It is surprising that Cameron Crowe’s music focused, semi-autobiographical love letter to 1970s rock begins with an Alvin and the Chipmunks song. In some ways though, its symbolic of the sheltered world its protagonist William (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in. He has not yet experienced life outside San Diego. His controlling mother (Frances McDormand) does not see the aesthetic value of Simon and Garfunkel, preferring Harper Lee and Carl Jung. She does not even reveal his real age (he is two years younger than he thought he was). To her, “adolescence is a marketing tool”.
Meanwhile, his free spirited, older sister (Zooey Deschanel) breaks free from that environment to become an air stewardess. But not before she gives William her collection of rock and pop records. From there, he discovers a whole new world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that inspires him to become a teen music journalist for Rolling Stone. He travels round the country with an up and coming rock band “Stillwater”, whilst falling in love with a groupie (excuse me, “Band Aide”): the mysterious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
Crowe’s film does certainly come across as a humblebrag. As a teen journalist for Rolling Stone, he spent much of his adolescence surrounding himself in the 70s rock scene. Frankly, what 15-year-old boy would not have loved to spend his time touring across America, nudging elbows with famous musicians and beautiful girls. And if we are to believe him, most of the events depicted are true (there was a real Penny Lane and Stillwater was based largely off Crowe’s experience touring with the Allman Brothers Band). Yet, despite its huge ensemble of characters, he makes it feel distinctly human. There is never a wasted moment, especially given the Extended Cut’s 2 ½ hour runtime. Every minute feels like it gives life to the characters and their relationships. From Fugit and McDormand to Penny’s romantic endeavour with the group’s lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), Crowe really explores themes of growing up, fame and romantic betrayal in great depth.
All of this would have fell flat if it were not for Crowe’s impeccable casting. Kate Hudson delivers a career defining performance as Penny Lane. One scene showcases the complexity and subtlety that has been sorely missed from her later work. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (portraying real life rock journalist Lester Bangs) has less than 10 minutes of screen time, yet every second is evidence for his place as the twenty first century’s greatest actor. His dry and sardonic wit makes him the perfect mentor for Fugit’s untainted teen. And Billy Crudup is superb as the egotistical rock guitarist who falls for Penny. There is the odd performance out of place (Jimmy Fallon is woefully miscast as a rock manager), but they are few and far between. It makes you wonder how the man who directed this decided to cast Emma Stone as a Chinese-Native Hawaiian in ‘Aloha’.
The film is not entirely without fault. The treatment of Penny has not aged well in certain aspects as she does embody many of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” tropes; the quirky girl who exists to embody William’s fantasy. The extended cut does more justice to the character as it fleshes out and develops her relationship with both Russell and William. Plus, it adds a few more seconds to her brilliant dance in the auditorium to Cat Stevens' ‘The Wind’.
Which brings us to its perfect soundtrack. Many other films have often used their soundtrack merely as a means of recognizability rather than providing a deeper meaning within the story (*cough* ‘Suicide Squad’). No song ever fills out of place, as Crowe meticulously uses each piece of music to evoke a longing nostalgia as well an admiration for the present moment. Deschanel using Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ as evidence for her dissatisfaction with mother’s parenting is perhaps the greatest use of the duo’s songs (that includes ‘The Graduate’). And the tour bus’s rendition of ‘Tiny Dancer’ elicits the same joy of a drunken pub singalong.
Like his first feature ‘Say Anything’, Crowe really captures the feel of how young adults talk. Nothing ever feels untruthful or unconvincing in his dialogue. He perfectly strikes the balance between comedy and drama, that fully encapsulates the adolescent experience. He demonstrates this best through Fugit and Hoffman’s phone conversations. Hoffman knows of the excitement he experiences now, but is aware the pain that waits for him. “There’s nothing controversial about you man” he tells Fugit in their first meeting. For Crowe, controversy is what growing up is all about. Deschanel and William’s decision to leave the coop, going against their mother’s wishes is the push forward into young adulthood. The question is, how long can that “controversy” last?
Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor