Almost Famous


Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe’s fourth film as director, and his sixth as screenwriter (his Hollywood debut was the script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he based on his own novel). It’s the epic pop-music romance that’s clearly been percolating inside his head for some time, and it’s the most intermittently exhilarating Hollywood movie of the year to date.

Crowe’s talent is a disarming sense of the straightforward and the sentimental. He writes and directs with a sweet but wryly intelligent demeanor that helped establish Sean Penn (Fast Times) established the romantic cred of John Cusack (Say Anything) and managed to flatter Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire). When he’s at the top of his game, he’s contemporary Hollywood at its best — smart, sad, funny, wistful, wish-fulfilling and highly entertaining, all at once.
His new film is derived from a lifetime of smarts and wistfulness, it seems. Based largely on his experiences as a journalist on tour with Led Zeppelin, trying desperately to squeeze an interview out of Jimmy Page on the road, Almost Famous casts Patrick Fugit as Crowe surrogate William Miller, a 15-year-old prodigy whose protective and high-strung mom (Frances McDormand) sees him as a lawyer, despite his infatuation with rock and roll. After his 18-year-old sister flees home in a bid for independence, William befriends legendary rock scribe Lester Bangs (who else but Philip Seymour Hoffman?) and then manages to sell a story idea to Rolling Stone, then a tiny operation based in humble San Francisco offices.

On assignment to cover Black Sabbath, William instead hooks up with Stillwater, the hard-rockin’ opening act. Trying to tape a simple interview with lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) becomes a chore that takes William first to Los Angeles and eventually across the country as he gets deeper in the good graces of a band that still refers to him as “the enemy.” Further, Russell’s ego — and maybe feelings of inadequacy among the rest of the band — put the group in real danger of disintegrating on the road. All the while, William himself is the object of some attention from the self-proclaimed “Band-aids,” a cadre of don’t-call-us-groupies who tag along with Stillwater. Just his luck that the one named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), with whom he quickly becomes smitten, is already screwing Russell.
Despite the film’s focus on all these interconnections, the characters seem oddly removed from one another. That’s part of the point, of course — people and relationships are notoriously hard to pin down, and Almost Famous is partly about one-sided relationships that slowly become more equitable. William’s is the experience that counts, and inasmuch as we see the goings-on from his perspective, the film works. Further, the film’s defining mood is one of isolation — William and Lester converse mainly by telephone, the kid spends an awful lot of time knocking on locked hotel room doors and being told to go away, and the film’s lone sex scene emphasizes an across-the-room gaze rather than physical contact.

Still, the people dynamics on-screen are underdeveloped, and the performances feel rushed despite a generally sharp sense of comic timing and Crowe’s charming dialogue.

Charming is a good word to describe Crowe’s approach, since it indicates virtues as well as flaws. He’s a sharp guy, with a great ear for dialogue and a knack for creating lovable characters. His films are about as good-hearted as they come, which is a good thing in the era of cheeseball blockbusters, but they’re also formulaic. He’s got a habit of pretending to withhold happy endings, but then allowing his story to lope along just long enough to deliver one after all. I wish he’d take another look at the movies Woody Allen made at the top of his game and figure out a way to communicate that, you know, you can’t always get what you want, and sometimes that’s OK, too. Yes, it’s a good feeling to see a reconciliation at the end of a movie, but it’s even more unsatisfying to realize that the story felt more true when the loose ends were dangling.

Almost Famous only runs two hours, but it feels a bit longer, and it reminded me more than once of P.T. Anderson’s three-hour Magnolia. Somewhere in the film’s midsection, the action stops cold for a group singalong that echoes Anderson’s “Save Me” centerpiece, and later on there’s a pretty outrageous crisis that crystallizes tensions among the Stillwater crew and made me think of Magnolia‘s rain of frogs, right down to the startling sound design. I’m not accusing Crowe of aping Magnolia, but it seems to me that both films paint themselves into such a corner that they must take extraordinary measures in an attempt to bring some sense of resolution to an unresolvable situation. In this case, the results are pretty weak.

Those not-insignificant quibbles aside, Almost Famous is so much fun that I’m willing to cut it all kinds of slack. (In fact, I want to see it again right now.) Largely autobiographical, the tale can be thought of as memoir, a fond ode to a bygone era by someone who lived through it. It’s full of fanciful reminiscence, pre-romantic longing, and sly asides about the death of rock and roll (long live rock). It’s also keenly observed, building a compelling world out of hotel rooms and backstage ambience. At its best, in fact — which is pretty darn often — it’s rapturous.

In one breathtaking shot, William follows Stillwater onto an arena stage, where he’s to watch the show from the sidelines. As the band plugs in and begins to perform, the surround sound mix kicks in forcefully and the camera swings around smoothly to take in the spectacle of an audience lit by stage lights and going nuts as the music swells up and fills the air. Photographed with a sense of high drama by cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red LineBraveheart), these scenes wordlessly convey the almost absurd power of a rock show, saving the characters the embarrassing trouble of voicing it. “What do you love about music?” William asks Russell when he finally pins the guy down with a microphone. “Everything,” is the response, and that’s all we need to hear.

Written and directed by Cameron Crowe
Cinematography by John Toll
Edited by Joe Hutshing and Saar Klein
Starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, and Philip Seymour Hoffman
USA, 2000Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Loews Palisades Center, West Nyack, NY

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