Almost Famous (2000)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Cast: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor, Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, Liz Stauber, Bijou Phillips.
2000 120 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, nudity, and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 23, 2000.
In lesser hands, "Almost Famous" would have solely been an ode to '70s rock music. But director Cameron Crowe (1996's "Jerry Maguire"), who himself became a rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine as an adolescent, has taken his past experiences and woven them into a deeply personal, semi-autobiographical look at the power of music, the joys and pains of true love, and that crucial time of wide-eyed innocence while right on the verge of adulthood. The picture is so much more than it outwardly presents itself at the onset, and in a story about the occasionally smutty decadence and dangerous excesses that become prominent in many musicians' lives, it is simply amazing how non-cynical and affectionate the film remains. Crowe clearly holds the story and distinct individuals found in "Almost Famous" near and dear to his heart, and his passion for the subject matter shines through at every turn.
15-year-old William (Patrick Fugit) has always lead a rather unconventional lifestyle. Entering school a year early, and then being instructed to skip a grade by his unconditionally loving, if eccentric, mother (Frances McDormand), he hasn't truly ever fit in with his peers, and never even discovered he was a year younger than he thought until age 11. That was how old he was when his rebellious 18-year-old sister (Zooey Deschanel) ran off to live out her dream as a stewardess. Leaving her countless rock records with William, in the next four years he grows a deep passion for music that he has never felt with anything else in his life.
Starting with a column for his school newspaper, William eventually manages to spark the interest of Creem magazine journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gives him the assignment of doing a story on Black Sabbath. It is at one of their concerts where he has a chance run-in with their opening act, Stillwater, headed by lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). One day, William receives a call from Rolling Stone, who gives him the chance to write a piece on Stillwater for $1,000. Much to the chargin of his mother, before he knows it, William has set out on Stillwater's concert tour, circa 1973, putting his final year of high school on the backburner for this once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Walking into William's life at this pivotal point is 16-year-old Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a so-called Band Aid that is currently acting as one of the muses for Stillwater, following them on their country-wide tour. She immediately bonds with William, who in turn grows to care about her very much, even as she continues to carry on an affair with the married Russell.
The moral question that is raised in "Almost Famous" is a journalistic controversy. William has always been nothing more than completely honest and accurate in what he has written, but as he becomes friends with Russell he witnesses more and more that begins to lean him towards a negative view of the band. Upon the request of the rest of the band's paranoia, Russell suggests to William that he paint them in a highly favorable light, and William debates this issue, even as it threatens to go against everything he has ever believed in in his writing.
Above all, "Almost Famous" is a loving tribute to a distinct era in time, told from the viewpoint of a quietly opinionated observationist. As played by fabulous newcomer Patrick Fugit, William begins as a shy young man who can more easily express himself through writing rather than in everyday life, and gradually comes into his own with every new experience he takes with him. By the end, William has been on an adventure that very few people his age could ever dream about, and through it, he has become wiser and exceptionally more worldly, holding onto memories that he will never forget as long as he lives.
As an ensemble, the film has been perfectly cast from top to bottom, with many fine performances shining through. Frances McDormand (1996's "Fargo") adds a great deal of depth and tenderness as William's mother, who is constantly scared for her son while he is on the road ("Don't take drugs" is her motto), but knows that it is something very important to, and for, him. Philip Seymour Hoffman (1999's "Magnolia"), as the self-proclaimed nerd Lester Bangs, is his usual impressive self, and has the picture's most thought-provoking and truthful line of dialogue, as he tells William over the phone that the most genuine conversations usually come from two people who have managed to strip themselves bare from all their delusions, content to be nothing more than two losers talking. Zooey Deschanel (1999's "Mumford"), as William's older sister, leaves a striking impression and radiates both heart and intelligence, while Fairuza Balk (1996's "The Craft"), as Band Aid member Sapphire, handles her mostly comedic role with aplomb, even becoming quietly poignant in a late scene as she mourns the fans' decreasing appreciation of just what makes music such a miraculous and powerful form of art and expression.
It is Kate Hudson (1999's "200 Cigarettes"), however, who single-handedly steals the movie. She literally becomes Penny Lane, a teenage girl seemingly beyond her years and full of confidence, but who has just as many hidden insecurities about herself and the direction in which her life is going. As the light and newfound inspiration in William's life, Hudson radiates both beauty and infinite kindness, striking every note exactly right. And in many scenes, as in one where William confronts Penny about her blindness to the fact that Russell doesn't really care about her, Hudson is astonishingly heartbreaking. Enough cannot possibly be said about this star-making performance, but in a word, it is extraordinary.
Coming approximately an hour into the film, there is a simple sequence that completely sums up the feelings that director Crowe wants his audience to acquire. While riding to their next concert destination, the entire tour bus erupts into a passionate sing-along to Elton John's touching "Tiny Dancer," and for that moment in each of the characters' lives, simply the act of expressing themselves through listening to that song suddenly evaporates all of their worries and conflicts.
One could say that the film might have been slightly improved had it not been reportedly cut from 170 to 120 minutes, and some of the characters are arguably one-dimensional, but these should not be looked upon as criticisms, merely observations. "Almost Famous" is a great motion picture that is not so much about the story and characters involved, as it is about evoking a distinct mood and penetrating emotions. And that's all right.
©2000 by Dustin Putman