More personalized than Crowe's other films, it is polished, knowingly detailed, unashamedly heart-on-sleeve. What makes it a film for the ages, apart from its rosy but precise capture of a particular time and place, is that unlike most rock-centric films - even the good ones - it's more than a contact high. It involves us with lovingly drawn characters and their strong feelings. They care deeply and intensely about one another, and make us care with them. It was Kate Hudson's breakthrough film. It notched up the already established careers of Crowe, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk and Zooey Deschanel.
Almost Famous is as close to a backstage pass as most of us are going to get to the more innocent-seeming, ultra-energized music scene of the '70s, making us feel the tug of the music on a nerdy kid mesmerized by his sudden proximity to cool, and soaking up everything he saw and heard in 1973. While we're right there sharing the fly-on-the-wall POV of 15-year-old embryonic rock scribe Crowe following a band on tour, tape recorder in hand, Crowe sidesteps the booby trap of nostalgia, giving us something much better - the feeling that we're watching this stuff happen for the first time.
Crowe surrogate Billy Miller (peach-fuzz-cheeked Patrick Fugit) spends a lot of time trying not to look wonderstruck. The fictionalized composite band to which he attaches himself, Stillwater, is an amalgam of Crowe's Rolling Stone subjects (The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac). Not that Almost Famous is a survey of rock 'n' roll. What gives the film its gravitational pull is its character-driven way of getting up close and personal, starting with the moth to whose flame young Billy is drawn: Billy Crudup's guitarist and driving force, Russell Hammond -- modeled, Crowe has said, on Glenn Frey of the Eagles.
He's a believable embodiment of the energies that created rock, a flawed but likeably unvarnished guy from Michigan who can't help pushing himself and others beyond their comfort zones. Aided by convenient moral myopia, he also serves notice that while Almost Famous doesn't avert its eyes from the destructive energies on the rock scene, it isn't out to give aid and comfort to the enemies of rock, either, even when Russell almost blows the tour by acid-tripping with fans in Topeka, Kansas, while in search of what he lamely sees as real experiences with real people. Or when his ego surges by ordering band t-shirts with himself in the foreground in clear focus and the others blurry in the background. His appeal lies in his ability to feel chastened - in one case on the phone by Billy's no-nonsense, across-the-board activist mother (McDormand), later by his willingness to face up to his callous and cowardly behavior toward a devotee who adores him.
He and Hudson's Penny Lane, who rejects being called a groupie and insists on being referred to as a Band-Aide, emit most of the glow in which Billy basks, amazed at his newly acquired cool via association with them. Hudson fills the screen with sweetness and -- inevitably, this being a backstage saga - heartbreak in the kind of brave performance that suggests trapeze art. You can feel her hurl herself off a high perch, relying on director Crowe to catch her. And he does. With her bedroom eyes and a look of expectant hope that lights up any space she's in, Hudson also carries the painful scenes tied to male rockers' ways of sometimes using women as a sort of adjunct to room service. Staying sweet, resilient and vulnerable throughout, especially after her true status is made joltingly clear, Hudson shines in this role that made her a star.
Almost Famous likes its characters, embraces them all, including McDormand's sometimes maddeningly solicitous mom, who does things like driving the underage Billy to his first assignment, only to mortify him before the crowd filing into the arena by shouting, "Don't take drugs!" The sting is taken out of her meddling as we - and even Russell, whose glib charm she demolishes on the phone - realize that Crowe is giving her credit for loving and worrying about him, rescuing her from caricature even as she shouts, "Rock stars have kidnapped my son!", after she realizes he's skipping school to hit the road. Even then, Crowe and his film refrain from ridiculing her. Overwrought though McDormand may let Ma Miller get, she's allowed a weight of moral authority and integrity. She's never just a caricature of parental obtuseness.
In fact, Crowe bookends the film with two moral arbiters. Philip Seymour Hoffman is froggy-voiced perfection as the late rock critic Lester Bangs, who becomes Billy's mentor, keeps reminding him that being uncool is a badge of integrity, and warns him to remember that the musicians he writes about are not his friends. "Of course I'm home on a Saturday night, listening to records," he says when Billy phones from the road in crisis, "I'm not cool." Sure enough, the band seduces Billy, visions of Rolling Stone covers dancing in their heads. Still, Russell comes out from under his halo of self-regard long enough to observe that the precocious Billy is "taking notes with his eyes."
Fugit is best when he acts with eyes that seem ever ready to jump-start a puppy-like smile on Billy's blank tablet of a moon face. Sometimes his glances are linked to Billy's ardent wish to put pubescent virginity behind him forever. Not that the light in Billy's eyes doesn't evaporate instantly when the phone rings and it's his editor, demanding to see copy he hasn't even begun to write. By the time he made this film, Crowe had become a writer and director of finesse, knowing what not to try and put into words. Almost Famous is tender yet confident Hollywood craftsmanship, brimming over with feeling, texture, spirit and several kinds of the keenness that transmute experience and autobiography into big pop myth. It's a sunny convergence of yes-vibes, with a heart as big as a tour bus.
Producers: Ian Bryce, Cameron Crowe
Director: Cameron Crowe
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe
Cinematography: John Toll
Art Direction: Clay A. Griffith, Clayton Hartley, Virginia L. Randolph
Music: Nancy Wilson
Film Editing: Joe Hutshing, Saar Klein
Cast: Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), Frances McDormand (Elaine Miller), Kate Hudson (Penny Lane), Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe), Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Zooey Deschanel (Anita Miller), Michael Angarano (Young William), Fairuza Balk (Sapphire), Noah Taylor (Dick Roswell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lester Bangs), Jimmy Fallon (Dennis Hope), Bijou Phillips (Estrella Starr).
C-123m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Jay Carr