It’s been eleven years since I wrote this review of Almost Famous.
The review… well, it shows that had a lot to learn about film criticism back in 2000. (I was still writing reviews for fun, and hadn’t yet been hired for an official reviewing gig.)
But the movie? I’m pleased to report that the movie is still as enjoyable for me as ever. I wish I could say the same about the actors who are so radiant in this film. Billy Crudup’s performances since then have not been nearly as memorable. Kate Hudson’s very public “personal life” and celebrity eclipsed her talents as an actress a long time ago, and she hasn’t given another performance worth raving about. And Cameron Crowe? Maybe this was the peak of his career. Maybe he doesn’t have any story he wants to tell as much as this story, which he told so very, very well.
a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Writer and director – Cameron Crowe; director of photography – John Toll; editor – Joe Hutshing and Saar Klein; music – Nancy Wilson; art directors – Clay A. Griffith and Clayton R. Hartley; producers – Cameron Crowe and Ian Bryce. DreamWorks Pictures. 202 minutes. Starring – Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), France McDormand (Elaine Miller), Kate Hudson (Penny Lane), Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe), Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Zooey Deschanel (Anita Miller), Fairuza Balk (Sapphire), Anna Paquin (Polexia Aphrodisia) Michael Angarano (Young William), Noah Taylor (Dick Roswell), John Fedevich (Ed Vallencourt), Mak Kozelek (Larry Fellows) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lester Bangs). Rated R.
How many of us can relate to the experience of young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Cameron Crowe’s new film Almost Famous?
Some of us know the thrill of meeting a celebrity we admire. There’s that trembling anticipation, that thrill, that joy of meeting a hero and shaking their hand, getting their autograph.
But Miller… the boy’s talent earns him much more than that. His writing about rock music is so passionate and enthusiastic that it earns him an opportunity to write for Rolling Stone, which earns him more opportunities than he ever imagined. Before he knows it, he’s interviewing his heroes… and then he’s on tour with them.
The world’s most respected rock critic, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), warns Patrick that, because he wields the power of the pen, rock stars will try to buy his affections. After all, he can make them look “cool”. “Be honest but merciless,” Bangs says. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”
Bearing Lester’s advice in mind, William weasels his way into a tour with the up-and-coming band Stillwater. Noisy, enthusiastic, and gifted with a brilliant guitarist, Stillwater just might be on the way to the cover of Rolling Stone. What William doesn’t quite expect to find is that there are confused, unpredictable, and rather dangerous human beings behind these famous facades. And sure enough, the lead singer approaches William and says, “Just make us look cool.”
Penny Lane, a mysterious, charismatic woman who calls herself a “Band-aid” (more professional than a “groupie”), becomes William’s tour guide through the vanity fair of rock-and-roll stardom. Following beautiful Penny, he faces a whole new world of temptations.
William’s adventures are punctuated by phone calls from his mother (Frances McDormand), who is panicking back home. We first meet her long before William heads off on tour; she takes him to a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird, where he is impressed by Atticus Finch’s honesty and sense of justice. She begs him to stay clean, to come back home, to graduate from high school. And she pieces together from scraps of overheard conversation that her son is in severe moral… perhaps mortal… peril.
Most rock-and-roll films can be divided into two categories: There’s the “seize the day” group, which regards any authority as stodgy, narrow-minded, confining, and evil. Footloose is the best example, laughing at the conservative parents and affirming the rebels. And then there are the “wages of sin” films, which follow heroes on long painful downward spirals into self-destruction. Sid and Nancy comes to mind.
I’ll admit… even though I was having fun, I expected Almost Famous to lead me down the familiar Footloose path. I expected to see William’s mother portrayed as stupid, evil, overbearing. Instead, something wonderful happened. The perspective of Almost Famous is large, compassionate, and as wide-eyed with wonder as William himself. It walks a tightrope, never endorsing the “seize the day” indulgence of the rock stars (although it is honest about the pleasures of that world), and never judging the rebels either, allowing them to learn some moral lessons along the way. William’s mother, while narrow-minded and a little too fearful, comes across as loving, human, and honorable. She wants to protect her son from dangers that are very real.
You can tell that the characters in this movie are based on real people from Crowe’s own experience. I feel like I could find them somewhere and interview them myself. They’re not caricatures. They’re not political stances. They’re not stereotypes. You can’t divide them into good guys and bad guys. But you can see the struggle of love against selfishness in each person. Each of them wrestle with their own compromises, avoiding commitment and responsibility at all costs. They all want to be cool. They all want to control their own lives. And all of them suffer disappointment and failure.
But all of them are beautiful. All of them are characters worth redeeming. They have beautiful dreams, and they work hard to bring those dreams to life. We understand them. We want them to make it.
While it seems to be about music, Almost Famous is, ultimately, a movie about love. It is about what we can lose through self-interest, and what we can gain through giving ourselves to others, in faithfulness, in friendship, and in honesty.
Patrick Fugit takes on the large, complicated part of William with a natural air of innocence and amazement. His eyes say it all. They’re always wide, drinking in the wild sights. And yet, there’s a brain behind those eyes. It’s impressive to see a young man of some moral character and integrity on the big screen. Yes, his virginity is endangered, and he’s tempted to experiment with drugs. But he honors his mother quite admirably considering the pressure. He gives the movie a strong center.
The other actors are very strong, and good enough to refrain from stealing the spotlight. Jason Lee is absolutely perfect as the lead singer of Stillwater, who suffers a bad case of spotlight-envy. He struts and poses like a true rock star, yet with his own kinder, gentler character, which saves him from doing merely a Jagger or Morrison impression. He steals almost every scene he’s in. While Lee is a noisy gust of wind, Billy Crudup plays Russell, the guitarist, as a quiet storm, mysterious, jittery, unpredictable. After this film, Crudup will probably become a big star.
Kate Hudson, as Penny Lane, is fantastic. She sparkles with wit and intelligence as she guides William. She makes Penny ache with desire as she stares at Russell across a crowded concert hall, which casts William into a jealous torment. And then she soars in her more private moments, dallying on a deserted dance floor. Reportedly her best scene, a long solo dance, was trimmed to mere seconds in order to shorten the film. Too bad. If I have any complaint about the film at all, it’s that it ends too quickly.
John Toll might well earn an Oscar for making these folks look so good. Toll, who filmed Braveheart and The Thin Red Line, has an eye for magical light, for those fleeting but defining facial expressions, for the glint in a character’s eye. If I were to make a movie, he’d be among my top choices for a cinematographer.
Cameron Crowe, director of Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire, has given us a gift with this semi-autobiographical account of his days as a Rolling Stone writer in the heyday of Led Zeppelin. With all of the flash and glitter and gloss, this is definitely a Hollywood movie. But it packs more heart into two hours than any recent Oscar winner, and more intelligence too.
After the movie, I kept saying to myself, “How did they get away with such an upbeat ending? How did they pull off such a sappy finale without setting off my Sentimentality Alarm?” Probably because we aren’t reacting to overbearing music or to tricks. We’re responding to character development, to moments that have been earned with hard work. And it also works because the whole movie reeks of authenticity. You really get the feeling that, no matter how unlikely, this is how it really happened. Or better, this is how it seemed to happen, through the eyes of an optimistic fifteen year-old. There’s something near the charm of a Truffaut film here; there’s a magic around everyone and everything that reminds us of how the world looked when we were still children, still in awe of the world. Just as he did in Jerry Maguire, Cameron Crowe finds hope for the broken. And it’s not empty hope.
William is a rare and memorable hero. While he aspires to walk with rock star giants, he becomes a different kind of giant. Atticus Finch would have been proud. Young William leaves the fearful, judgmental world of his mother and becomes “a member of the band.” Virtue, betrayal, and tragedy follow. And in the end, his childlike wonder, his adherence to unpopular wisdom, his refusal to abandon those who love him, even his willingness to go out of his way to save sinking souls—these have made him a light in their dark world.