movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


(© 2000 Dreamworks LLC. All rights reserved.)

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Almost Famous
It may be as much of a challenge to write objectively about a Cameron Crowe film as it is for his alter-ego William Miller (Patrick Fugit) to write objectively about the band Stillwater that he has come to regard as family. I may like to think of myself as a film critic, but when it comes to Crowe I am also a fan. Say Anything... (1989) and Singles (1992) are sweet, funny, and original films, whose sincere emotion stays with me; I was incredibly proud of the commercial and critical success of Jerry Maguire (1996). He has done nothing in Almost Famous to shake my personal love for his lyrical work.

It may seem strange to begin a film review with a valentine to the director, but for Almost Famous, it is appropriate. Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe’s valentine to rock music musicians and fans--particularly to those who touched his life when he was a precocious teenager.

Rock editor and writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) advises William that he is not doing musicians any favors if he merely flatters them. To truly serve them, to serve the music, to serve the fans, he must always be honest . It seems that Crowe took the advice of his real-life mentor to heart. This film manages to avoid being precious by always feeling honest. Crowe doesn't paint his characters as perfect; he bathes them in the sincere love of his memory. This film is first and foremost about love--love of people, love of music, love of the fans. William’s love of the band, love of the groupies, love of Lester Bangs, love of his mother, love of his sister is never unrequited or undeserved. William is loved and nurtured in return. As the film's publicity explains, the film documents William’s "life-changing lesson about the importance of family--the ones we inherit, and the ones we create." Unusual for a rock film or a coming-of-age film, there is little dissolution or bitterness. For the precocious and eager William, it is all about learning. This film may be Crowe’s way of saying thank you to the people who taught him to be who he is.

William’s story and his character are based in his family: his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand) and his sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel). A college professor, Elaine is determined to help her son reach his potential--which she defines as a career in law. His more rebellious sister balances Elaine’s influence over William, leaving her record collection to him after she leaves home. McDormand never allows Elaine to become a caricature of the over-bearing mother. These scenes convey the bittersweet experience of seeing her son go his own way. Again, unusual for a film of this era, William does not rebel. It is his family that keeps him grounded during his wild ride.

Almost Famous explores the line between fan and critic, the dynamic relationship between fans and the music. The majority of the film takes place in 1973, when William is a 15 year-old, high school senior. After writing for Bangs and Cream Magazine, William gets a call from Rolling Stone. He pitches the magazine editor on the rising band Stillwater, which features Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) on guitar and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). Unaware of his age, Rolling Stone bankrolls his road trip with the band.

Traveling with the band are a group of girls who call themselves "Band-Aids," led by the irrepressible and glowing Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Penny and her compatriots Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) and Polexia Aphrodisia (Anna Paquin) insist that they are not groupies. Groupies only love stars: Band-Aids love the music. They style themselves as muses in the service of the music.

The performances in this film are interesting and charismatic. A wider audience than saw Without Limits will see Billy Crudup’s charm and presence capturing the curse of Russell Hammond, who can’t help but overshadow his bandmates. Jason Lee (Dogma) brings a new energy to his always strong character work. And Kate Hudson glows, with an intelligent beauty.

This is an incredibly personal story that Crowe takes no pains to deflect. The audience witnesses the opening credits being written (and sometimes erased) on a legal pad. William is the perfect journalist, a blank slate recording all, without judgment, without any preconceived notions. Crowe asks us to see the entourage through William’s eyes, frequently presenting tight reaction shots as William takes in the carnival around him. Not only does William manage to maintain his innocence, but the band members and groupies remain innocent, avoiding the expected portrait of rock-and-roll self-destruction. The film could almost be called amoral, so accepting it is of the drugs and sex that surround William. However, these vices are neither glorified nor stereotypically sordid. Sex and drugs are simply a part of the picture. For example, Penny’s drug overdose in no way diminishes the radiance William sees in her: "Ma Cherie Amour" is heard while the doctor pumps Penny’s stomach, William’s rapt, adoring face shown in close-up.

It is the love in this film that makes me rhapsodic; it is the honesty and clarity of Crowe’s story and direction that make it compelling.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]