Music, as we have been studying all semester, has the power to transcend boundaries and to give shape and meaning to human existence. A few songs come to mind: “We Are The World,” which was played in class and was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in 1985 to help raise funds to fight famine in Africa, Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” which is a song of hope and struggle, Sylvia Robinson’s “Pillow Talk,” a song which Alice Echols asserts was seminal in women’s sexual liberation, or Nirvana’s “It Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which profoundly captures youthful angst in the 1990s are all powerful examples of how music is more than just the sum of notes and spaces. In other words, music is bigger than the music. Many insights about society and politics can be revealed if one approaches the study of music from a cultural perspective.
Cameron’s Crow movie “Almost Famous,” which he both wrote and directed is first and foremost an homage to rock “n” roll. But that is just one way to appreciate the film. Another way is to examine the social and cultural forces that helped shape the music of the era. The movie is loosely biographical and looks back at Crowe’s early career as a teenage music journalist. The movie is a coming of age story centered around 15-year old William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit), and his unlikely rise from high school nerd to a rock “n” roll journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. We meet the famous rock critic Lester Bangs (played by the late, inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman) who raves for purity and truth in rock and disdains the fact that rock has become an “industry of cool.” Bangs advises Miller to make his journalistic reputation as one who is “honest and unmerciful.” Bangs later gives Miller a $35 assignment to write a review on the band “Black Sabbath.”
“Almost Famous,” although showcasing real musical groups of the 1960s and 1970s, focuses on a fictional rock band called “Stillwater.” What Crowe has done in the movie is to juxtapose real and fictional characters in order to give us a sense of the time and age. Early on in the movie, we are introduced to William Miller’s mother (played by Frances McDormand) who may be representative of the conservative establishment and antiquated parental fears about the dangers of rock “n” roll and/or popular music. At one point, she rails against the evils of popular music and says “They’re obviously on drugs,” as she points to the clean-cut figures of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel on an album cover. In a way, Miller’s mother embodies the fears that conservative Americans in the 1960s and 1970s harbored about the putative corrupting influence of rock music. At one point in the movie, Mrs. Miller drops William off at a concert and then yells to him, “Don’t take drugs!,” an embarrassing comment that elicited peals of laughter from other concert-goers and a sarcastic “Yes, mother” comment from a disembodied voice.
“Almost Famous” does not look at a specific musical era in particular, but loosely follows musical groups from the 1960s through the 1970s. This was a period of tremendous social change, including –but not limited to- the sexual revolution. It was a period of challenging established traditional notions of sex and behavior, and admitting that -gasp!- women too had sexual needs and actually enjoyed sex. This liberalization in sexual attitudes, in which petting and premarital sex were considered acceptable, is evident in the movie. A number of groupies, who would rather call themselves “Band-Aids,” led by Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) reflect this liberalization in attitudes. These girls have no qualms performing oral sex on band members, and although they claim that is the limit of the promiscuity, later events in the movie tell a different story.
“Almost Famous” also lends credence to Rojek’s observation that listening to music in today’s age has become “deterritorialized.” Today, the majority of people consume music or listen to music using an iPhone or some personal mp3 player or some other personal technology. In other words, the public spaces in which people consumed music in the 1960s and 1970s has gradually diminished and been eliminated to the point where we listen to music today in a form of digital obscurity (a person and the personal technology they use to consume music). The experience of listening to music in the period depicted in “Almost Famous” is drastically different today. It is possible to imagine William Miller or Lester bangs going to a record store to obtain a popular new record. The whole visual experience (the art work on the album cover plus the illustrations) and tactile experience (the feel, touch and smell of the new record) is non-existent today compared to that era. Today, the ease of downloading music directly has diminished the totality of somatic experience in consuming music.
Although Crowe does not delve too much into period detail, he does give a fair and balanced treatment of rock “n” roll without bias. The movies gives us a sense of the excitement and change and hope of the 1960s. If anything, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott writes that Crowe succeeds by “evoking the joyful, reckless, earnest energy of rock in the years between 60’s idealism and punk nihilism.” There is fair amount of recklessness in the movie exemplified by the leading member of “Stillwater,” Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup), jumping off the roof of a building while screaming out, “I’m on drugs.” In keeping consistent with the emerging drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s, Almost Famous depicts generous use of drugs like LSD, Quaaludes, marijuana, and plenty alcohol. The frenetic energy of the period is also reflected in the wild parties and kinetic concerts.
I chose “Almost Famous” for one simple reason: the music was just too good. In fact, the first time I watched Crowe’s film, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a movie or listening to a movie. It is a veritable smorgasbord of good, scratch that, great rock “n” roll music. Some gems that come to mind include Led Zeppelin’s “That’s The Way” and “Tangerine,” Deep Purple’s “Burn,” Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Joni Mitchell’s “River,” Cat Stevens’s “The Wind,” Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” Another reason to love “Almost Famous” besides the music, is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s role as Lester Bangs. Hoffman, one of the greatest, underappreciated actors of our age shows a sliver of his brilliance, as he completely inhabits the world of Lester Bangs, passionate rock critic extraordinaire.
If I were to further research this movie, I’d probably want to delve more deeply into the specific politics and economic climate of the era. Music is not produced in a vacuum, but is rather a product of the culture and climate of the time. It would be interesting to see if one could draw direct connections between particular social or political events with the creation or expression of a particular of of music or song. It would be insightful to research the history of specific groups like Led Zeppelin to study the development of the creative process and how it is influenced by culture and politics.