Young boy escapes from home and travels around the country with a rock band and its groupies.
The Bottom Line
This movie will leave you feeling like you have just listened to that special song that brings back your favorite memories.
The Full Review
There’s a significant scene in Almost Famous, a wonderful new film written, produced and directed by Cameron Crowe, when Russell Hammond, the lead guitarist of a mythical rock band called Stillwater, earnestly proclaims, “From here on out all I’m interested in is what is real. Real people. Real feelings. That’s it.” These prescient words seem to be so clearly reflective of what must have been Cameron Crowe’s own thinking as he crafted the film’s central characters, each of whom commands such empathy that they comes across as real as the person sitting next to you in the theater.
The film, based on Crowe’s own experiences as a young rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, is set in 1973 and tells the story of 15-year old William Miller as he travels across the country in an attempt to chronicle Stillwater’s ascent to stardom.
William is played convincingly by wide-eyed newcomer Patrick Fugit, who during auditions exhibited an awkward innocence and what according to Crowe was an “ability to convey that feeling of being a fan” that helped land him the coveted starring role. Stillwater is led by singer Jeff Bebe, played by Jason Lee (Dogma, Enemy of the State, Chasing Amy) and guitarist Russell Hammond, played by Billy Crudup (Waking the Dead, Inventing the Abbotts, Without Limits). In order to prepare for their roles, Crudup and Lee spent several weeks in rock & roll “school,” taking lessons from ’70s rock icon Peter Frampton. It’s clear that Frampton’s teachings paid off, as both Crudup and Lee seem entirely at ease on stage in their Zeppelin-like rock personas.
While Crudup is certainly impressive when jamming on his guitar, his acting performance is truly defined by the subtle way in which he makes the man behind the rock star seem so ordinary. Russell is clearly pained with some of the choices he makes as he reluctantly embraces his burgeoning stardom. He is as aware of his flaws as we are. This reveals a vulnerability in Russell that makes the rock star seem more real, enabling the audience to connect with him.
Crudup, who was so terrific as long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits, has somehow managed to remain in virtual public obscurity while winning significant critical praise for his acting work on stage as well as on screen. Perhaps the near certain popular success of Almost Famous will allow audiences to recognize Crudup for the true acting talent that he is.
As good as Crudup is in this film, however, his acting performance is likely to be overshadowed by that of several of his cast members. Kate Hudson (200 Cigarettes, daughter of Goldie Hawn) lights up the screen as Penny Lane, leader of the “band-aids,” a coterie of young women who take so much pride in their devotion to rock musicians and to music in general that they refuse to be referred to as groupies. Hudson comes across as truly genuine in her role and enhances the performance of each of the actors with whom she shares scenes (particularly William Fugit). Frances McDormand (Wonder Boys, Fargo, Mississippi Burning) gives an Oscar-worthy performance in her role as William’s overprotective, yet remarkably trusting mother. Finally, the perfectly cast Philip Seymour Hoffman (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Twister) is superb as rock critic Lester Bangs, who serves as a mentor to William, much as the real Bangs did to a young Cameron Crowe.
On its surface, Almost Famous is an affecting coming of age story that is filled with fascinating characters and that moves to the tune of some of the great songs popularized at the dawn of the era in rock now known as “classic.” But at its core, this film, which is very much about family (William’s real family, William’s familial bonds that form on the road, the band-aids, and Stillwater) is a heartfelt tribute to the people who helped shape Crowe during the one of the most important periods of his life.
- Cameron Crowe’s direction was outstanding, as his skillful use of the camera enabled him to produce several “memorable film moments” (e.g. terrific close up shots of William and then Penny when William is about to lose his virginity)
- A great scene on the Stillwater tour bus when Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” comes on the radio and breaks the tension in the air at a difficult moment on the tour
- An amusing moment in which Russell begins singing Buddy Hollie’s “Peggy Sue” when Stillwater’s charter plane hits heavy turbulence (Holly died in an infamous 1959 plane crash that also took the life of fellow musicians Richie Valens and the Big Bopper)
- Terrific soundtrack
- Kate Hudson is currently dating Chris Robinson, lead singer of the Black Crowes
- Cameron Crowe and wife Nancy Wilson of the band Heart wrote the film’s original songs
- Robert Plant and Jimmy page, who have never licensed one of their performances to a soundtrack, were so moved by a screening of Almost Famous that they not only granted use of “That’s The Way” for the soundtrack, but also gave their blessing for Crowe to use four other songs in the movie: “The Rain Song,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Tangerine” and “Bron-Yr-Aur.”
- In 1979, a 22-year old Crowe returned to high school to research a book, which resulted in the novel “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Even before it was published, Crowe was tapped to write the screenplay adaptation.