The idea of revisiting Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous, like revisiting films I’ve seen in my childhood and adolescence, seems like an anxious and difficult one. My taste in movies have changed. Besides, this movie spends its reputation being the two words before a punchline about Kate Hudson‘s wasted career. It also seems like the movie’s opening song is cruel foresight to Jason Lee in the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Where is Fairuza Balkher mixture of sharp and round features and her dated Got spunk, the comic relief, one of the four band-aids or anti-muses distracting 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) from writing his Rolling Stones cover about the fictional band Stillwater, one of the misfits reassuring William’s mother Elanie (Frances McDormand) that she properly raised her son? I want to live in a world where Fairuza Balk is more famous than Zooey Deschanel. And where is Fugit?
The film features people I recognize when I first saw this in 2001-ish, actors who didn’t make a great impression then but do now or other actors who made an impression but whose names I didn’t know. But I’m naturally fascinated by those I couldn’t have known then. The outwardly anxious band manager is Noah Taylor, who also plays the inwardly anxious father in Submarine. Ben Fong-Torres’ (Terry Chen) right hand man is Rainn Wilson. One of the characters I don’t vividly remember Lester Bangs is, the actor who played him (Philip Seymour Hoffman), nor the way he mourns after post-Altamira rock music where everyone just wants to be cool. The 1973 I knew is the year after “American Pie” and the year before punk. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were the bands everyone listened to and still do today. This movie and Dazed and Confused might make a decent double bill, tackling and deconstructing the cynicism prevalent in the 1970’s. I also remember watching this when I was thirteen or fourteen, when William goes to his first Black Sabbath concert, watching the crowd of cool kids, and I was thinking that that was the last time that kids of all races listened to the same music. I obviously know that I’m wrong about that now.
But while races are united under the music, the film also shows how rock relegates unfair gender roles. How does William fit into all of this? Does that he has a male with a tape recorder mean that he’s above these ‘groupies? He equally idolizes Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) like they do. But Russell isn’t just a figure for William’s idolatry, as the film makes room for him to doubt William’s innocence – which the band only does – as well as confide in him, telling him to just make the band look cool. He in a way embodies a human who’s ambivalent about rock’s inherent contradictions without confusing the audience or breaking William’s soul. Meanwhile, some regard Hudson’s Penny Lane as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl avant la lettre but the airplane scene shows how the men neglected what she wanted from them. Yes, she does help men fences between William and Russell, but the last thing she does is treat herself.
Elaine is obviously the exact opposite of these ‘band-aids,’ being a stricter character, the natural yin to rock ‘n’ roll’s yang. I didn’t remember hearing what her possibly logical arguments have been about rock except that she objected to it. That makes her the film’s frumpy-faced villain, whose phone conversations with her son reinforce her conservative anxieties, the one referred to as a ‘handful’ by a desk clerk (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet). Rewatching made me see her as someone knowledgeable and therefore forging a new and flawed path in new parenting. But in her methods, such as partly homeschooling William, she won’t be right all the time. When she corrects a man for painting the word Xmas – X is Greek so be quiet! Despite her strong reservations about the new music, she’s more liberal than I remember, letting her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel) be an independent 18-year-old woman and allowing William to tour with the band instead of the latter two run away. These prodigal children’s eventual return and her understanding of them – as well as Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) – seem more organic instead of looking like a hurried third act finish.
The film is definitely not fast paced, letting its magical moments grow without meditating about them. The film is like walking down a dirty, seedy, big city main street and understandably calling it vibrant. Despite the subject, it’s innocent without being insipid. The film ends with Doris, Stillwater’s tour bus, riding out into the sepia tone sunlight, reminding us that we’re watching a happy nostalgia.
- Daily Dialogue — May 12, 2011 (gointothestory.com)
It feels somehow mean that instead of writing about the aesthetic principles of an anime film like Hayao Miyazaki‘s Princess Mononoke, I talk about the voice acting. And it’s not the Japanese voice-acting too, which apparently can only be obtained through a year’s negotiations and waiting and that would have been too expensive. Yet, here I am. Not an expert here, but there is some Noh theatricality bleeding into the Japanese style of film acting down to Kurosawa. Having new, English-language voices then means starting from scratch.
I saw this movie with a friend who told me that Bill Bob Thornton plays a monk. Otherwise I knew nothing about the cast, so throughout the movie I keep trying to figure that out. Was that Tom Cruise as Ashitaka? Angelina Jolie as Lady Eboshi? Drew Barrymore as Princess Mononoke? Julianne Moore as Moro (actually Gillian Anderson)? Is my hearing that bad?
Growing up in Manila, I’m normally greeted at home by anime cartoons, most would have the typical character interpretations, the raspy angry voices of the old and the chipper sounds of the young. Not in the English-language dubbing of this film. At the same time, it’s hard to show the flexibility of facial expressions in animation, and the main characters aren’t drawn to move with large gestures neither. For example, Billy Bob Thornton‘s Jigo is raspy too, but looking like an old fat man he sounds neither. He instead makes Jigo sound like a cynic instead of a uniformly bad person I would have imagines in the supposed evil Western lands where Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) is traveling. Jigo’s humourous even at the film’s most nerve-wracking moments. His realistic worldview makes Ashitaka realize that his quest as just gotten more complex than he might have expected.
And then there’s Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi. She yells in her first scene. Otherwise, she doesn’t need to raise her voice in front of even the male soldiers. They just have her full attention. Despite laughing at Ashitaka’s face, she spends her night with him by explaining her herself without having to prove herself. She’s like a mother to the residents of her Irontown, later attempting to show her men how to kill a god. ‘The trick is not to fear him.’ Her calm demeanor makes us confident that she knows what she’s doing throughout the film.
Driver and Thornton’s characterizations stand out because they seem for the most part the exception to the rules that I forget that there are two performances that are. And I don’t want this to come across as scorn with praise. Anyway, there’s Claire Danes‘ Princess Mononoke/San, and it makes sense for her to yell through half of the film. San is Eboshi’s enemy. She’s more confused and angry about Ashitaka’s ambivalent allegiances, because of her feelings for him. The deaths of her allies and the destruction of her world don’t help neither. The change of environment brings the worst out of her identity crisis, a human desperately wanting to fit in with her wolf family. Danes also interprets San as someone stuck in girlhood, that even her calmest line reads are filled with misanthropy and rage.
Ok, so maybe the older characters are calmer while the younger ones are more spirited. Which explains Crudup’s Ashitaka, but he comes across more as gallant yet commanding. Which doesn’t explain Jada Pinkett-Smith‘s Toki, a passionate character, loyal to Eboshi. She’s left alone with the other prostitutes to defend Irontown. She takes on herself as the character who leads the women out into safety, becoming as maternal as her role model. Pinkett-Smith as well as the other actors add a universality to this movie.
p.s. I know what I want for Christmas.