EXPERIENCE IT. ENJOY IT. JUST DON'T FALL FOR IT.
Cameron Crowe is someone whose teenage years should be envied by everyone. When he was young, still in school, he became a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, and went on tour with The Allman Brothers Band. He was almost in a plane crash with The Who. He wrote the liner notes for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s live One for the Road album. And for all of this, he was still only about 15. Eventually becoming a filmmaker, Crowe would make many a film that concerned itself with the lives of teenagers, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he tackled his own. As such, he made his story into the film Almost Famous.
It’s 1973 and 15-year-old William Miller, a high-school boy and aspiring music writer, is given the chance to write a story for Rolling Stone Magazine, joining up with Stillwater, an up-and-coming rock band on their concert tour. Along the way, he tries to be a professional, but gets caught up in the world of the band and band aides, led by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
There are two things that shine through Crowe’s script for Almost Famous, and the subsequent film he shot. The first is an unbelievably rich and detailed account of the events as remembered by a young writer in a world others could only dream of. There are so many small moments, looks and minutiae throughout the film. The specific albums that William’s sister gives him, the band’s leader singer using shaving cream as hair gel, the pre-show rituals. This gives things a sense of authenticity to the moment, a rich feeling of legitimacy. The second thing that comes through is the sheer love of the people that made it possible for him to be involved in it. She may be over-bearing and severe, but there is nothing but love for William’s mother. He may be distrustful and rather self-centred, but there is such awe for Russell Hammond. He may be blunt and have a taste that borders on the oppressive, but there is deep respect for Lester Bangs. And she may be spacey and lonely, but you can still feel the pangs for Penny Lane. Crowe’s script is, at its heart, a road movie, and road movies are about self-discovery and change. You really can see and feel the change in William because of his journey, and you know it’s the same change that Crowe felt in his. As a man looking back on his younger years, Crowe has the wisdom to know that without these people, he would not be the same person. It's actually rather touching just for the sheer gratitude that comes through. The script is occasionally so personal that it would feel uncomfortable if it weren’t for the fact that it’s told with such affection and joy.
There is no one else that could have directed this film but Crowe. Not even just because of its personal nature, but because another director may have missed out on the small things that make it so wonderfully textured, or even because they may have changed things to reflect their own personal feelings on the subject or the time or the characters. Only Crowe would have remembered to show the tape on the floor used to mark a pathway to the stage, or known the simple power of having the band reconcile on the bus by singing Tiny Dancer. And he has such a great ear for the music of the period, so the film is positively soaked through with such great stuff. As much as the film is a love letter to his youth and the people that made him who he is, it’s a love letter to the music that inspired him to want to become who he is. The soundtrack is awash with greatness, from Sabbath to Zeppelin to Elton John to Joni Mitchell to Cat Stevens to Yes to Jimi Hendrix to the Beach Boys… even the stuff from the film’s fictitious band, Stillwater, is great.
The cast for the film are superb, and done with a great sense of stature. William is played by newcomer Patrick Fugit. This was really his first feature role and he does great. With his boyish looks and his mildly self-conscious air, he totally sells that he is new to this world of egos and hedonistic fun. Frances McDormand is excellent as William’s intellectual mother, a firm presence of authority, but not so domineering that she smothers her son in something he truly wants to do. It’s kind of a tightrope walk, but McDormand can certainly handle this kind of thing. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, as expected, great as Lester Bangs, William’s writing mentor. Bangs exudes the snobbishness of a real music lover, but also the sincere and firm belief that to be good at what both he and William do is to be “honest and unmerciful.” Jeff Bebe is played with great passion by Jason Lee, who brings Jeff’s swagger and frustration to life beautifully. Billy Crudup is equally great as Russell Hammond, a role that also something of a tightrope, since one slip and he would lose that spark that makes him so compelling. The casting of these two is superb, since Lee is the one people may be more familiar with, that we recognise more, thus being the band’s front man. However, Crudup is the one people, including William, seem to lock on, partially because we don’t know him as well. He really is the guitarist with mystique. The real triumph is Kate Hudson. She may have spent her career since wandering aimlessly through the world of mediocre romantic comedy, but here she is a gem. There are many times where she seems like a girl playing dress-up and hanging with the grown ups, but that’s precisely what rests at the heart of Penny Lane. Rock stars are the friends she plays with, and she has such a great connection with their music, but at the same time she is looking for a deeper connection to them. She constantly refers to some other place, somewhere else, “the real world.” Her world is a place of fantasy, of constant playtime with fun people. So when she gets reminded of the artifice of it all, or the lack of solidity in her relationships, it hurts. When William tells her how she was literally lost to another band in a poker game, along with a case of beer, her reaction is heartbreaking. The smile disappears, there’s a slight confusion, some tears, and then she puts on a brave face and asks, “What kind of beer?” She tries to make it fun again, but you can see the damage is done. Hudson really is the best thing on show.
Almost Famous is a great movie, and exudes such a genuine affection, and gratitude, for the people and the world it looks at. There is such warmth from the film, such great detail from the script, and such superb performances throughout that it’s almost impossible not to be taken by the spirit of the whole. The love of the time and the music is so infectious that I suppose the real test of how much the film succeeds is down to whether or not, after watching it, you feel the need to listen to some music of that era… in my case, success. And in case you wanted to know, I listened to Focus’ Moving Waves whilst writing this.