A historical marker in more ways than one, American Graffiti perfected a near Pavlovian formula for manufacturing the myth of a generation out of dated pop music and period ephemera. Cameron Crowe’s quasi-autobiographical Almost Famous, which is set mainly in the spring of 1973 (a few months before American Graffiti‘s epochal release), seems to be working to similar effect—although in a more fashionably starstruck context. American Graffiti‘s implanted memory aspired to the generic; Almost Famous shows its hero inventing that memory. The scenario demonstrates its creator’s preordained success.
As Almost Famous is dedicated to the demographic defined by its sense of having missed the big party of the ’60s, Crowe begins by projecting self-righteous counterculture anticommercialism back onto his mother. His alter ego, William, is introduced as the son of a wildly controlling widow (played, with charmless aggression, by Frances McDormand). Supposedly some sort of lefty college professor and professional protestmonger, Mom is sufficiently clueless to imagine Simon and Garfunkel as dangerous apostles of “drugs and sex.” Mom’s moralizing drives William’s big sister out of the house, but before she leaves she bequeaths her LPs to the 11-year-old with the promise that “one day you’ll be cool.” Cut from 1969 to 1973 when precocious William (Patrick Fugit), a would-be rock critic, wangles his first assignment from Creem editor Lester Bangs (embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a living legend).
No less than Mom, Bangs is an anticommercial loudmouth—albeit of a different type. Thus, the aspiring writer has a crazed, overprotective mother and a distant, wacky mentor who, in preparing to cede the oedipal struggle, wearily informs him that rock is over: “You got here just in time for the death rattle.” In fact, rock will provide William with a surrogate family, an education, a few cheap thrills, and a clear career path. The kid can’t get backstage to interview Black Sabbath, but thanks to the sympathetic groupie—”band-aid” is her preferred term—who calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), he manages to attach himself to the up-and-coming Stillwater, a sort of amalgam of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, led by Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). “I’m the front man and you’re the guitarist with mystique,” Jeff tells Russell in an amusing contretemps over their respective placements on a promotional T-shirt.
Despite blathering Jeff’s classification of the diminutive, enthusiastic William as “the enemy,” Russell realizes that Stillwater (or at least he) can make use of the kid reporter and invites him to join their tour. Almost Famous has been described as a movie about the heroic era of rock criticism, but it has far more to do with establishing the coolness of celebrity journalism. The power of pop is seen from a backstage perspective rather than out front with the fans. William has nothing intelligible to say about Stillwater’s music but everything to learn about their lifestyle. It’s mere moments before the kid is called by the self-important Ben Fong-Torres and gets upgraded from Creem to Rolling Stone.
Panoramic yet cozy, enthusiastically glib, Almost Famous suggests a universe of interlocking sitcoms. (It might almost be a special two-hour version of The Wonder Years.) In one running gag, Mom keeps calling William’s various hotels and compulsively tells her students that “rock stars have kidnapped my son.” In another, William seeks midnight advice from the incorruptible Bangs. “I’m always home—I’m uncool,” his guru frankly admits. (Hoffman and his character should have been the movie.) Warned by Bangs against imagining that he has become friends with the band, William pursues the elusive interview with rueful Russell as though it were his white whale—even as Penny shacks up with the star. William is more wide-eyed than usual when he is ravished by three lesser band-aids while Penny looks on in amusement, favoring us with her trademark nose-wrinkle and pretending she possesses the wisdom of the ages.
William enjoys a few other rowdy adventures, tagging along with Russell to a teenage party in Topeka in which the star drops acid and begins proclaiming himself a “golden god.” (Another sign of the times—the Orgy has penetrated deepest Kansas.) Russell jumps off the roof into the pool; I fell off the bus in the next scene, designed to provide the designated moment of communion, with the band and band-aids all singing an Elton John anthem. (It’s a generational taste—like flat soda pop.) The partying and careerism get more intense as William pursues his story to Cleveland and finally all the way to New York—at which point he receives a phone call from Jann Wenner himself. (The real Wenner has a cameo here just as he did in Jerry Maguire. What does it say about Crowe’s directorial personality that his trademark is the presence of a powerful erstwhile employer?)
“It’s not about money, it’s about playing music and turning people on,” the members of Stillwater keep telling each other en route to the cover of Rolling Stone. Almost Famous is a movie that defuses its own bad conscience. As suggested by Jerry Maguire, Crowe’s specialty is the principled sellout. Almost Famous experiments with a variety of potential endings, most of them involving some sort of betrayal, before settling on the most positive alternative. You keep waiting for William to become disillusioned and he never is.
Budd Boetticher is almost almost famous—at least in some circles. His last feature released around the time William’s big sister left home, the 84-year-old filmmaker is the sole survivor of the Fuller-Siegel-Aldrich generation of auteurs who entered the movie industry during World War II and made the 1950s the golden era of genre flicks.
Boetticher, whose AMMI retro will be complemented by a retrospective presentation of Seven Men From Now at the upcoming New York Film Festival, is best known for a cycle of low-budget westerns starring a very middle-aged Randolph Scott and a couple of bullfight films that he made to suit himself. A college athlete and a youthful tough guy—his photos show a resemblance to Warren Oates—Boetticher went to Mexico to learn bullfighting and wound up as a technical adviser on the 1941 Tyrone Power vehicle Blood and Sand.
Following the production back to Hollywood, Boetticher directed 10 Columbia B pictures before securing the patronage of John Wayne, who produced The Bullfighter and the Lady as a Republic prestige flick in 1951. This single-minded account of a driven gringo (Robert Stack at his most demented) pitching woo at a demure señorita while studying to be a Mexico City matador remains Boetticher’s favorite movie. It was the first that he signed “Budd” rather than “Oscar,” although it was cut before its release from 129 to 87 minutes by Wayne’s bud John Ford. (The restored print, showing this Sunday, includes a lengthy steam bath scene that struck Ford as dangerously homoerotic.)
As Boetticher began his official career with a movie about an obsessive bullfighter, so he ended it in the ’60s, spending nearly a decade making a staged documentary on the Mexican matador Carlos Arruza (it screens next Saturday). In between these two personal projects, he knocked out his seven Scott westerns—starting with Seven Men From Now (1956). Made on 12-day shooting schedules, these elemental cheapsters unfold in a distinctively ahistorical, underpopulated frontier that, in various ways, anticipates the western milieus associated with Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Monte Hellman. Boetticher’s barren, rocky wasteland—compared by one French critic to Yves Tanguy’s surrealist pebblescapes—is scarcely more mutable than his star’s craggy visage. That the director was uncharismatically saddled with the granite-faced, stiff-limbed, fiftysomething Scott doubtlessly served to keep down the violence—or rather to sublimate it into existential quests predicated on a series of shifting tactical alliances and haunted by the hero’s mortality.
Boetticher made the Scott westerns as ritualized as a bullfight. The sense of narrative action doubling back on itself is reinforced by the similarities the films share. Ride Lonesome (1959), screening Sunday, in which Scott plays a bounty hunter with a hidden agenda, is the leanest and most abstract (a prophecy of spaghetti westerns to come); Comanche Station (1960), the last film of the cycle as well as the retro, is a metaformulaic summation that reprises situations, music, and even dialogue from its predecessors. There’s also a case to be made for the comic Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), a crooked-town western that might have been written for the theater of the absurd. So far as I know, Boetticher only once again vented his dark sense of humor: The bleakly geometric Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) is a mordantly minimalist gangster farce that, in an apt bit of programming, shares the bill with Buchanan on September 30.