It is little surprising that Crowe would accurately portray the details of the rock industry: When he was 16, he became a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and spent his teen years circling the world with stars like Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and David Bowie. He has experienced the venality firsthand: the way tour managers use groupies as gelt in poker games, the tenuous relationships that exist in bands formed by "best" friends, the way rock critics are suckered into "friendships" with manipulative musicians who crave a little good press. Russell and Jeff don't really like each other -- "I'm the frontman," Russell yells at Jeff over a T-shirt photo in which only Jeff is visible, "and you're the guitarist with mystique!" -- but they will tolerate and use each other to become famous. Not since Songwriter in 1985 has a film so accurately, if not maniacally, portrayed the sordid details of the rock biz: Everyone is willing to trade up, even if it costs him everything on the way down.
Crowe is not so judgmental, perhaps because he has coated his movie in that glossy, quaint haze of nostalgia that forgives even the most unlikable flaw. (In the end, we can't help but adore Russell, despite his cheating and manipulation.) Clearly, this is the movie Crowe has always wanted to make; it's certainly his most personal -- a postcard from the past, a love letter to his days on the private-plane circuit. William is the idealized Cameron: the kid who listens to his mother's just-say-no admonitions, the kid who loses his virginity to three nymphets on the road, the kid who rescues Penny Lane from Russell and his willful disregard. He is sweet, naive, innocent, and perfect -- aghast at the reality of rock 'n' roll. William wants to write a mash note about his favorite band, only to discover they're assholes willing to sell him out when he doesn't give them just what they want. "Friendship is the booze they feed you," Lester warns his young protégé, but William doesn't heed the advice. He swallows until he drowns in it.
Crowe has made an entire movie based on Led Zeppelin's "Sick Again" from 1975's Physical Graffiti, in which Robert Plant bemoaned the death of the giving, forgiving groupie: "Clutching pages from your teenage dream/ In the lobby of the Hotel Paradise," he wailed, a long time ago, "Through the circus of the L.A. queens/ How fast you learn the downhill slide." Penny Lane is Crowe's "painted lady in the city of lies"; she, like young William, is the last Real Fan, and she too is ultimately betrayed by her devotion to rock 'n' roll. But William and Penny, children in love with the music if not each other, have too much faith in the beast to let it destroy them. They undoubtedly carry on, hauling out the sad songs on bad days and the fast ones on good days. They grow older, sell their vinyl for CDs, and keep the faith. And in the end, both William Miller and Penny Lane turn into a 42-year-old named Cameron Crowe.
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