complete script. The result is a film that’s bracingly free of stylization and glamorization. Human Relations is definitely not recommended to those people who go to the movies to escape the real world. CP