Wednesday, April 20, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #15: UNTITLED (ALMOST FAMOUS)
Some people have music coursing through their veins. That’s what makes Cameron Crowe’s film UNTITLED (the “bootleg cut” of ALMOST FAMOUS) so beautiful. Just as Crowe’s SAY ANYTHING illustrates how a single song can sum up everything important about a couple’s relationship, UNTITLED shows that rock and roll can sum up what’s really important about certain people’s lives. That’s true for every major character in this film, save one.
UNTITLED is the semi-autobiographical story of a young journalist who gets a privileged glimpse behind the curtain of 70s rock and roll and is powerless to resist its charms. I’m reminded of something Lloyd Dobler said about feeling helpless in Diane Court’s world of “food and sex and spectacle”… Infatuation is infatuation, and William Miller (the main character in UNTITLED, played by Patrick Fugit) is head-over-heels, hopelessly, uncontrollably infatuated with the entire world of rock, from the first guitar lick to the last groupie standing. The moment he steps backstage, he’s hooked…. much to the chagrin of his conservative-minded mother, played by Frances McDormand.
In any other film, McDormand’s character would be a comic relief character, nagging and out-of-touch, but here she’s humanized just as thoroughly as the other characters… because UNTITLED is not only a love poem to rock and roll, but also a slice of the writer/director’s real life. It’s a story he has to be honest about. By now everyone knows that Cameron Crowe based UNTITLED on his personal exploits as a young rock journalist (he claims that 90% of the events in the film really happened to him or friends of his). Most interviews and articles about the film focus on that aspect of the storytelling, but not many have entered into an analysis of Frances McDormand’s character, who is based on the filmmaker’s own mother.
In Marlo Thomas’s book The Right Words at the Right Time, Cameron Crowe remembers a moment when he realized that his own mother played a similar role in his life. Her message, which he took to heart, was to “value humanity with good humor and live up to yourself in the world.” That lesson is what grounds William Miller as he hurtles helplessly through a world of food and sex and spectacle. That’s the reason that he can appreciate what’s so beautiful about rock and roll, without becoming jaded or cynical about the things that aren’t as beautiful.
And she’s not his only mentor. As in real life, rock critic Lester Bangs (played by the always brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman) instructs the young journalist to be honest in everything he says and does, regardless of what other people think or say. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world,” Bangs tells him, with an appropriate solemnity, “is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” This message also made a huge impression on Crowe… In fact, the original title of ALMOST FAMOUS was THE UNCOOL. It’s also the name of the filmmaker’s official website: http://www.theuncool.com/
After arming him with these two lessons, Crowe throws his alter ego William Miller into the maelstrom, where he proceeds to fall in love in every way possible. UNTITLED features a conventional love story between the wide-eyed innocent William and the worldly-wise Penny Lane (a star-making turn by Kate Hudson; this is her CACTUS FLOWER). Within a few hours of their first meeting, Penny pulls William aside and confides him (in a way, you can tell, that she never confides in anyone): “I’m going to Morocco. For one year. I need a new crowd.” When she invites him to come along with her, William can’t help beaming. His response is classic: he says yes, but with some understandable hesitation. Within the space of a single evening, Penny Lane has made him aware of a world that is roughly 1 billion times bigger than the one that he has lived in his entire life. (That’s the way love goes, isn’t it?) Also, his mother is beckoning him from a few yards away using the “family whistle.” Penny can see that he’s a little conflicted, so she says, “Are you sure?” William responds, “Ask me again.” She repeats the invitation and this time he musters utmost enthusiasm: “Yes!”
On the DVD commentary, Crowe says that actor Patrick Fugit never meant for the line “Ask me again” to be in the film. The actor felt that he had flubbed his response, and wanted to try another take so he asked Kate Hudson to feed him the preceding line one more time. Crowe, however, recognized the sincerity of the moment and used the entire sequence. In the finished film, the exchange is amplified by Nancy’s Wilson’s acoustic guitar on the soundtrack, which strikes the perfect tone of wonderment, then escalates into full-blown euphoria as Crowe widens the shot, pulling back into a high-angle, as if the God of that suddenly larger world is smiling down on William while he giddily runs toward the car. If the combination of cinematic elements in this scene don’t warm your heart to its core, nothing will.
The second love story in the film is the love affair that every true music-lover experiences. Penny Lane sums it up well: “If you ever get lonely, you just got to the record store and visit your friends.” Fairuza Balk’s character also hits the nail on the head when she talks about “loving some silly band so much that it hurts.” UNTITLED celebrates this mentality with every second of its running time, and dissects the idea in the most loving ways through its characterization of the musicians in the fictional band Stillwater.
It’s tempting to try to identify the real-world inspirations for the band at the center of the film. As a young journalist, Cameron Crowe traveled with plenty of contenders: The Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, The Who, etc. I believe I read somewhere that Crowe claimed he based guitarist Russell Hammond on Lynard Skynard’s Ronnie Van Zant. The role also makes me think of guitar legend Jeff Beck. Probably the character is a hodgepodge of real-life inspirations, but also something more: Russell Hammond is the main symbol of Crowe’s belief that the best rock music is based on pure instinct. In one crucial scene, Russell (played by the unassuming Billy Crudup, who has the ability to go from sweet to dangerous in the blink of an eye) explains to William that rock and roll is all about the little things – “the mistakes” – like a single “woo” at the end of Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Happening, Brother?” Moments later, he demonstrates his theory onstage with a random guitar windmill in mid-song. It’s a simple, inspired moment of abandonment of form. A little taste of anarchy. (Fugit's "mistake" in the Morocco scene is brilliant for the same reason...)
In contrast to Russell’s character, Jason Lee’s self-effacing lead singer Jeff Bebe is mostly intellect. I remember one time when I went to a show at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London with an excellent saxophonist named Joe Estock. We saw a band that was technically brilliant, but not quite inspired. I vividly remember a moment about halfway through the first set when Joe turned to me and tapped his forehead and smiled. A moment later, he tapped his chest and nodded his head back and forth. I got the message: The music was all head and no heart. I’ve thought of that many times over the years, because music is often that simple. When it works, it works on an instinctive level that’s too deep for words.
The same is true in filmmaking. Very often the scenes that I remember most vividly owe as much to the music as to the writing or the acting – because music determines the tone of a scene. The right music can turns copper into gold… It’s not just a matter of choosing a resonant song; it’s a matter of choosing exactly the right song to convey a very precise emotion. It’s harder than it seems, but this is Cameron Crowe’s greatest talent as a filmmaker. UNTITLED is a treasure trove of inspired musical interludes. Crowe pays tribute to Led Zeppelin’s wistful “That’s the Way” in an on-the-road sequence that evokes a sense of nostalgia through the use of autumnal light. There are a million other examples that I could point to. The group singalong to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” A “food and sex and spectacle” montage set to Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man.” Kate Hudson’s solo dance to “The Wind is the Song” by Cat Stevens. Penny Lane’s bittersweet birthday party (Elton John again). Penny getting her stomach pumped while Stevie Wonder’s “Cherie Amour” plays in love-struck William’s head. Billy Crudup and Fairuza Balk’s coda scene, featuring Zeppelin’s haunting “The Rain Song.” My favorite scene in the entire movie may be the heart-achingly beautiful airport scene, featuring Nancy Wilson on acoustic guitar. Everything about it is perfectly timed. There’s no escaping its emotional resonance.
Though the movie runs close to three hours, I always hate leaving the world that Cameron Crowe creates in UNTITLED. I not only wish I could go on the road with Stillwater, I earnestly wish I could have been involved with making the film, because it seems like the behind-the-camera experience of the actors was as genuine and inspiring as what their characters go through. (Check out the bonus features on the DVD, or read Jerry Ziesmer’s autobiography.) Somehow Cameron Crowe is able to evoke in his stories the feeling of being alive in the moment of a particular place and time – being so truly alive that you wouldn’t change anything about your own experiences (good, bad or ugly) for anything in the world. His characters always seem to be aware that those transcendent moments are fleeting, but the awareness never stops them from living life to its fullest, without fear or inhibition. They savor each experience as if it’s their last, and try to live their lives with honesty, integrity, good humor and an open heart. That is the true spirit of rock and roll.
Labels: Cameron Crowe