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We've Heard This Tune Before

Congress may be in a huff about R-rated entertainment, but 'Almost Famous' shows that the more things change . . .

October 08, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is the Times pop music critic

The pop world's a scary place for adults these days. Record executives are trembling over Napster and politicians are alarmed by Eminem. (Kids, of course, are in love with them both.)

So it's nice that almost everyone can find comfort in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," a movie about loss of innocence in the early '70s that is so sweet it ought to have a happy-face logo attached to every frame.

As a writer-director, Crowe, who wrote a few rock profiles for The Times while still in his teens, has a wonderful way of capturing human traits, and this largely autobiographical tale about a 15-year-old rock journalist for Rolling Stone is filled with memorable scenes.

The best revolve around the boy's anxious mother, who reminds you of the times your own mom might have lectured you about the dangers of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll as your schoolmates rolled their eyes in amusement.

The mother, played by Frances McDormand, isn't one of those people who marches up and down outside concert arenas shouting Scripture through a bullhorn--but she's close. She loves her children and she doesn't want the world to harm them.

Can't get any more human than that.

Just as interesting as the movie, to me, has been the reaction of adults--at least those baby boomers who were part of the rock audience in the early '70s and are now parents.

Some see the film as an illustration of how the '70s marked a turning point in the relationship between fans and their heroes--a time when playing music for love gave way to playing for big corporations.

In truth, each generation of rock fans and musicians goes through its loss of innocence. Each era has fans who are inspired by rock stars, musicians who act irresponsibly and businessmen trying to squeeze out extra profits.

With a very few changes, you could have set "Almost Famous" in the '50s, patterning your key musician after Elvis Presley, whose contract with his manager, Col. Tom Parker, was the epitome of spoiled innocence.

Or you could step forward to the '90s and write about Kurt Cobain, the tragic Seattle musician who kept rock 'n' roll alive for another generation, only to be tortured, fatally it turned out, by the fame that engulfed him.

The character from the film who could remain essentially the same in all the versions is McDormand's mom. She is the voice of every generation.

Adults in the movie theater laughed mightily whenever she came on the screen because they remembered how their own parents overreacted to the evils of rock 'n' roll. But the same adults in the theater would probably twist nervously in their seats if images of hard-core rapper Eminem or rock-rappers Limp Bizkit flashed onto the screen.

There may be a contemporary lesson in this.

Every documentary on early rock 'n' roll starts off with newsreel shots of city or church officials burning records in bonfires and trying to stop the rock shows headed for their towns.

And you can bet that future rock documentaries will ridicule the U.S. Senate hearings last month in which Eminem lyrics were read aloud.

The topic of the hearings may have been the marketing of R-rated entertainment to children, but my suspicion is that many of the lawmakers would secretly love to see recording executives stop distributing this type of music to anyone.

One positive aspect of the Senate hearings is that they may encourage parents to talk more with their youngsters about all entertainment choices.


When looking at the violence and vulgarity of much of today's music, you can sympathize with those who feel that it's time to place limits. But some perspective is important.

Parents can hate the music and forbid their children to listen to it, but they should recognize that most youngsters are going to hear it despite their efforts--and keep in mind that they are not monsters just because they respond to it, just as kids weren't Satan worshipers just because they listened to heavy-metal music in the '80s.

The youngster who loves Eminem today is, in many ways, the descendant of the kid who loved Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard in the '50s, or the Rolling Stones and the Doors in the '60s, or the Sex Pistols and David Bowie in the '70s.

The images have gotten darker in music because society is a tougher place, and young people have to go to further extremes in their rebellion to declare their independence.

Eminem's lyrics, which mix horror and humor, are frequently disturbing, especially when he attacks gays and lesbians, but there are moments of redeeming social value in his album--especially in "Stan," which reminds people to look at his music as entertainment rather than as a code of behavior.

One question to consider: Is Eminem's music more shocking, by today's standards, than Presley's or Little Richard's was when it intruded on a pop culture characterized by Doris Day and "Leave It to Beaver"?

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