William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is a 15-year-old boy who’s aspiring to be a rock journalist, much to the displeasure of his loving but rock music distrusting mother Elaine (Frances McDormand). After sending rock journalist and Creem editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of few of his own writings, Bangs gives him his first assignment – covering a Black Sabbath show.
Though he is unable to score the Sabbath interview, he does attract the attention of Stillwater, the opening act led by guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and frontman Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). From there, Miller’s dreams begin to blossom as his writeup on Stillwater catches the eye of Rolling Stone magazine editor Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen), who offers him an assignment for a 3,000-word cover story on the band while touring with them.
From writing Fast Times at Ridgemont High to his directorial debut Say Anything… to Singles and Jerry Maguire, writer/director Cameron Crowe has shown a knack for making infectious and catchy films that draw the viewers in through their wonderfully crafted characters and whip-smart dialogue. Out of them all, none are as personal to him as the semi-autobiographical Almost Famous.
As a teenager, Crowe wrote for both Lester Bangs’s Creem and Rolling Stone magazine, and toured with ’70s rock bands Poco, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, The Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd (using composites of them all to create the fictitious band Stillwater). Based on those experiences of his, Almost Famous takes us back to the Golden Era of hard rock as we follow the young and potential-filled yet naive and socially immature William Miller on his journey through all things sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s on this journey where he learns the difference between “groupie” and “band-aid” (which is no difference), and that the T-shirt is everything.
This is more a feel-good kind of film rather than a hard-hitting look back at the excessive, sometimes self-destructive lifestyles of rock stars. The Hollywood machine is no stranger to revisiting the past through rose-colored glasses; however, leeway is given here ’cause these are events that have been lived by Crowe. We the viewers are given a front-row seat to him reliving fond memories of his adolescence. Not that it’s all sunshine and roses; we’re dealing with characters that are desperate to feed their need of belonging somewhere and it sometimes leads to disappointment and heartbreak. People are used, loyalties are tested and Miller’s mother is put through a ringer’s worth of worry. But just like when you and your family peruse through the ol’ photo album, you don’t fondly reminisce about the time your sister’s fiance cheated on her or your mom was in that car accident that nearly killed her, Crowe chooses to mostly reminisce about the good times and does so without any false notes.
I dare you not to crack a smile when the gang breaks out into Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”.
Like the best films Crowe has worked on since Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Almost Famous is filled with memorable characters, all of whom experience at least a little bit of genuine growth that elevates them above what are initial impressions of them might be. Russell Hammond isn’t just the lead guitarist with an inflated ego; Elaine Miller isn’t just the kooky, anti-rock music mother and Penny Lane isn’t just a groupie trying to justify the fact that she really is a groupie by giving it a different name and meaning. The wrong hands could’ve kept these characters boxed inside their stereotypes, but Crowe and his cast treat them with care and intelligence.
For example, a simple phone conversation between Crudup and McDormand says more about their characters than any other scene. It’s there we see that Hammond maybe has something more within him, as Elaine points out, than he might’ve not realized before, and underneath Elaine’s constant paranoia that her son might be getting brainwashed into a sex-addicted junkie by the band is a mother that truly does love and miss her son. It’s a poignant moment wrapped up inside Crowe’s trademark wit and humor.
“Your mom kinda freaked me out.”
“… She means well.”
Despite wasting away in cheap rom-coms and dopey comedies for what seems like forever, Kate Hudson is still a talented actress and proves so here in her Oscar-nominated breakthrough. Her nomination comes easily earned in just one scene where Penny learns of a decision made involving her. The way Hudson tries to hold her emotions back, play it cool and simply ask, “What kind of beer?”, is handled perfectly. Jason Lee gets a break from the Kevin Smith/View Askew universe to give one of his best performances, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman makes each one of his handful of scenes count as the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs who gives William two pieces of advice: Don’t befriend the rock stars and be both honest and unmerciful.
Of course, no surprise, William does and isn’t.
As William, Patrick Fugit, in his debut feature-film role, is the true star of the film. It’s a daunting task for any young actor so early on in their career to be asked to carry a film, especially when they have practically zero knowledge of classic rock (Fugit admits he once thought Led Zeppelin was the name of a person). Fugit, though, does so well here, and it’s all the more impressive that he’s surrounded by talent that could’ve easily overshadowed him, yet he holds his own against them.
A coming-of-age story more than being about the ’70s rock scene, Almost Famous is able to contain a feel good sentiment without falling prey to the mawkish trappings that sometimes stain other films of its kind. Anchored by a talented cast, strong writing and a terrific soundtrack, it’s a witty and heartfelt love letter by Cameron Crowe to his past that’s crafted with great passion and gratitude toward the memories that shaped who he is.