Cameron Crowe's latest film is Lester meets the eye
BYLINE: Jeff Salamon American-Statesman staff
Lester Bangs, who began writing professionally (so to speak) in the late '60s, was the first rock critic whose prose was as important as the music he wrote about. Penning incendiary reviews for early Rolling Stone, editing the legendary Creem magazine, creating an entire genre of gonzo headlines ("James Taylor Marked for Death," "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed- Up Zombies") and championing the MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls before their primitivist ethos was codified by punk, Bangs cut a figure large enough that when he briefly decamped to Austin in 1980 he was treated as rock 'n' roll royalty. And for a guy who's been dead almost two decades, Bangs has been on the cultural radar an awful lot lately. When Jim DeRogatis, pop critic for the Chicago Sun- Times, published "Let It Blurt," a biography of Bangs, it received major coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere. And when "Almost Famous," a semi-autobiographical film from "Jerry Maguire" writer- director Cameron Crowe opens Friday, viewers will get to enjoy Philip Seymour Hoffman's scene-stealing portrayal of Bangs circa 1973, the first man in the rock game to announce that the gig was up before it had hardly begun.
"Almost Famous" is the thinly veiled retelling of Crowe's years as a precocious mid-'70s rock journalist who got his byline on the cover of Rolling Stone at the age of 15. The encounter that Crowe's stand- in William Miller (played by newcomer Patrick Fugit) has with Bangs early in the film is basically identical to the tale Crowe recounted to DeRogatis, in which Bangs plays the wise old mentor telling him to beware the corrupting power of the music industry.
Bangs pops up a few times throughout the film, offering William sage and world-weary advice, all but addressing him as "grasshopper." But there's an odd disconnect between these eagerly imbibed advisories and the career Crowe went on to. As the coffee-table- ready press package for "Almost Famous" makes clear, Crowe specialized in a form of worshipful Q&A that was the opposite of Bangs' legendarily confrontational --Dadaesque, even -- interview style. (Bangs once asked Lou Reed if he thought Judy Garland was "better off dead." Crowe once asked Jimmy Page, "How important was `Stairway to Heaven' to you?")
Crowe creates a cuddly version of Lester and a cuddly version of rock, and therefore a movie that lacks Lester's hard-earned tragic sensibility. There is, at times, a sense of ambiguity about the film, but it's the sort of ambiguity that comes from failing to grapple with the people on the screen in all their muddled glory, not from a brave recognition of life's unsolvability. And that bravery was exactly Bangs' strength as a writer.
There's no point in doubting the sincerity of Crowe's affection for Bangs (the substitution of sincerity for insight is precisely Crowe's problem as an artist), but he never acknowledges that William's love of Lester is not that of a soulmate but of an opposite. Besides their shared obsession with music and writing about music, the two are nothing alike. Where William is a precocious careerist (and Crowe was savvy enough to walk straight from the rock- crit game to the Hollywood game), Bangs cleaved to rock's dangerous side and drew no distinctions between Art and Life, drinking and drugging and, ultimately, dying as hard and fast as the music he craved. "Almost Famous" turns him into Harry Knowles with better taste, if only not to make Crowe's well-mannered doppelganger look like even more of a cipher than he is.
But what Crowe -- with all the love in the world -- does to Bangs, the world has already done to Bangs' profession. These days, rock journalism -- at least as practiced by the slick national magazines - - is a circumscribed affair. Rock stars are less accessible but more important to journalists than ever, which has led to a hollowing-out of the form. More finely wrought and argued than ever before, rock writing matters less than it ever has. And to anyone who grew up enjoying the writing as much as the music itself, that's a drag.
When I shared an apartment in the mid-'80s with a pair of fellow wannabe rock critics, our walls were bare of any rock-star posters, but we kept a blown-up Xerox of a newsprint photo of Lester over our living room television, as if to say, "Instead of watching 'The ABC Sunday Night Movie,' you could be making rock critic history RIGHT NOW!"
Two of us got our wish to be professional rock critics, but neither of us ever made rock critic history -- if only because there doesn't seem to be any rock critic history left to be made. Cameron Crowe figured that out years before we did, and decided if he couldn't make rock critic history, he'd just as soon make "The ABC Sunday Night Movie."
Lester -- with all the love in the world -- might have had something to say about that choice. But he ain't talking. You may contact XL editor Jeff Salamon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445- 3610.