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Archive for March, 2011

On the surface, Cameron Crowe’s semi-memoir “Almost Famous” (2000) is an intriguing work. An ambitious teenage rock writer gets hired by one of the most influential magazines of the 1970s to go on the road and cover one of his favorite bands? Who wouldn’t want to watch this movie? Even if you’re not a rock fan, the film still has enough universal appeal (in the boiler-plate storytelling and the exceptional cast, mostly) to be enjoyed by anyone who has ever cared passionately about a famous person. But, unfortunately, the film rarely stretches further than that surface appeal. Too often it tells much more than it shows, and the viewer is left to discern the plotline through a barrage of needless rock and roll trivia and tacky dialogue.

Our ambitious young protagonist is William Miller (Patrick Fugit), an academically advanced 15 year-old about to graduate high school. William got turned onto Rock and Roll by his freethinking older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who, in spite of their obsessive mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), left home at 18 and bequeathed all of her classic records to her younger brother. “Listen to ‘Tommy’ with a candle burning, you’ll see your entire future,” she says, I can’t believe I was the only one who thought that was a joke. Maybe it wasn’t.

William supposedly writes all the time and is—supposedly—a fan of early 70s heavy hitters Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Supposed these characteristics are because we only hear William talk about music once or twice throughout the film; and although it’d be boring watch him write, more depth into the obvious talent of this young careerist would be nice. Too often William’s mind is focused on typical teenage worry: unattainable love, acceptance, and his mother. These fears make him relatable, but ultimately far too normal for a character of his caliber to be taken seriously.

Naturally, William’s favorite rock critic is the outlandish editor of Creem magazine, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Between editor’s notes and a chance meeting, the two strike up a friendship based on the mutual admission of being uncool. Bangs admires William’s charm and determination, and William adheres to Bangs’ sage insight into the rock world.

Bangs instructs William to go see the Allman Brothers/Zeppelin/Eagles amalgam Stillwater and write a review of their show for Creem. And before William (or the viewer) knows it, he’s been hired by the even bigger Rolling Stone magazine to join Stillwater on the road and write a feature story on them. Along the way, nearly every predictable excess of the rock and roll lifestyle is detailed to perfection. And not to give too much away, it ends exactly how you’d imagine it to.

Crowe’s petty perfection in this film is notorious. From the tasteless photoshopping of the iconic “Live at the Fillmore East” album cover to the $100,000 he spent on sync rights for a Steely Dan TV appearance playing in the background while William (or young Cameron) loses his virginity, it’s clear that Crowe cared much more about the aesthetic accuracies of this film than he did its narrative qualities. And although he insists that “Reelin’ in the Years” really was playing, a lot less money could have been spent on developing the nuances of a nervous first time to make the scene’s nostalgia real for the viewer, rather than the director.

Although “Almost Famous”’ flaws are a detriment to the film’s overall believability, it somehow still retains enough lure necessary for a keen and affecting coming of age tale. As previously stated, the beauty of this film lies entirely in its universality, and it’s possible the points that bother an obsessive rock fan might not mean much to a rational movie goer anyway.  So go see it.

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Instant gratification has been helping rock and roll fans stay alive and well for more than half a century now. The electrifying impact of acts ranging from Elvis to The Ramones fully embodied this heavily sought after musical ideal, and although it’s evolved, the concept has remained. The key has always been a strong rhythmic bottom and a terse, combative top. It is the competitive struggle between guitars and voices that create this combat, and when the groove is there, the results are compelling. Whiney complaints have been made about how this isn’t rock and roll’s most identifiable trait anymore, but there are certainly enough acts out there fit to carry this coveted torch of immediacy.

The Strokes are one of these acts. Operating on a level that fully understands the strength and combat ideal, the band offers a fresh—if not entirely original—blend of simplicity and charm. The guitars are raw, the drums are fast, and their attitude is that of determined intensity.

The band’s debut album “Is This It” is a clear-eyed microcosm of early 20s life in New York City. Upbeat tales of partying and sexual frustration round out the subject matter, leaving nothing unanswered.  Julian Casablancas sings these simple songs with an air of privileged brattiness, balancing apathy and rage in a gritty sing-speech fashion. The taut guitars of Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi frantically bounce off one another, while the bottom of Nicko Fraiture on bass and Fab Moretti on drums is, well, strong.

Every song has a sort of focused ambition about it, and they rarely lose sight of their absolute meaning.  In the self-explanatory “Barely Legal,” the point is made when Casablancas says, “I wanna steal your innocence,” but starts with the first line: “I didn’t take no short cuts/I spent the money that I saved up.”  In the lethargic drawl of title track, he loosely lets some girl know that he “just lied to get to [her] apartment.” Sexual appetite isn’t exactly rare at Casablancas’ age, but it is within the offhand expression of this desire that he so clearly gets his points across.

This forthrightness is apparent in the music too: the short, succinct guitar solos in “The Modern Age” and “Last Nite” could be twice their length and still have a resounding impact, but aren’t because that would miss the point. The tension and release of “New York City Cops” is especially exciting; taking a pop music elemental, the band rollicks through an agitated minor verse that is eerie and unsettling, only to resolve it with a cathartic sing-along chorus that—if you really want to dig deep—recalls Johnny Rotten as much as it recalls Ice Cube.

Although it’s been made clear, it should be reiterated that the Strokes are an old-fashioned rock and roll band. This means their ideals are congruent enough for you to catch on about halfway through the album, but also that the songs are thrilling enough to make you keep them on compulsive repeat for days on end.  For rock and roll fans, it’s not a matter of whether or not they’ll enjoy “Is This It,” but rather how quickly this music will speak to them. It took me about 45 seconds.

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