Friday Film Focus: Almost Famous

It’s as if Huckleberry Finn came back to life in the 70’s. Instead of a raft taking him down the Mississippi River, he got on the bus with the band. If you haven’t sold your soul to rock & roll yet, Almost Famous will seal the deal for you. This film is touching and incredibly funny in so many different ways. It’s the story of William Miller (Patrick Fugit) — an intelligent and terrifyingly sincere 15-year-old kid. Through much luck, he gets assigned by Rolling Stone magazine to do a profile on a rising rock band. The magazine has no idea he’s only 15. Clutching his pencil and notebook, William phones a veteran music critic (the great Philip Seymour Hoffman) for advice. It then enables him to plunge into the world of rock & roll, and into an experience that will make and shape him.

Almost Famous is director Cameron Crowe’s most personal film to date. Crowe himself was only 15 years of age when he deepened his voice to succeed in hustling an assignment from Rolling Stone. The film is loosely based on the formative years Crowe blissfully spent road-tripping with the likes of Yes, The Allman Brothers, and of course, Led Zeppelin. This movie is not just about Crowe. It’s about the time — and the early 70’s. It encompasses the joyful, reckless energy of rock in the years between 1960’s idealism and punk nihilism.

William is introduced as an anxious boy (played in the early scenes by Michael Angarano). He lives with his rebellious older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), and their very protective mother — a college professor portrayed with scary intensity and admiring intelligence by Frances McDormand. Although she is eccentric and at times hysterical about the “evils” of rock & roll (“They’re obviously on drugs,” she expresses, pointing to the clean portrait on the cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends), Elaine Miller is far from a standard uptight mother.

The bond between herself and William is complicated, but strong. Anita grows tired of her mother’s strict rules. As a result, she decides to move out — leaving behind a box of rock LPs under her bed for William that she insists will set him free. William is soon writing about bands for his school newspaper. He’s also badgering Creem’s famous rock critic Lester Bangs (Hoffman) for any morsel of content. Bangs gives Williams his first assignment to cover a Black Sabbath concert. It’s at this concert that William meets the mysterious Penny Lane (incredible Kate Hudson) and her pals, Polexia (Anna Paquin), and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk). They are not groupies; they are Band Aids (“No sex, just blow jobs…we’re here for the music”). William is immediately transfixed by Penny. Penny herself is fixated on Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the guitarist for Stillwater. Stillwater is a mid-level rock band about to break through.

Befriended by both, William gains access to rock’s inner circle.  When he soon gets assigned to do a cover story on Stillwater by Rolling Stone, Bangs warns him that journalists cannot be friends with rock stars. During moments of crisis, William calls Bangs for advice. For other members of the band — roles played by Jason Lee and musicians Mark Kozeleck and John Fedevich — William is the absolute enemy. Crowe understands that rock and journalism are prime game for opportunists, but his focus is on true believers. His focus is on the music.

As William joins the tour, he intends to only be away from home and school for a few days. But as Stillwater and Russell grow accustomed to his presence, he finds himself on the bus driving far into the Southwest. Along the way, he starts to observe the tension between Russell and lead singer Jeff (Lee). Jeff thinks Russell is getting more attention than he deserves. As William begins to fall in love with Penny, he realizes just how much in love she is with a married Russell. He also finds out how destructive their relationship actually is. The film has many hilarious plot points — from the deflowering of William by the various Band Aids, Russell’s bad acid trip at a fan’s house, and also a near fatal crash in which the band indulges some hilarious confessions.

All are a delicate blend of humor and heartbreak. As William watches from the side, the band members get a hit record. A hotshot producer tries to take over from their original manager. Ego wars invariably pop up — not least surprising when a t-shirt photo places Russell in the forefront and has the other band members out of focus. But as we’ve seen throughout the film, rock & roll is not always nice.

Almost Famous is about the world of rock. However, it’s not a rock film…it’s a coming of age film. It’s about an idealistic kid who witnesses its cruelties and heartbreaks — and yet still finds much room for hope. As a screenwriter, Mr. Crowe is unmatched. As a director, he has the extraordinary gift for drawing out complex performances (even in supporting roles). His visual storytelling becomes richer with every film. The movie’s real pleasures are found in the off-beat, funny scenes, and not in the story itself.

Hudson’s character is written with a particular quality as she tries to justify her existence, and explain her values to William. Hudson has one scene in the film that is so well acted it takes her character to another level. She would go on to win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Hudson and Crudup inhabit their roles with such ease that the film opens up around them. Crowe has devoted a whole film to his love of rock & roll. The soul he lays open — a generous, sweet, and forgiving one — is his very own.

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