Every critic praised this film. There’s been almost endless talk of it being a frontrunner for the next Academy Awards, of it being the best film of the year, of it being this year’s “American Beauty”. Here’s what I’m saying: don’t get too hyped. Yes, Cameron Crowe‘s follow-up to the wildly successful “Jerry Maguire” is insightful, often hilarious, beautifully crafted, touching and wonderfully acted and, chances are, it will hold a very respectable place on my year-end Top Ten. Heck, the final scene between William and Lester Bangs is one of the best I’ve ever seen, a little bit of dialogue about the correlation between art and longing, intelligence and loneliness, or as Bangs tells his protégé, how “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” Then again, the second coming of Hollywood’s golden age it isn’t. Better than every release of last summer’s dismal crop, probably, a shoe-in for Best Picture, maybe not.
Don’t take me wrong here, I do love the movie. I’m a huge fan of Crowe and his debut, 1989’s “Say Anything”, is one of my all-time favorites. This teenage romance was such a heartfelt, clever, feel good but realistic film, and obviously a very personal film for Crowe. Well, “Almost Famous” goes even further, as it is almost autobiographical. It’s about Crowe’s exceptional teenage years as Rolling Stone Magazine’s youngest correspondent, going on tour with Led Zeppelin and other ’70s super-bands and writing stories about them. So we meet William Miller (newcomer Patrick Fugit), a kid who’s bright but doesn’t fit in at school. It might have something to do with how his mom (Frances McDormand) started him early at school and skipped him a grade, making him years younger than his peers. A college professor, she means well, but she can be quite overbearing. She doesn’t want her kids anywhere near the sex, drugs and rock & roll of the era. But when William’s sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel)leaves home to go look for Simon and Garfunkel’s America, she gives him the stack of LPs she has smuggled in over the years: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Led Zeppelin II, Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Who’s Tommy and many other vinyl masterpieces that kick off William’s passionate love affair with music.
“ONE DAY, YOU’LL BE COOL.”
He eventually starts writing rock articles in his school newspaper and in underground magazines and grows confident enough in his his work to send it to legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The Creem editor sends William to review a Black Sabbath concert, but he ends up tagging along with the opening act, Stillwater (a fictional composite of various bands Crowe wrote about in the 1970s). This will lead to his first major assignment, writing a cover story on the rising band for Rolling Stone, and to a very rich and entertaining movie which plays with rock movies clichés to end up being wholly sincere and original. Will, deemed “the Enemy”, witnesses all the rowdiness that happens on the road. The tour bus mayhem, the parties in hotels, the fooling around with Band Aids – a group of teenage girls who insist they’re not dim-witted groupies but muses who are here for the music. There are also harsher moments, as tensions develop between Russell (Billy Crudup), the handsome guitarist with mystique who holds all the attention, and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), the lead singer who believes he should be the front man. And on an even deeper level, beyond the difficulties of journalism, William falls madly in love with Band Aid Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who only has eyes for Russell…
As you can see, there are a lot of characters and events in the film, and I just gave you an overview! But for most of the picture, Cameron Crowe handles it all surprisingly well, involving us with both William and the band, fully developing even characters on the fringes like the 15 year old’s mother and his mentor Bangs, whom he calls whenever he’s in a jam. There are a lot of memorable moments (a tour bus sing-along to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, William’s deflowering by three girls (!), a near fatal plane ride that turns into a confessional…) and great music, and it’s all sincere, witty and often very, very funny. It’s a bit messy, going in many different directions to the point where you can’t really tell for sure what it’s ultimately about, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like great albums, this is a film that you have to go through again and again, discovering new things. You might see it as an almost-documentary look at the rock scene circa 1973 at first, but then it becomes apparent that, like every Crowe film, this is really a love story. Love for music, and love for the very special Miss Penny Lane. Personally, this is the part that really got me. I too once met a Penny Lane, a perfect, totally lovable fun-loving girl who meant everything to me but never saw me as more than a friend, so William’s ordeal was all too familiar to me.
“IT’S ALL HAPPENING.”
But enough about me. “Almost Famous” is a damn good film which shows how Crowe becomes more and more gifted behind the camera with every film. You see the heart of “Say Anything” or “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”, the film he wrote for Amy Heckerling in the early ’80s, but this new film is a much more ambitious venture. It takes you on the road from California to New York, you see William come of age and, if you’re to believe Lester Bangs, you’re witnessing the last death rattle of rock & roll, as it’s on its way to turn into the industry of cool of the ’80s.
One of Crowe’s biggest strength is his direction of actors. This is Patrick Fugit’s first film, but he’s surprisingly convincing and complex. With his big, wide open eyes, he’s the perfect witness to the circus that is rock & roll. And in the last act, when it gets more emotional for him, he’s so good that you’re right there with him on the screen, longing for Penny. As the main figures of Stillwater, Billy Crudup and Jason Lee are just electrifying. Lee is still somehow in Kevin Smith mode, but he also channels some of Robert Plant’s energy and gives Jeff Bebe a lot of presence, even though he’s overshadowed by Russell Hamond, played with incredible charisma by Crudup. He really becomes a rock star, an idol, a golden god.
Then there’s the Band Aids, who play a much more central role in the story than you’d expect. They aren’t giggly groupies stalking the band, they’re smart, sweet young things who really love the music and just happen to overlook the fact that the rockers they fool around with have wives. Fairuza Balk and Anna Paquin don’t get a lot of screen time, but Kate Hudson certainly does. When I saw her face on the poster, I found it odd, thinking, “Isn’t this a movie about a rock writer and a band?” But once you’ve seen the film, you understand. Hudson’s Penny Lane IS the movie, she is the heart of it all, and she’s fabulous.
So is Frances McDormand; her character could have been a caricature of the mother from hell, but McDormand is too clever to fall for that. Instead, she makes you understand her character. Last but not least is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who in just a few scenes, gives heart and soul to the real-life character of Lester Bangs. His views on music are cynical yet insightful and he’s a self-proclaimed honest and unmerciful critic but, underneath it all, you see that he’s a lonely guy. An uncool guy, who’s always locked up in his apartment with tons of LPs when William calls, who doesn’t seem to have much of a social life. Somehow you get the sense that he and William are much the same. He probably loved and lost a Penny Lane too.
So now I’ve been shining Crowe’s shoes for more than 1500 words, and you must have seen the 4 stars I gave the film. So why then did I start out warning you not to get too hyped? Because, most times, a movie will never be as good as its hype. And, even though it’s one of the 2 or 3 most entertaining films I’ve seen this year, it doesn’t quite have the power and depth of a “Truman Show” (which topped my 98 Top Ten) or a “Magnolia” (which topped last year’s), and I felt a bit let down by the last scenes, which wrapped everything up a bit too nicely, with everybody getting sort of an happy end. It’s as if Crowe took his time to make this big picture with all these people, and then he rushes to finish it. “Almost Famous” is still a wonderful film, one of the best of the year, I just believe that it could have been even better.