Hollywood films are so conservative they might as well be produced by a joint coalition of Pat Buchanan, Oral Roberts and the Taliban. The problem is that politicians are able to point out the visual improprieties without noticing the narrative narrowness of most American cinema.
While, on the surface, Almost Famous looks exceptionally naughty, what with its themes of teen sex, teen drug use and teen rock and roll fans, ultimately, and even initially, its message is one of family values. The whole thing comes down to a failed coming-of-age story, wherein a young boy and his sister leave the smothering confines of their San Diego home to find their way in the disintegrating world of post-'60s good times, only to return home to their domineering mother and her hatred of meat, music and mirth.
It's not that there aren't depictions of good, old-fashioned rock and roll excess (though mostly they take place off camera, so that no one's delicate sensibilities are offended by the sight of a marijuana cigarette or, what amounts to the same thing, a naked breast). Rather, it's that these things are simply not glorified. They're there to draw in the crowds, and they're denounced to make everyone feel OK.
It's kind of like one of those Gore/Lieberman Hollywood fund raising parties in reverse. G and L like to condemn Hollywood in one breath and then take it all back in the next in order to win over middle America without losing their cash lifeline. Almost Famous sucks in audience dollars with promises of kinderporn and kinderpot, and then does a little pas de deux with the family values folks.
Which is not to say that this is a bad film. In fact, it's so effectively conservative because it is so well made. The story is engaging, the acting often impeccable (especially that of Billy Crudup as rock guitarist Russell Hammond), and the cinematography is so pure and seamless as to be invisible. That's how Hollywood works: The best-made films make you forget that they are movies.
Almost Famous is essentially the story of writer/director Cameron Crowe's youth as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Patrick Fugit plays Crowe stand-in William Miller, a 15-year-old boy who is so uncool that he's already working as a rock critic. He hooks up with legendary Creem magazine writer Lester Bangs. Bangs is played by master thespian Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and he's the highlight of the film. Only Bangs seems to realize the truth that entertainment is not happy and is not uplifting. Being entertained is pathetic; being entertained means you're doing nothing.
Bangs meets young William Miller as Miller is just beginning his rock writing career, in 1973. "You got here just in time for the death of rock and roll," he tells him. "Now it's just an industry of cool."
Miller enters the industry of cool when he gets an assignment to write about heavy metal band Stillwater for Rolling Stone. On tour with the band, he meets and falls in love with über-groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who, at 16, has established intimate and meaningful five-minute relationships with all the great early '70s rock stars.
Penny, who likes to be too cool to care, is sadly in love with Stillwater guitarist Hammond. It's your basic '80s teen film: Nerdy boy loves pretty girl who loves abusive cool guy. In fact, Miller is so nerdy that, throughout the wild rock tour, he keeps in telephone contact with his straitlaced, if a bit wacky, mother (Frances McDormand). Mom even takes time out to berate guitarist Hammond, telling him that he still has a chance to reform and become an upright citizen.
While a real rock star would probably find this hilarious, in the cinematic world of Cameron Crowe moms have the power to change the hearts of the most fun-loving rockers, and Hammond is addled by what he hears.
While mom makes a man out of a guitarist, Miller sets to work on Penny Lane, pointing out the shallowness of her non-stop orgy of a life, and trying to convince her that fun is less interesting than love and a well maintained lawn.
Of course, in Almost Famous all the people who have dedicated themselves to excess come to either a bad end or the realization that less is more. You know, just like in real life, where Mick Jagger settled down with one woman and raised a family, and Keith Richards gave up heroin for Hummel figurines.
Narrative conservatism is the hallmark of this film, and, generally, of Cameron Crowes's work. Everything works out in the end, people see the errors of their ways, and families are reunited.
It's interesting to contrast Crowe's work, which looks radical on the surface but is extremely bourgeois underneath, with that of a filmmaker like Frank Capra. Where Crowe puts teen sex out front to lure in the audiences, and then gives them a cautionary tale of suburban simplicity, Capra made films that seemed to be infused with good old American values, but which pointed out the quiet desperation of living. It's a Wonderful Life looks like it has a neat and tidy ending that ties everything up, but in reality George Bailey's life is a pale shadow of what he imagined it would be.
For Capra, the return to family really did represent personal failure. For Crowe, it seems to be the natural course of propriety.