Almost Famous follows William Miller (played by newcomer Patrick Fugit), from his precocious childhood through his start as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone. William, like most of Crowe's heroes, is an outsider with a pure vision. He falls in love with music in spite of his college professor mother (played by Frances McDormand) whose love shows itself in a wish to protect her children from the evils of rock and roll. He starts submitting his writing to local rock journalist Lester Bangs.
Lester (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a great addition to any movie he's in) is the experienced, hardened rock journalist that serves as William's inspiration and reluctant mentor. Lester warns William of the pitfalls of touring with the band - the girls, the drugs and, most importantly, the friendship that they'll offer that will get in the way of the rock journalist's job. It's hard to tell if he owes it to acting ability but Patrick Fugit looks like the poster child for naivete. Lester looks at the impressionable young William and laughs at the prospect of him touring with a band.
William's first gig is reporting for a Black Sabbath concert. This turns momentous when he happens upon Stillwater (pictured above), late for their gig. He meets Penny Lane (played by the surprising Kate Hudson), leader of the "band-aids", self proclaimed anti-groupies. This first show throws him unexpectedly into the world of rock and roll with an invitation from the band to meet in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, some of his writing from the local music magazine has caught the attention of Rolling Stone. After the first meeting with the band, he's able to propose touring with Stillwater.
(Fun fact: this is the first Cameron Crowe flick without Eric Stoltz, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which Crowe wrote and Amy Heckerling directed. Crowe promised Stoltz a part in any of his movies.)
The dynamics of the band focused primarily on lead singer Jeff Bebe (played by Jason Lee) and guitarist Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup). I was curious to see how Jason Lee would fare in this movie. He's the redeeming feature of Kevin Smith's Mallrats but I wondered if he would do the same old thing, the loud and obnoxious shtick. Those elements were there but he was a believable, charismatic lead singer. As the rock star, I expected Billy Crudup's Russell to be larger than life. Unless he's on acid, he's more aloof and volatile, just out of reach of William and, ultimately, Penny. He never seems trite as he looks for reality beyond the fame and the band that he feels he's progressed past.
Crowe treats love with the same sensibility of Say Anything, with the dreamer longing for the girl. Kate Hudson shines in this movie. Penny Lane breaks your heart both as the unattainable girl and as she tragically follows Russell. She's innocent and vulnerable yet disenchanted. She tells herself that she can take the emotional abuse and be tough enough for rock and roll, yet she can't even bring herself to reveal her real name.
(Mom watch: Alice Marie Crowe, Cameron's mom, hands out diplomas towards the end of the flick. She was in the plastic surgeon's office in Singles and in the divorced women's group in Jerry Maguire.)
Being on the road takes its toll on everyone. Frances "Don't take drugs" McDormand delivers a great, subtle performance as the mother who waits at home, feeling helpless as the lives of her children progress without her.
Early in this movie that takes place in 1973, Lester Bangs proclaims that rock and roll is dead. In 2000, in the midst of forgettable boy bands selling albums in fast food restaurants, this film gives an amazing eulogy. Simon and Garfunkel, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin enhance the movie. From singing Tiny Dancer on a tour bus to the most unique use of Stevie Wonder's Cherie Amour you could hope to see, the music helps you escape in the tour.
This movie is about being cool and what it means not to be cool, forgetting and then remembering yourself. Cameron Crowe knows how to tell a story. His movies are always personal no matter what he shows you on the surface. He made a relationship movie in the midst of grunge Seattle. He showed us a sports agent struggling with an arrogant football player and still made a movie about two people finding each other. With Almost Famous, he's made a coming of age movie about a rock and roll tour and shown us what it's like to be cool, if only for a few hours.
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