Almost Famous (122 minutes) 2000/Rated R – starring Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor, Zooey Deschanel, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Written, Co-Produced and Directed by Cameron Crowe. Released through Dreamworks SKG, currently in theatres.
When Patrick Fugit begins to sob outside the hotel room of a rock star he has come to admire, an amiable musician who has continually rebuffed Fugit’s insistence to be interviewed, we finally see Fugit’s character, William Miller, as the vulnerable 15-year old kid he really is. Someone who is a long way from home. Up until that moment, Miller, a teen rock journalist who gets the assignment of his life, writing a piece on a middle-rung opening act named Stillwater for Rolling Stone Magazine, is actually the most grounded “adult” amongst the carney trappings of the adult rockers he’s been assigned to profile.
Writer-director Cameron Crowe’s love letter to his own quixotic past (the film is a veiled autobiography, I’m sure you’ve read by now) has a lot of heart and sweetness rarely found in tales of life on the road. Sure, there’s parties and sex and drugs at every stop, but as portrayed by Crowe, the rock band’s tour endeavors, circa 1973, are as harmless as a busload of Shriners. Sure, there’s some petty squabbles amongst bandmates, but nothing very controversial rears its ugly head in the plot suggesting turmoil greater than your average ‘Partridge Family’ episode. It’s Crowe’s intention to shed a sugary, nostalgic glow on his tale rather than tear down the psyches and posturing of inherent rock star attitudes which someone like Oliver Stone might choose to do. (Reference “The Doors”). Crowe even makes a scene in which an angelic-smiling groupie, played by Kate Hudson, having her stomach pumped to prevent a fatal overdose, seem as charming as a bubbly Gap ad.
Since his slant is not to pull a hatchet job on the rock world, Crowe has refreshingly fashioned a character study in which everyone associated with the fledgling band is a likeable, quirky persona. Crudup, who plays the group’s beefcake guitarist yearning to make contact with “real” people, lets us know he’s wiser than the complacent grin he keeps plastered on his face by cheerfully forging a bond with the one adult of the bunch, the young Miller. Hudson’s Penny Lane, another teenager wise beyond her years, brings sexual comfort and unconditional companionship, to Crudup and Fugit respectively, with all the humanity and grace of a nurse on China Beach. Even Frances McDormand, as Miller’s concerned mother, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the cantankerous, insightful rock critic Lester Bangs, both manage to win our hearts, upon first glimpse, with their spot-on quips and observations. There really is no villain to this piece.
The only conflict stems from whether the band and Miller will get their cracks at the cover story of Rolling Stone, and whether the group will break up from underlying personality qualms. Both issues are never presented in a manner that drives the plot, but instead are backburner subplots. In fact, as intelligent as Miller’s character appears to be, his supposed stellar abilities at writing are never exemplified, therefore, his skills never coalesce as truly believable in the film. We just have to accept the fact that he’s talented. Even though he talks about how passionate he is for music, and the band Stillwater are portrayed as a truly worthy group, Crowe never takes the time to examine the making of one of their songs or how a musician’s art is inspirationally culled from their experiences. Since music seems to be the impetus, but its germination is never examined, this could have easily been a story about a kid following a movie company on location or a circus traveling Europe. It’s not about music, it’s just a look at gypsies on the road.
Not that I’m faulting the film for this approach. Crowe’s ear for dialogue, his knack for staging a scene, his peerless direction of drawing the best performances from his ensemble of actors are a delight to see on screen. The ‘feel-good’ vibe is enough to whisk any viewer through the two hours and still feel very satisfied with the tale as a whole. But the nomadic life of gypsies aren’t all that perplexing, and the viewer won’t learn all that much about the rock world they don’t already know. The ‘ride’ is the important, exuberant element, and the personalities are winsome, and that’s all the criteria you need to bring with you into the cineplex.
Curiously enough, “Almost Famous” is the only film I can think of in which it’s underlying theme of a ‘coming-of-age’ story is about a kid who already, from the outset, seems to possess the wisdom of what ‘coming of age’ is all about.
© 2000 Ned Truslow