Don't believe anyone who tells you that the year 2000 was devoid of good cinema. Two music-related films made the year a worthwhile one: High Fidelity and Almost Famous. Anyone who enjoys classic rock music will also be predisposed to enjoy these two undervalued films. Both didn't receive as many Academy Award-nominations as they could have, but at least the more mainstream Almost Famous received a couple of supporting-actress nominations and a writing nomination.
Director/writer Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) has turned out another winning film by revisiting his roots as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Set in sunny San Diego around Christmastime, Almost Famous begins in the late 1960s. Alvin and the Chipmunks sing in the background, as young William Miller hears praise for Atticus Finch from his overprotective mother (Frances McDormand), who continually freaks people out with her strict moral code.
A humorous early scene shows Mrs. Miller busting her teenage daughter for smuggling the Simon and Garfunkel album Bookends into the house. She doesn't approve because to her they represent “drugs and promiscuous sex.” Talk about reactionary—Simon and Garfunkel?
Many of us had mothers like that, and quite naturally the daughter rebels by leaving home at age 19. To communicate her reason for leaving, the daughter plays Simon and Garfunkel's “America” and takes off to discover the country by becoming an airline stewardess. Significantly, she leaves her younger brother a gift to “set him free.” We will hear no more Alvin and the Chipmunks music once young William discovers the invaluable gift—albums by The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Dylan, etc.
Fast forward to 1973: We find that William has become a true music aficionado obsessed with listening to rock and reading Creem magazine, as well as writing about music in his local high-school newspaper. He soon searches for his own version of America after some backstage developments that have him meeting up with a bunch of rock groupies (who prefer to be called “band-aids”) and a relatively unknown band called Stillwater. It turns out that Rolling Stone has been impressed with William’s rock knowledge and writing, so the magazine hires him to follow Stillwater and develop a feature story.
I really enjoy films that educate and that intelligently show us another point of view we haven’t experienced. Almost Famous does this on several fronts: the lifestyle of a rock band, the role of the rock critic, and the part that rock groupies play. Though we've seen a bit of the party lifestyle in other films, I don't remember any that deal with group dynamics as well as this film does. One particularly telling scene is the one in which the group's new T-shirts are delivered to the room. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and two others are blurred in the background, while the more charismatic lead guitarist (Billy Crudup) is prominently and plainly featured in front. The reactions to the T-shirt display the tenuousness of the group and present one more factor that could lead to their eventual break-up. It certainly feels like a realistic moment.
The film effectively illustrates the critic's role (by William and top rock-critic Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bangs continually mentors William throughout his trip and lets him know that he can make his critical writing reputation only by being “honest and by being unmerciful.” There's a very strange balance that William must strike with Stillwater. The band desperately wants to be on the cover of Rolling Stone for obvious reasons, but despises rock critics, and you don’t tell your secrets to “the enemy.” Somehow William must gain their trust to get good material, but must also maintain objectivity.
Young actor Patrick Fugit should receive a lot of credit for making Almost Famous work so well. He comes across as a precocious and caring teen that believably could write for Rolling Stone. One totally honest scene occurs after he has been continually seeking some private one-on-one time with bandleader Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Rolling Stone has become impatient for the story, and William cannot possibly write it without interviewing Russell. When shut out from his next appointment, William dejectedly sits in front of Russell’s hotel room as tears of frustration begin. It feels all too real!
What an outstanding ensemble cast Crowe has gathered here. Jason Lee (Chasing Amy) continues to do credible work, and Billy Crudup (Jesus' Son) fills the screen whenever he is on. Crudup plays the character who displays the greatest range of emotions and is the character who goes through the most changes. He is cautious about revealing too much about himself around “the enemy” and around his rock group—actually around anyone, so you have to observe his eyes closely and see what he does. Crudup underplays the role magnificently.
Two more characters serve as William's saviors. One is groupie Penny Lane, wonderfully played by Kate Hudson. Penny believes that she loves Russell but is genuinely fond of William, who is definitely infatuated with Penny. One really great scene occurs when William tries to get her to see the reality of her relationship with Russell. He exclaims that Russell traded her "to Humble Pie for 50 bucks and a case of beer.” Watch the hurt in Penny's eyes, the small tear, the pause, and the comeback line of “What kind of beer?”
The other “saint” is rock critic Lester Bangs. Is it possible for Philip Seymour Hoffman ever to do badly in a film? He has to be the top supporting-actor working today, and this performance can only add positives to his lengthy résumé. If I hadn't seen him in Magnolia, Happiness, or The Talented Mr. Ripley, I would have believed that Crowe hired a real-life rock critic for the role. Hoffman is very convincing in the role; just check out his performance during his radio interview when he demands that the DJ put on Iggy Pop!
Although Frances McDormand's character is more stereotypical and flat, she provides comic relief by freaking out the various people she calls on the phone to leave urgent messages for her son. Her slogan of “Don't use drugs” is repeated a number of times for a laugh. But she is sincere, and it's obvious that William understands that his mom means well and does support him.
Cameron Crowe has taken his experience as a teenage writer and translated it refreshingly here as a coming-of-age film, using rock music as the subject matter. This will satisfy many music fans for its honest portrayal of the rock-band life, and will cross over to mainstream audiences with its essentially wholesome message and feel-good ending. This may not sit totally well with the purists, but it bodes well for Oscar possibilities and large box-office receipts.
Fortunately, Almost Famous is intelligent fare with some excellent writing and performances. From my view it was worth sitting with the crowds for a couple of hours and forking out the ticket money. I don't say that about most mainstream cinema.