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OPINION | CRITICAL MASS: Remembering music from 'Diner,' 'Famous'

by Philip Martin | July 18, 2021 at 2:03 a.m.
The members of the fictional band Stillwater from “Almost Famous”: (from left) Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), Larry Fellows (Mark Kozelek), Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Ed Vallencourt (John Fedevich). (Courtesy of Universal Music Enterprises/Neal Preston)

Maintaining a music library is a hobby, like collecting baseball cards or stamps. Digital streaming platforms have made music a utility, akin to water, gas and electricity. Pay your monthly subscription fee and you can punch up nearly any track you can imagine, from any era, from (almost) any artist.

It sounds wonderful, but it has cost us a lot. Ask the artists, who've seen their royalties devolved to pennies. (A million streams on Spotify might make an artist as much as $4,000 in taxable dollars, depending on their deal with their label and distributors.) Ask the record stores — the few that remain depend on a small hard-core constituency of collectors. They deal mostly in used inventory — mostly in nostalgia.

It wasn't always that way. When I was young a lot of us had crates of records, and most people had at least a wire rack's worth. We used to judge each other on the content of these collections.

There were albums you were expected to own — The Beatles' "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul"; the Rolling Stones' "Big Hits (Hide Tide and Green Grass)" compilation; Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Willy and the Poor Boys" — and others that might earn you extra credit and credibility (Santana's "Abraxas"; anything by Miles Davis or John Coltrane), and still others that might embarrass you. (The Monkees were a band for little kids when I was a little kid; having Monkees records wasn't cool until I grew up.)

We listened to records, argued about them, absorbed the liner notes. It was a generational thing, but it was also a widespread cultural practice. Every time I hear Bread's "Everything I Own," I remember scanning the credits to discover that it was Larry Knechtel who played harpsichord on the track.

Your record collection signified things about you beyond your musical taste; albums were bought for their covers and the cachet they conveyed as well as the music. How you cared for them and arranged them spoke to what kind of person you were — did you spray and wipe them before and after every playing?

My records were arranged alphabetically (by artist) and chronologically, in the the same manner that Shrevie, the character Daniel Stern plays in Barry Levinson's "Diner," employed. I started using the system as soon as I accumulated enough vinyl to worry about finding a particular album. ("Diner" is set in 1959 but came out in 1982 — I was using the alphabetical/chronological system by 1974.)

When I watched "Diner," I didn't at first realize that Shrevie is an anal-retentive jerk who scolds his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) because she misfiles his James Brown records after playing them. (Beth puts them back under J, not B, and, worse yet, in the rock 'n' roll section rather than the R&B section.) For this crime, Shrevie forbids her from touching his records — which seems a little harsh, but only a little.

Watching that scene now, I understand it differently. Shrevie and Beth are incompatible, not because he cares about music in a way that she does not, but because he presumes a patriarchal prerogative. Beth is compartmentalized, something Shrevie has acquired along the way, but outside and incidental to his main orbit, his male friends and obsessions. He's upset because Beth never "asks him what's on the flip side." He's a sad dude and no one's role model.

But back then, his record collection wasn't all that big a deal — he couldn't have had more than 200 or 300 albums, and I cringed when he fanned his sleeveless 45s out like a poker hand.

Still, Shrevie isn't completely unsympathetic.

"Every one of my records means something," he pleads. "The label, the producer, the year it was made. Who was copying whose styles, who was expanding on that? Don't you understand? When I listen to my records, they take me back to certain points in my life. OK? Just don't touch my records."

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"Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's love letter to rock 'n' roll based in part on his own experience as a 16-year-old journalist traveling with the Allman Brothers Band in 1973, came out in 2000. It's belatedly celebrating its 20th anniversary this year (covid-19 having paused everything), which means we're seeing it re-released on DVD (a 4K Ultra High Definition two-disc version is available in a special steel case). Various iterations of the soundtrack are also being issued, including a seven-record vinyl edition and a five-CD edition. Even more deluxe versions are available for higher prices. (Here's a link to all the merchandise options: soundtrack.lnk.to/AlmostFamousPR )

The film is set mainly in 1973, which means it's looking 27 years into the past.

We re-watched "Almost Famous" the other night, and the consensus around our house was that it holds up fairly well, like movies looking back on past eras tend to do. And, like all of Crowe's movie work, there's a certain awkwardness that will either seem endearing or grating depending on the attitude you bring to the film.

It might mean something to you that the character of Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is largely based on Allman Brothers guitarist Dickie Betts. It might mean even more to know that Brad Pitt was originally cast in the part, and several lines in the film that allude to his striking good looks (as when Hammond, on acid, stands on the roof of a suburban home during a party in Topeka and proclaims himself "a golden god") were left in the script, even after Crudup assumed the role.

(Hammond eventually jumps from the roof into a pool; in his autobiography, Gregg Allman noted his doomed brother Duane, who died in 1971, once pulled the same stunt at a Travelodge in San Francisco: "We told that story all the time, and I have no doubt that Cameron was around for [the telling of it].")

Anyway, before the main action of "Almost Famous" picks up in 1973 with 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) going out on tour with Stillwater, the emergent group he finagles an assignment to cover, there's a little prologue set in 1969.

William (played here by Michael Angarano) is an 11-year-old high school freshman who is understandably having difficulty adjusting to school. His college professor mother (Frances McDormand) had him start school at age 5 and allowed him to skip fifth grade. She has high expectations of her children and has banned most products of pop culture — especially rock music — from the home.

This leads to friction with her 18-year-old daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel) who decides to move to San Francisco to begin a career as a flight attendant. As she is about to drive away with her boyfriend, Anita tells William to "Look under your bed. It'll set you free."

There she has left her covert stash of albums, including the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds"; Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde"; albums by Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix; Joni Mitchell's "Blue" (an anachronism given that the album didn't come out until 1971) and The Who's "Tommy."

Anita has left him a hand-scrawled note: "Listen to 'Tommy' with a candle burning, and you will see your entire future."

Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson star in “Almost Famous.”
Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson star in “Almost Famous.”

Now we skip ahead, and William (now Fugit) is a rock-obsessed, would-be writer, generating reviews for a local alternative weekly in San Diego. He heads down to the radio station where gonzo music critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is being interviewed.

He stage-door-johnnys Bangs, who charmingly finds it flattering. Watching "Almost Famous" again after all these years, it's surprising how little time Hoffman has onscreen. I remembered his presence as being much larger. This is probably because it is a deft performance that — while probably a great deal sweeter than the actual Bangs — clearly conveys the symbiotic nature of the relationship. Bangs needs William's attention and validation. He gives the kid a $35 assignment and William is off and running.

Soon William comes to the attention of Rolling Stone, and gets an assignment over the phone (they have no idea he's 15) to write about up-and-coming band Stillwater.

While denied backstage access by a guard (Mark Pellington, who went on to become a notable director), William runs into two groups that will change his life: Stillwater itself, whose members jokingly call him "the enemy" but accept him as a kind of mascot; and a gang of relatively chaste groupies — Sapphire (Fairuza Balk), Polexia (Anna Paquin) and Estrella (Bijou Phillips) — who call themselves "Band Aids" and are commanded by teenager Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who is no less precocious in her chosen field than William is in rock journalism.

Crowe based the character of Penny on Penny Lane Trumbull (her real name), a well-heeled young woman from Oregon who, during the 1970s, formed a group with four other young women called the "Flying Garter Girls" who "entertained" rock groups. They agreed to travel with bands if the band would take all of them — no groupie left behind.

William becomes part of Penny's coterie, and much of the film involves him trying to secure an all-important interview with Hammond, who keeps shining him on, even as William's deadline approaches. (One really stupid thing about the story is that the Rolling Stone editors get more and more excited about the story even though William hasn't shown them — or even written — a word. One really funny touch is that the magazine's fact-checker seems to be the real power.)

The other major source of tension is William's crush on Penny, which she doesn't exactly not reciprocate (though she takes no part in his ritualistic deflowering by other Band Aids) despite having a mutual affair with Hammond.

One troubling thing about "Almost Famous" is how freaking wholesome Crowe makes this movable flesh feast look, though I guess you could argue that the perspective is young besotted William's, and not the mature Crowe's. In the third act we get the requisite overdose, and a brief plane sequence reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd's fatal crash affords everyone a chance to tell everybody else exactly what is on their minds.

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If you were — like the most powerful person at Rolling Stone circa 1973 — to fact-check the movie, you'd find plenty wrong. There's a studio version of a Black Sabbath song playing when the band is supposedly playing live. Some of the music we hear on the soundtrack didn't come out until 1974 or 1975.

You can see cars of the wrong vintage on the streets and highways. At one point someone shows up in a T-shirt that wasn't around until 1997. If you want to be a real Shrevie about it, you can nit-pick "Almost Famous" to death.

But as I've grown older, I've become more like Shrevie's temporary wife Beth, who for sure is going to move on a lot quicker than he is after the divorce. I'm not at her "Who's Charlie Parker?" level, but I can understand her "who cares what's on the flip side of a record?" response.

Even so, Cameron Crowe does, and people of his (and my) generation may be inclined to. I'm not about to proclaim the death of popular music, but will observe that things change, even cultural practices that were ingrained in us as children.

The good old days weren't always good, and we might even believe in a general trend toward improvement. But what was good about them is that we were there, younger and dumber and probably not as morally evolved as we are now.

The soundtrack — the incidental music you hear in nearly every scene — of "Almost Famous" is very well curated and evocative of a certain moment some of us can remember. In a way, "Almost Famous" is like Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma," a memory play by an auteur reflecting on a time remembered and refracted through a sensibility, a style.

That's why it's OK that "Almost Famous" is sometimes goofy, sometimes awkward — it's a movie about how a grown man remembers what happened to him when he was a kid.

When we used to collect records. When that seemed important.

Email: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com | blooddirtangels.com

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