We move now on my list of best pop music films from THE DOORS to ALMOST FAMOUS, a natural progression in rock time to about 1973–the next step will be to THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.
1) DISCO and ALMOST FAMOUS have two points of comparison. First, both are about the ineradicable desire, even in very democratic times, for an aristocratic experience. In the first, the characters want to get into the Club, in the second, into the backstage area and into Rock Fame generally.
2) Second, both films rode upon a 1990s revival of interest in 1970s music styles, respectively, disco and hard rock. And to understand ALMOST FAMOUS you have to notice that, in contrast to Whit Stillman’s attitude towards classic disco, Cameron Crowe’s embrace of 70s-era rock is a fairly ambivalent one. The band in ALMOST FAMOUS is named “Stillwater.” That, and a few choice comments from the Lester Bangs character, indicate that Crowe feels the music of the era was getting stagnant. While the film’s soundtrack does cherry-pick a number of atypically poppy early 70s songs, such as the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” or The Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows,” the emphasis is on hard rock—lots of Zeppelin n’ Sabbath. Stillwater itself sounds like some merely-serviceable hard rock band like Foreigner or Bad Company, although the reactions of key characters in certain scenes indicate we are to imagine that the band is a bit better than what we are hearing. So Crowe probably accepts the punk-driven critique of 70s rock, which took its initial form in the writings of a few critics like Lester Bangs; and Crowe also seems to accept, with certain reservations, the similar critique of the 70s cult of the Star/Supergroup. A key aspect of that cult was the Tour, the bigger and more sumptuous the better.
3) Crowe seems nostalgic, however, for a certain innocence characteristic of this period’s rock, particularly among its fans, and especially when contrasted to the more studiously ironic, edgy, DIY-democratic, and more-feminism-friendly stance cultivated from punk onwards. We rightly think of the 70s as a time of fairly unrestrained hedonism, but Crowe likes way the rockers wore their desire for it and for fame on their sleeves. They did not pretend, as later bands would, to not so much want the partying, the chicks, and the fame. As for the fans, they were more like the Pamela Courson character in The Doors, ready to give themselves body and soul to rock, and yet with this difference: the hedonism, while still “unsafe” by 80s and 90s standards, becomes regularized.
4) Regularization of late 60s hedonism means first of all, the abandonment of belief in either Jim Morrison-style Dionysianism or Free-love utopianism, i.e., of the hope for a “revolution in consciousness” brought about through the sex, drugs, and music. One is still for this revolution, but one accepts that getting there is going to be a more gradual process and more of a mixed-bag.
5) Intoxicant-wise, this means that the hopes for enlightenment from LSD are scaled way back. It is just another drug, pretty much. In one of the film’s best scenes, the Stillwater guitarist Russell gets high on it at a high-school party he has crashed, and perching himself on a roof-top above a pool, makes three pronouncements:
I am a golden god! The crowd below roars its approval.
I’m on drugs!!! This is said with real humor, and the crowd roars all the more heartily.
Told by the main character, the young rock-writer William, that these aren’t very promising “last words,” Russell amends them to something more poetically respectable:
I…I dig music! The crowd cheers a bit, but is visibly let down, so Russell quickly returns to I’m on drugs!!! Ecstatic cheering, followed by his (kinda scary) leap into the pool, which causes everyone to follow suit.
A legendary night for these middle-American high-schoolers, but not exactly the stuff of 60s mythology. Jim Morrison was rather serious about acting as a god-figure to the Counter-Culture, really leading his fans on with cryptic “lizard king” statements, whereas no sooner than Russell has declared his god-like feelings, he makes fun of them; THE DOORS showed us Morrison unleashing bacchanalia with his stage provocations, but Russell at his most unbuttoned moment here unleashes a wild-and-crazy backyard pool party. But for the “I…was…so…waste…ed…” flavor, it could be a scene out of a Disney Herbie movie.
6.) Sex-wise, this means that the sex characteristic of the rock scene is defined most of all, in this film, by the Groupies. It is they who give the partying that accompanies the Tour its erotic charge, and it is they who “deflower” William. This is fitting: the fantasy/message of not a few hard rock songs is to get woman after woman to want you like a groupie does a rock star.
7.) Militant 60s feminism began as a reaction to New Left male leaders continuing to subordinate women amid (and by means of) the Sexual Revolution. Rock, however, was used by many as a redoubt of reaction, or shall we say of liberated rakishness, where the songs and example of, say, The Rolling Stones, drowned out the emerging feminist arguments. Obviously, both men and women embraced this, apparently feeling that the charge of the new sexual scene depended on a tension between the sexes that tended to put males more in the driver’s seat. Even as both sexes knew that case-by-case, sex-play with l’amour could advantage either party and lead in any direction, both felt the desire for a ticket out of “Suffragette City.”
8.) From the groupies’ first introduction, the film encourages us to look past, and yet not too far past, the stereotype of their being exploited sluts. We learn that the key groupie character Penny Lane is trying to get everyone to reject the groupie label in favor of “band-aides,” even if this is immediately undercut by our learning that this new stance merely resolves to replace intercourse with blow-jobs.
But by being very much with the Tour, these groupies make it so that the sexual dynamic is less one of the male stars making new conquests every night or of having a “girl in every port,” but rather one of having tour mistresses. While obviously things are fluid, and while every one of the groupies has slept around, we see that at least three of the five or so groupies we get to know are paired-off for the duration of the tour with one of the rockers. They dress very provocatively and even sport names like Polexia Aphrodisia, in a way becoming walking trophies of the rockers’ decadence, but they nonetheless cultivate and get themselves caught in, to use the words of the Lester Bangs character, the “love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love” confusion.
Yes, the danger of the groupies becoming interchangeable pleasure-providers little better than whores, and essentially owned by the band, is still very much there. This is underlined by the band-manager poker-game scene, where the Stillwater groupies we’ve been getting to know actually get bet away to another band. This is what Penny Lane is trying to push against, but as we are shown, pretty much hopelessly.
9.) While she tells William that he is “too sweet for rock n’ roll,” meaning too sweet for the sorts of manipulative relationships it fosters, she is not as hardened as she thinks—it is she who most of all falls into the sex/love confusion, falling hard for Russell. He has also fallen for her, but is revealed to be ruthless about protecting his career-interests (and his marriage) by successively betraying both her and William. “Soulful guitarist” is not a complete description of his personality, nor of the way he participates in Rock.
10.) What is it that attaches the groupies to the groups? They are in their teens, and the rockers well into their late twenties and then some. They surely know their groupie-dom will get them labeled, even in the 70s, as used goods, and there are no realistic prospects of marriage with the rockers. So, they are drawn by the music, and the buzz and adventure of fame. They surrender themselves to these. Towards the end of the film there is a scene in which Sapphire, apparently the most promiscuous of the groupies, poignantly describes being a true fan as “loving some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” She would understand, viscerally, what Socrates meant by placing the Idea of Beauty atop the Ladder of Love. Indeed, a number of scenes show us that all the groupies are captivated by Rock’s beauty. Penny Lane tells herself she’s made a “special project” of Russell because of his potential for musical greatness, and her whole rationale for reforming groupie-dom has the purported basis of “aiding” the music. It will not just be about aphrodisia in abundance, but about eros inspired by and inspiring the Beautiful.
11.) But, as the title of the film indicates, rock is not just about hedonism/sex/love latching onto and getting mixed with the music’s Beauty, but also onto and with its Fame. So, we have to say something about Rock Fame proper, and a number of lesser fames connected to it. And to do that with style requires us to say a bit about Fame itself, with a little help from political philosophy. All this will require a part two—stay tuned.
P.S. Those who feel that Crowe-like nostalgia for 70s “innocence-in-decadence” and who liked the film’s soundtrack, should check out Under the Covers, Vol II, by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. (I of course am far more partial to their Vol I, which focuses on the 60s, and especially well on songs with that Age of the Harpsichord vibe.) Like the 70s itself, the Vol. II album has its share of sickly moments, but there plenty of gems, also, and in my opinion Sweet and Hoffs improve certain songs, like “Go All the Way,” Derek and the Dominos’s “Bell-Bottom Blues,” and even Big Star’s “Sitting in the Back of a Car.” All three of those have that sex/love confusion going big-time.