Then a funny thing happens. When it comes time to write this thing up, I can't get Lester Bangs out of my head. Not the Lester Bangs whose writing influenced a generation of rock critics, the man who died in 1983 and whose writing I've barely read any of, but the Lester Bangs who's played so well by Philip Seymour Hoffman in this movie, the Lester Bangs of Crowe's memory. In the movie, this Lester Bangs advises the 15-year-old Crowe stand-in William Miller (Patrick Fugit) NOT to make friends with the rock stars, because that would only taint his journalistic voice. "You must build your reputation on being honest and unmerciful," he says. He'd probably tell me not to befriend movie directors, too. Crap.
It would certainly be wrong to skip over my criticisms of the movie in order to write a puff piece about Almost Famous in the off chance that Crowe would read it, call me up, and take me out for drinks. The truth of the matter is that the movie is nothing more and nothing less than a light and entertaining crowd-pleaser. Which is fine. Good, even. Be sure to see it early in its run in a packed theater. It's just that for a rock 'n' roll tour film set in 1973, the content comes across as so... clean. When I tell him the story feels like R-rated content in a PG-13 package, he says, "I think you're suggesting that it either has the courage or the lack of courage not to be openly corrosive, and to go with the point of view of a 15-year-old that's somewhat whimsical. Am I right or wrong?" Of course he's right, and I start to feel like a cynical bastard.
He continues, "The point of all this is that I was there and I saw sexual abuse, I saw TVs going out the window, I saw all that stuff. I observed enough of what that era really was about to be able to say that the poetry of that era is under-represented. I never got into music because I thought the guy used a mud shark [on a girl] in a hotel room. I never got into a song more because I knew a guy was on heroin. What I've not seen in the many [movies] that have tried to capture the rock era is something that waves the flag for fandom. That's what I tried to do with this movie."
Yes, yes, the spirit of fandom permeates Almost Famous, particularly through the William Miller character and the "Band Aids," a group of girls that tour with the band who see themselves more as muses than groupies. But the Lester Bangs character balances them out with his own brand of fandom: a love of music that is tinged with cynicism and regret and doom.
Crowe himself wrote about music for nearly a decade before transitioning into film, so I ask him what he sees as the difference between them. "Music is more powerful to me," he says. "Music is somebody leading you to the cliff and saying, 'Jump, jump into whatever,' whereas movies tend to be a more arrogant art form, where somebody is just saying, 'I have bled to bring you my glorious view of love.'"
Then, at the end of our allotted time together, I ask him how he sees himself as a director. Right away he responds, "Starting to get more visual, which is exciting. The shots are coming to me more as I'm writing. I just want to be able to tell the story more with the camera, but always try and have a lack of pretension in the presentation. That was one of the great lessons of Billy Wilder. This guy's a genius at visuals, but he said, 'Too much clouds the story and the characters.' I just thought, in the era of quick cuts and a lot of unmotivated camera movement, it's good to remember the voice of 94-year-old Billy Wilder saying, 'Tell the story with the camera. The rest is garbage.'" Oh, who am I kidding? I want to be friends with Cameron Crowe.