It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll-Where Are the Sex and Drugs?

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous is said to be based on, or at least suggested by, Mr. Crowe’s own experiences as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter who toured with popular rock bands in the early 1970’s. According to Ben Greenman’s mini-profile in the Sept. 11 New Yorker , “Already a veteran of the underground rock press-he had written articles for magazines like Zoo World , Circus , and Creem -Crowe joined Rolling Stone in 1973, at 15, and became a mainstay at the magazine, profiling the era’s top acts, from Fleetwood Mac and Eric Clapton to the Allman Brothers Band.”

Mr. Crowe thus knows more about the rock-band era than I care to learn, and Almost Famous is thereby very knowledgeable about its subject. The predominantly young audience at the screening I attended seemed very enthusiastic about the film, which surprised me a little, if only because I thought rock was out and rap was in-but what do I know? Trapped as I am in the Jerome Kern time warp, I haven’t really followed the charts since the Beatles, which leaves me lacking in an important dimension of many of the new films, and may explain why the narrative and dramatic elements are almost invariably so weak in contemporary mainstream movies.

Almost Famous is a case in point, as it keeps going up one hill and down another plot-wise until it settles for a cute, painless giggle of an ending. Oddly, Mr. Crowe has done much better in the past with such delicious romantic comedies as Say Anything (1989), Singles (1992) and Jerry Maguire (1996). The problem here is partly bad chemistry and partly relentless facetiousness.

Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) is a widowed college professor with two children, Anita (Zooey Deschanel) and William (played as a child by Noah Taylor and then as a teenager by Patrick Fugit). The laughs start early from the yahoos in the audience because Elaine has this thing about rock stars taking drugs and influencing kids-especially her kids-to do the same. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that the “war on drugs” is a bigger joke than Prohibition ever was, but I still can’t laugh at Elaine’s antics, despite Ms. McDormand’s farcical skills. What I object to is Mr. Crowe playing it both ways by keeping his undersized hero William free of drugs when he grows up. Even acid is treated as a joke, but of course no one gets killed from an overdose.

A few years pass and Anita is leaving home to become an airline stewardess, largely because she can’t bear Elaine’s lectures about drugs and rock music. (More laughs.) But already Ms. McDormand’s character is showing signs of softness and pathos. Deep underneath, Elaine isn’t all that bad. For example, she’s not a bit like Kathleen Turner’s rigidly repressive mother in The Virgin Suicides . Ms. McDormand’s Elaine wouldn’t drive anyone to suicide, least of all her own children.

At a very early age, William becomes entranced by all the rock folklore and finds a mentor in the cynically charismatic rock critic Lester Bangs (the seemingly ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman). Lester warns William against getting too involved with rock people. They will give him all kinds of perks and freebies, but they’re just using him to get favorable publicity. Nonetheless, William does become involved with a band named Stillwater and a girl with the groupie name Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Indeed, it takes the whole picture-and many questionings from William-before Penny reveals that her name is actually Lady Goodman. Penny insists that she and her girlfriends are not groupies, but platonic “band-aids.” In between the first meeting of Penny and William and the climactic revelation of her real name (the gift of her social-climbing mother), there are several betrayals, deceptions, attacks of whimsy and a failed suicide attempt. Yet nothing registers very deeply, simply because Penny and William never click on any level. She is always kidding him with a smile that says “I am just kidding,” and he is forced to summon one of his two facial expressions, coupled with a perpetual silence that is never cool.

Penny’s real love is Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), Stillwater’s star guitarist, whom William is desperately seeking to interview in the midst of his affair with Penny. As a journalist, William is more obsessed with the musicians than with their music. The band keeps making loud, unkempt entrances, eliciting near riots from their fans, playing a few bars-and then there’s a cut to the next offstage mob scene. The drug-and-sex orgies are similarly truncated, perhaps for the sake of a PG rating. The language is almost entirely free of four-letter words. Consequently, there is never any feeling of rawness or cutting loose. A violently contentious scene in an airplane that seems about to crash in a bumpy electrical storm lacks suspense to the point that it plays like a contrivance from beginning to end.

To break the single-note stridency of much of the action, there are frequent calls to and from William’s mother, who manages to intimidate the wildest reveler with her words of wisdom. The one time we see Elaine teaching her college class, she is dressed grotesquely in some Eastern European Gypsy mode of unknown provenance (and for no specified occasion). When she blurts out to her students that she can’t concentrate on her lecture because her son has been kidnapped by rock stars, there are more laughs from the audience. God, how I hate it when people are guffawing and I am sitting there with a grim expression on my face.

Mr. Crudup, Mr. Hoffman and, I suppose when all is said and done, Ms. McDormand give the best performances, yet in the ads for this film all the emphasis is on Mr. Fugit and Ms. Hudson-as it should be, perhaps, in terms of the narrative. Everything flows into them, and very little flows out. One reviewer described Mr. Crowe’s view of his characters as “affectionate,” which I imagine applies to Mr. Crowe’s feeling for the entire rock scene. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the musical selections and the score as a whole. Even with my tin ear, I could pick up some of the musical and emotional frenzy of the period. Yet none of the non-musical components on the screen matched the excitement of the music.

For whatever reason, too much of the dark side has been left out. Mr. Crowe was not obliged to revisit Altamont, but there was something faux in the depravity of the young extras Mr. Crowe and his associates have recruited to provide atmosphere. They reminded me too much of the kids in the audience, who were too young to remember the 60’s and 70’s but are persuaded by Mr. Crowe that they “get” the period just the same.

Kurosawa’s Last Film Is His Gentlest

Akira Kurosawa’s Madadayo , from a screenplay by Kurosawa (1910-1998) and based on the book by Hyakken Uchida, is perhaps the gentlest film in Kurosawa’s 60-year movie career, but not indisputably the most sentimental. Ikiru (1952) is a strong contender for that distinction. As you may recall from your wet handkerchiefs of that era, Ikiru told the story of an old, terminally ill government functionary and his stubborn insistence on getting a children’s playground built as his legacy, despite the indifference and opposition of the higher-ups who resist his project during his lifetime and then rush in to take credit for it after it becomes politically popular. The ever-polemical critics of Cahiers du Cinema deplored Kurosawa’s cheap-shot irony on this occasion as a means of resolving the debate over who was a better filmmaker-Kurosawa or his countryman Kenji Mizoguchi-in Mizoguchi’s favor; but in New York we all sobbed at screenings of Ikiru with a clear conscience, inasmuch as we were traditionally susceptible to sentimentality with even a smidgen of social consciousness.

In this respect, Madadayo is no Ikiru . Whereas the protagonist in Ikiru faced death as a medicinal certainty, the protagonist in Madadayo faces death as a metaphysical whimsicality as he tries to live out his earthly existence with as much dignity as possible. The structure of Madadayo is about an elderly professor who feels free in his old age to acknowledge the foibles and fears that make him like a child once more.

When Professor Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) announces his retirement to his students, they assure him that they, like their parents, will never forget his pedagogical excellence as a professor of German-and the funny thing is, they don’t. When the aged professor loses his home to American bombers in 1943, they find another dwelling for him and his wife (Kyôko Kagawa) and help him move in. They throw a banquet for him on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and later on his 90th. He virtually apologizes on both occasions for living so long, but he is simply not ready to go.

The movie itself is not willing to end, and one might call it boring if one were not fascinated by some of the historical details around the edges, and by the empathy of the aged teacher. A great deal of the film is devoted to the professor’s heartbreaking loss of his orange male alley cat named Nora. When a black alley cat turns up at his door, the professor and his wife adapt to their loss by adopting the new intruder. This is a movie you either relax with in a spirit of Zen fatalism, or reject outright as formless and unexciting. As an aging professor myself, I found myself victim to Kurosawa’s rhythm of relentless inevitability. It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll-Where Are the Sex and Drugs?