Almost Almost Famous
While it isn’t as perceptive, entertaining, or insightful of a documentary about talented musical impersonators as it could’ve been, Barry Lank’s Almost Almost Famous does an okay job weaving together the narratives of three subjects who make their living largely by pretending to be someone else. By focusing specifically on a band of talented musicians making their way on a tour across Canada in a revue of classic 1950s rock and roll superstars and rarely branching out from there, Almost Almost Famous has a frustratingly narrow focus for something that could’ve delved deeper into tribute band subcultures. If it weren’t for the candor and unique personal stories of Lank’s three primary subjects, Almost Almost Famous would be a lot more pedantic and forgettable. You’ll still probably forget the movie itself, but you’ll remember the people who were in it.
Lank follows around The Class of ‘59, a touring company of musicians playing to packed and appreciative crowds of baby-boomers in small towns across the country. While these fans of old school rock and roll can’t see most of their beloved musical idols on stage anymore, The Class of ‘59 gives them a chance to watch other folks emulate the star power exhibited by the likes of Elvis Presley, The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Jackie Wilson in their prime. Mostly played on stage by veteran and up and coming musicians, these doppelgangers spend decades honing their craft and act, but just like their real life counterparts, they know their performing days are limited. Audiences only want to remember these musical superstars as they were at the height of their popularity and attractiveness, and the older these performers get, their careers as an impersonator reach an expiration date. In some cases, although the money can be pretty good for gigs essentially doing cover songs, the job is a rigorous, time sucking impediment that takes away from more personally fulfilling artistic pursuits.
A great deal of Almost Almost Famous is observational, with Lank tagging along with gruff Winnipegger tour manager Marty Kramer as he tries to keep his band of misfits rigidly focused on the tasks at hand. The stage show elements look like fun, but working for Marty seems like thankless, absolute hell, and I’m not entirely certain that’s what Lank is trying to depict. While some of the band members deliberately push Kramer’s buttons, he’s the kind of managerial veteran who takes his D-list industry gig far too seriously. Any time spent backstage with the musicians as they attempt to rehearse, or waiting for tour busses and vans to arrive at airports, or listening Marty complain about whatever’s bothering him that day might be an accurate depiction of life on the road for a touring band, but it’s also pedantic and uninteresting. It’s made worse by the fact that Almost Almost Famous focuses always on these specific guys, and not any of the tens or thousands of other musical impersonators making healthy livings. Almost Almost Famous anchors on a singular experience, which would be admirable if it wasn’t so dragging and unfulfilling. It’s never certain if Lank’s film is celebrating or condemning such a lifestyle choice, or that the filmmaker even wants to question such things.
But whenever Lank slows things down to approach the band’s three most magnetic personalities as individuals, Almost Almost Famous bears a lot more fruit. Perhaps paradoxically, the group’s resident Elvis impersonator – former world champion Ted Torres Martin – is the lowest key member of the bunch. A quiet, reserved man who loves what he does but is quick to change out of costume and makeup as soon as the show is over, Ted speaks most eloquently about the shelf life of a celebrity impersonator. He keeps to himself on most nights, not because of anything involving ego, but rather because that’s just who he is. When he hits the stage, he oozes The King’s star power, but he knows that energy can’t last forever. He’s actively looking forward to seeing what the next generation of tribute artists are going to come up with, and his love for the form seems genuine.
By far the most electrifying and potentially divisive subject in Almost Almost Famous is Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator Lance Lipinsky, a man so complicated and fascinating that one almost wishes the whole film was built around his trajectory (and in some ways, it kind of is). A musical prodigy from small town Texas who’s still in his twenties, Lipinsky sees his impersonation work as a form of paying his dues, while building a bigger audience and platform to launch his rockabilly career. He’s a temperamental shit disturber, constantly getting Marty’s blood racing to near heart attack levels with his on and off stage antics. His devil-may-care attitude and cockiness probably pushes as many people away as it invites, and his prominent and proud wearing of a Trump/Pence button in his jacket in Lank’s sit down interviews practically dares people to hate him before getting to know him. And yet, by watching Lance’s performance and listen to how passionately he talks about his craft, a lot of the young man’s bluster seems justified. He’s able to back up his own bullshit most of the time, and he knows when he’s phoning in a performance out of disinterest. He’s also been known to burn out due to exhaustion on stage, which says a lot about his dedication when one considers that he’s the youngest member of the band by a wide margin. In short, he’s honest with himself and with the audience, emerging as the true star of Almost Almost Famous whether you end up liking or loathing him.
But focusing solely on Lipinsky would rob viewers of the chance to spend time with Bobby Brooks Wilson, the company’s resident Jackie Wilson impersonator. Not only does Bobby have an interesting and atypical start to his musical career – which came by way of Hawaiian karaoke bars following his military discharge – but a fascinating connection to the very person he’s impersonating. On a personal level, Wilson’s story has the most ups and downs, making him the most humane and easily relatable of the bunch.
But outside of the fascinating life stories and experiences relayed by the Lank’s three primary subjects, Almost Almost Famous comes across as limp and filled with gaps. The viewer is always reminded that if any of the band members slip up or fall off, they could be replaced by any of the hundreds of other hungrier and younger impersonators waiting in the wings. There’s always a sword hanging over the heads of these artists, but we never see the people waiting in the wings to take the stage next. Although it’s clear that Lipinsky and Torres won’t be around forever in this capacity thanks to their other endeavours and dreams, there’s never any drama to be found in Almost Almost Famous. Even if these people were to lose their jobs, there’s always a sense that they’ll come out on the other end unscathed. The act needs them more than they need the act, so the stakes are remarkably low throughout. With either a wider focus or a more narrowed perspective that only focused on one of these men, Almost Almost Famous could’ve been onto something. Instead, it’s uneven and only fitfully speaking to something grander that it should be talking about.
Almost Almost Famous opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, December 7, 2018. It also screens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on December 14 and 17.
Check out the trailer for Almost Almost Famous: