A Gooden Worsted Double Feature
What to do while watching: Famous Amos brand chocolate-chip cookies.
What to eat while watching: Compare notes with your watching companions in an effort to decide which characters and events are historically actual.
Almost Famous depicts the story of journalist William Miller, who, at age 15, begins to write for Rolling Stone. This was possible back in the early 70's. He takes lessons from real-person-from-rock-n-roll-history Lester Bangs, (played here by P. S. Hoffman), and winds up experiencing the day-to-day life of what Bangs would call Rock-n-Roll's death rattle. Like R&B before it, a great deal of rock in this period is mostly about promoters and record labels turning music into gold, as the saying goes.
Stillwater, following the now-pandemic Elvis model, is the band from out somewhere now about to make it big into show biz. Think The Eagles, for indeed I have heard that that band was the model for Stillwater. Like many "rock and roll stars," the boys of Stillwater succumb to the drugs, the groupies, the delusions of grandeur. It's ugly, and young Miller sees it all, or certainly enough. As a young nerd, his danger lies in becoming their shill in exchange for them gracing him with associative cool. Bangs tries to protect him from the glamorous succubus of show biz.
Meanwhile, the story is as much about les femmes de guerre as about the rock stars and the rock journalist. Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is the pseudonym of the alpha groupie who stays with and pleases Stillwater's lead guitarist (who would be Glen Frey in our parallelism). The movie is as much about what it meant to be one of the groupies as any other aspect of 70's rock. Do these aspects of rock continue? I'd imagine so, and some forward-looking jokes are played on contemporary music from within this 30-year-old setting:
1) A manager facetiously asks the young Stillwater bucks if
they can imagine Mick Jagger at 50 still singing rock.
In general, a fascinating look. Friends seem to have loved the airplane scene, but I think my favorite scene is the one in which Miller's overprotective mother finally reaches him on tour with Stillwater. Quasi-Frey (Billy Crudup) decides to talk to mom with a flippant jocularity, but she gives him an earful, calling the guitarist's lifestyle and artistic output vapid and dangerous. She insists that the guitarist make himself into a man of substance and charges him with the moral mission to keep track of her son--and to be a mensch--with incredible and unexpected force.
I even recollect that scene in Gandhi where the Hindu has slaughtered an entire Muslim family except for one child, and Ghandi tells the man he must raise the child as his own, but to raise him as a Muslim. Damn! Miller's mom (Frances McDormand) has similar intensity. Like her in spite of herself.
In general, a great film for 70's music buffs. The soundtrack will take you back, or, if you're younger, give you a dose of your parents' nostalgia. The story is engaging and the acting (except for Fugit's monologue to Penny Lane) is passable. Rock on.
State and Main
What to do while watching: Egg salad on toast. Yum!
What to eat while watching: Pet the cat.
A film about a film. A film industry film about the film industry. Many actors star as many actors. Leave it to David Mamet (or David Lynch or maybe Cameron Crowe) to put the seeminess of the big screen industry on the big screen.
Sleepy town, Vermont is the perfect place to shoot a film that's supposed to be set in 18something-something. It's too quaint for words, and as soon as the motion picture's duplicitous weasel of a director (Macy) sees it, he knows that he's found his location. Jaded as any Los-Angeles lifer, Macy cannot believe his good fortune and finding a place so Rockwellian. His entire crew, from the overworked PAs to the lawyer to the producer, to each and every quirked-out handful of star power falls in Los-Angelean love with the place.
Of course, it's all about the movie, so they feel no compunctions about bushwhacking through the town with all the might of their cameras and fame. From inadvertently dissing the mayoral couple to destroying the one valuable piece of art in the town, these people repeatedly hammer home their superficiality.
The only two characters we can care about are the writer, Hoffman, and the town's cool book store owner (Rebecca Pidgeon) They find some honesty between them, and it's sweet as one can get in a Mamet play. In general, though, it's hard to care about the people here. The Hollywoodians get what they want. The town's political scrambler doesn't do badly. And the lovers fair well enough.
It's interesting how all of this open critique doesn't come to any kind of a devastating head. I think back on the apocalyptic ending of Spike Lee's Bamboozled and wonder if Mamet is exploring the destructive nature of Hollywood's artifice, or if he is just chucking it on the shoulder. There is a tender moment in the movie: the actual filming of the film within the film. At this point, magic seems to be made, but like the glitzy world of Almost Famous, it's all smoke and mirrors: we know how ugly these people are off the set. This scene confused me a bit. The film seems set up to bite these crazy filmmakers on their annoying butts; but it swaddles them suddenly as though saying, "It's crazy and awful and ugly, but movies sure are great anyway." Why not just have Ethel Merman burst onto the set with a rousing chorus of "There's No Business (Like Show Business)"?
The movie is fun, though. Terrifically acted, there's no doubt, especially for characters who, at base, are such stereotypes. Mamet can write dialogue with the best of them, even when his characters are cut-outs. And, of course, it's hard to beat this cast of movie giants.
Watching these movies makes me want to ask: How about some entertainment that's not about entertainment? How about some film that actually is made as a medium to carry a human and true message? I'm what you'd call "over" all these films about the entertainment industry. The bind that ties up this genre is that these films want to tell a realistic story. Nobody would buy a "Singin' in the Rain" version of Hollywood as it did of Broadway in the late 40's. Everyone knows there is nothing holy about Hollywood, and nothing soulful about Rock and roll these days. So let's have filmmakers-and music makers-get back to the roots. Make films about life. Get the be-bop-a-lula back. What's it about? Talk to my soul. My mind already has your message, and hearing it again is wasting my time, even if the script is funny and actors are all cute. Gosh, listen to me. I'm downright irked!
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.