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(2000) directed by Cameron Crowe
I love rock and roll. In particular, I'm a big fan of what rock critic Lester Bangs (played ably in the movie by Philip Seymour Hoffman) terms "rock and roll's death rattle" of early 70s rock 'n' roll (Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, etc.). It's obvious from this movie that Cameron Crowe, the writer and director, understands and loves this music as well. He loves everything about it, from the musicians to the groupies to the fans to the rock writers.
Almost Famous is a semi-autobiographical film about Cameron Crowe's start as a rock journalist at the age of 15. It's a coming-of-age movie for the fictional William Miller (Patrick Fugit) who represents Crowe. It's the story of a mid-level band trying to deal with success in the harsh face of stardom. It's about a mother. It's about a girl. But, most of all, it's about a love for music. More than in any other movie, the soundtrack comes alive. Each piece is so well chosen that you can't help listening to these songs differently afterwords. In one particular scene, Crowe elevates Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" into a kind of cool perfection. Elton John, who recently has been best known for retooling his own song for the death of a certain princess and providing the music for a cheesy musical version of a real opera, is no longer cool. I don't really ever remember him being cool. Maybe I'm not old enough. Anyway, Crowe manages to make Elton John (or at least his music) be cool. Other musicians that can see their music come alive are Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Who and Led Zepellin. If you love this music, you will love this film.
So far, I've been neglecting the story a bit. This is rather unfair as Cameron Crowe deservedly won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay. It's good. Crowe largely draws upon his own life experiences as a 15-year old reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Most things, even the rather unbelievable ones, actually happened in one form or another. To make the screenplay more functional (though less factual), some things have been slightly condensed. The band that young William Miller joins on the road, Stillwater, is a composite of other bands. The girl he falls for, Penny Lane, is a composite of various groupies (though there is a real Penny Lane after which the character was named). You can't make a good movie without manipulating real world events in this way. I think we can safely say that this movie is as accurate about Cameron Crowe in 1973 as The People Versus Larry Flynt is about Larry Flynt or Amadeus is about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Now, on to the acting. There's plenty of good acting to go around. Besides one annoying extra (in the graduation scene), the cast is amazingly good at evoking the characters. Fugit, a relative newcomer to the movie scene, is wonderfully realistic as William Miller. One begins to suspect that his time on his first big movie invoked the same feelings in him as being on tour with famous rock and rollers for the first time did for Crowe. It shows in his performance. The fictional Stillwater fronted by two actors (Billy Crudup who somehow manages to get top billing and Jason Lee) and two real musicians is also quite believable. It of course helps that they had their own rock and roll school taught by Peter Frampton, one of the great rock icons of that period. He and Crowe's wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart fame, composed the songs that Stillwater performs. No wonder they sound like the genuine artifact. Finally, you can't go away from Almost Famous without gaining tremendous respect for two great actresses, Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson. Both rightfully received Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nominations for their performances.
McDormand plays William's eccentricly overbearing mother, Elaine Miller, who is struggling to raise a son who seems to be most interested in the land of "diminished brain cells and compromised values." She knows she has to let him fly, but she fears the crash. In one scene that didn't make it into the official release, William and some adults who intervene on his behalf convince Elaine to let William join the Stillwater tour. To demonstrate that rock ain't all bad, William plays Led Zepellin's legendary "Stairway to Heaven," inspired by the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien. Given Elaine's respect for literature, she can't help but be persuaded, though the internal struggle is palpable. He can go, but only for 4 days. Of course, it turns out to be a lot more than 4 days. In one of the more memorable lines from the film, Elaine exclaims "rock stars have kidnapped my son!" We know that William will make it through this, but we can't help but feel for his mother.
Hudson plays Penny Lane, the groupie who claims not to be one. Why is Hudson, as only a supporting player, featured on the movie poster? Because, when you think of the great scenes in this film, you think of her. Hudson invokes the type of character you want to know more about and grow to love, sometimes because of and sometimes despite of her obvious flaws. She lights up a room (or a scene) when she enters it. Hudson is able to pull off the same fierce vulnerability and genuine strength that her mother, Goldie Hawn, was able to in her early movies (see Private Benjamin). It would be easy to fall into a number of obvious traps with this character. We all know that 16-year old groupies who hide their real name aren't really that wise. We know that sleeping freely with rock stars isn't something you can build much of a future upon. Here again, we have to thank Crowe who wrote a character that manages to embody the negative cliches while having much positive to offer. Though she doesn't really exist, Crowe, as William in the film, loves Penny Lane. Hudson makes us share this love.
Overall, Almost Famous is the kind of movie that will put a smile on your face on a dreary day. It's hip, light and fun, and moving. I give it a 9 out of 10 on the good movie scale for great execution and a love for the subject matter. If you love this music, I think you'll agree with me. If not, it may be closer to an 8. I give it a 3 on the bad movie scale for some fairly bad time period jokes.