by Rob Boylan
At first glance these films seem to have nothing much in common. One is about a 70s rock band on the fringes of popularity, hoping their one hit single makes them the next Allman Brothers Band, travelling the country in their beat up tour bus, trying to live the life. The other about a hard living country singer on top of the world, awash in a sea of all of the excesses you would expect, travelling around the South in a huge Cadillac because "if you only pass through once, you might as well do it in a Cadillac".
But both have ties in being about musicians at their core, warts and all (or warts especially), and they strays they pick up along the way -- journalists, groupies and the other hangers on that come along with rock n roll of any stripe. As tour bus and Caddy travel into the abyss, we find out that Nashville and Detroit ain't so different, really.
Untitled - Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut - Cameron Crowe (2000)
I've lost count of how many times friends have drunkenly yelled "he's taking notes with his eyes!" at me over the last decade. But it's true of everyone who writes, professionally or even in journals for their eyes only: we are all taking notes with our eyes.
And Crowe's journalistic eyes serve him better here than it has before or since, not only because of the ease with which he found himself in William's (Patrick Fugit) head space (which is his own head space, really), but the ease in which the unflinching accounts of every aspect of the road come alive under his pen. His journalistic eyes served him right into an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, in fact.
His ensemble film about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom is a great piece of rock reporting, despite the fact that the band in question is fictional. Here Crowe molds the odds and ends and great, otherwise unusable scraps of rock ephemera that have been gathered during his own tag along days as a writer for Creem and Rolling Stone in the most brilliant way, stripping away the varnished top layer that the bands want you to think of them and getting at the down and dirty stuff: the petty bickering, the jealousies, the insecurity and the egos at play.
The stuff that makes the article is never as interesting as the disjointed bits that have to get left out because they don't fit squarely into a narrative. It's the little bits that make you feel like you've been there, that make the experience tangible, and no one seems to understand that as much as Crowe. The best example of this is when William happens upon a hotel room duet of Small Time Blues (below) and watches a for a quiet moment. It's the kind of ethereal moment any music fan would pay a considerable price for, one that is commonplace on the road, but for musicians eyes only. Even though it's staged, it still has that fly on the wall feel of being on the road in the 70s, when rock was still great.
Payday - Daryl Dukes (1973)
So, if you want to play the tracing game with fictional country singers, you would start with Crazy Heart: before there was Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), the unoriginal, mainstream, stetson-wearing Garth Brooks type, there was Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), the hard drinking, hard living sonofabitch cut from the same black cloth that gave us Johnny Cash.
But before there was Bad Blake, there was Maury Dann (Rip Torn), the rip-roaring honky tonk man addicted to anything and everything you can snort, pop, smoke, shoot and screw -- and he even finds multiple ways to screw people.
Torn is deliriously great as Dann in the role I'll always think of first when I think of him. He is surly and slovenly, rude, manipulative, unkempt to the point that the stink of booze and sweat and tobacco almost wafts right through the screen, but there is a hardass felon genius at work in there, especially in the few lucid moments that Dukes allows Dann to have.
He is untouchable and knows it and lets that run his life. People love him, especially the ones that don't know him, or know him too well, like Chicago (Cliff Emmich), the overweight Caddy driver who is in awe of Dann, jealously peeking at Dann's rich life through the rear view mirror as he makes it with eager groupies, like Rosamond (Elayne Heilveil), who is the eyes and ears that we learn about Dann through. His chaotic, selfish life take a toll on both of these sorry souls as the speeds his way through the South, swallowing uppers like candy to keep awake because who knows what horrible things he's done haunts his dreams.