|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 13 March 2001|
When Cameron Crowe was 16, he became a regular writer for Rolling Stone. Writing 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' eased him over into movies, where he's worked very well, ever since; his last movie was 'Jerry Maguire'. With 'Almost Famous,' he achieves his long-cherished goal of making a movie about his rock 'n' roll period, when as a teenage journalist, he was regarded by rock groups as somewhere between The Enemy and a mascot.
It's an affectionate, respectful but mostly honest look back at his earliest experiences as a rock journalist; it's a coming-of-age story, but he's not the only one who grows up. The movie goes on a bit longer than necessary, and it's a bit more conventional and upbeat than one suspects the real events turned out to be. But otherwise it's damned near irresistible. It's well-cast and captures 1973 without a trace of sentimental nostalgia. Even the new music -- played by the fictional band Stillwater -- sounds about right. Crowe has wisely chosen to depict a struggling, classic American rock band that may be on its way up, guys whose joy in what they're doing is more important than fame -- even if things are starting to unravel a bit in this regard. It's probably the best dramatic presentation of a rock band, real or fictional, so far.
Crowe's alter ego in the movie is William (Patrick Fugit), who lives in San Diego with his older sister and their widowed mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), a college professor. She's over-protective, insisting instead that her children are exposed only to the finer influences in life; she even serves health food at home. She's unbending when it comes to what she considers the insidious influences of rock 'n' roll.
When his fed-up sister takes off on her own, William inherits her secret stash of rock albums. By the time he's 15, he lives, breathes and understands rock 'n' roll. His criticism has been published in the local underground paper. Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the respected editor of Creem, visits San Diego, and meets young William, whose writing he's liked. Lester stays in touch with William by phone, and urges him not to become friends with the musicians he writes about; he must be true to his profession and to his love of music.
Bangs assigns William to cover the local Black Sabbath concert. His mother drives him to the concert, shouting out her usual warning, "Don't take drugs!" The concert turns out to be another life-changing experience. He he meets Stillwater, impressing the hell out of the band with his knowledge about their music. He also meets a beautiful blonde just a couple years older than he is, the worldly-wise, life-of-the-party Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). She and her friends Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) and Polexia Aphrodisia (Anna Paquin), she insists, are not groupies, but Band-Aids, fans of the music rather than star-struck gigglers.
Later, to his shock, William is contacted by an editor at Rolling Stone who is interested in giving him an assignment. William suggests an article on Stillwater, and suddenly he's a professional rock journalist. For all her worries, for all her hopes that he'll become a lawyer, his mother knows how deeply this music matters to him, and she lets him go on the trip. So there he is on Stillwater's "Almost Famous" tour, riding with them on their reliable bus from motel to hotel across the country.
What follows is the heart of 'Almost Famous': an honest coming-of-age story focusing on a group of hard-worked, committed musicians just as they're changing from amateurs to professionals, seen through the prism of William's observer's perspective, as he changes from boy to young man. Can William be friends with Stillwater and maintain journalistic distance?
Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is the leader of the band, but it's guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) who gets most of the attention, from audiences and media alike. Russell's both entranced and embarrassed by this; he really is a serious musician, but he's still young, and his head is easily turned. As by Penny Lane, who's in love with him, and spends most nights with him on the road, even though Russell is married.
William's affection for Penny grows steadily; she's equally drawn to him; but William is still a boy. Late in the film, she tells him that he's "too sweet for rock 'n' roll." "I'm not sweet!" he indignantly responds. "I'm dark and mysterious!" William is really an angel-faced boy who blushes readily, who does follow his mother's orders to not take drugs, and tries to evade sex, as well. But he's very observant and has, when needed, a sharp tongue. His affection for Penny evolves from a puppy-love crush into something more serious, but he's aware he's not mature enough to handle it yet.
Patrick Fugit, making his debut, has a great Cupid's-bow smile that conceals as much as it reveals; he can't prevent it from appearing whenever he's pleased or nervous, but he also uses it as a barrier. Fugit is very winning, very boyish, and very professional.
Crudup is terrific as Russell, completely convincing in every scene. We see his fondness for Penny, and his restrained self-loathing for taking advantage of her -- even if by the time they get back east, he uses a very cheap and insulting method to rid himself of her.
Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's daughter, was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Penny Lane, and deserved the honor. This is a star-making performance if there ever was one, and no doubt in a few years she'll win. She's excellent, a girl pretending to be a woman, sophisticated but child-like.
Frances McDormand gives another honest and believable (and also Oscar-nominated) performance as William's loving but slightly too rigid mother. She does learn better by the end, respecting her son and his choices in life.
The song score, ranging from The Chipmunks to Jimi Hendrix, is brilliantly chosen, both to evoke the period and as underscoring for the scenes. Nancy Wilson (Crowe's wife) did the music. The photography by John Toll is handsome but not intrusive; again, it evokes the period, recreates it, but doesn't embellish.
Crowe, who won an Oscar for his script, has some difficulty in ending the movie and it goes on a few beats too long. Curiously, though, this might be because he removed too much footage. Movies have rhythms and "natural" lengths that feel right to audiences; sometimes making a movie shorter throws those rhythms out of kilter, and the shortened movie "feels" longer than it did when it was longer.
In interviews, Crowe said the DVD would include his favored cut of the movie -- but it doesn't. It doesn't even include any outtakes or a commentary track. The somewhat scant extras are interesting, however. There's a better-than-average "making of" documentary, a rock video starring the movie's Stillwater, and Crowe's Rolling Stone articles, an unusual and unusually welcome addition. But where's the longer version?
Where are Crowe's comments?
Although 'Almost Famous' centers on rock 'n' roll and there are some concert scenes, it's primarily a dialog movie, so the DTS featured on the DVD is, often, somewhat beside the point. But it does come into its own in those scattered concert sequences. The sound is so well-balanced among the speakers that at times it seems to be coming from directly behind you, where you most likely don't have any speakers.
'Almost Famous' didn't do well theatrically, but it's such a charming, wise movie, funny, tender and well-observed, that it's likely to have a long life on home video.