Almost Famous
review by KJ Doughton, 15 September 2000

Even before its opening credits conclude, you can tell that Almost Famous will be bulging with invention and unpredictability. Instead of simply scrolling some boldface words across the screen, director Cameron Crowe aims his camera at a boy’s scribbling hand. The youth is jotting down the acknowledgments across pages of a school notebook. Meanwhile, we sneak glances at his a desk, a music-lover’s treasure chest that’s chock-full of early seventies rock memorabilia. Names like Bowie and Rundgren are etched across laminated passes and tour posters. There’s a key from the Plaza Hotel buried within these trinkets. Even the name of Crowe’s production company, announced as "Vinyl Films," is a tip-off that his latest movie doesn’t feature any current icons from MTV. We’re talking twelve-inch albums and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert on television.

Before long, Almost Famous is eavesdropping on the family of William Miller, a model eleven-year-old son to Elaine, his college professor mom (Frances McDormand), who is seen flipping soy cutlets over a stove for her beloved son and his moody teenage sister, Anita (Zooey Leschanel). While Ma Miller debates the virtues of To Kill a Mockingbird with her straight and narrow son (who idolizes the book’s noble attorney, Atticus Finch), Anita prefers Simon and Garfunkel and is soon ditching her repressed San Diego home with a hot rod driving boyfriend. Before departing, however, she leaves young William with a box of her cherished rock records. "Look under your bed," she urges. "It will set you free."

William’s mom, however, is obviously not an avid fan of Led Zeppelin’s "Brown Bomber" album. "It’s the poetry of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll," she snaps. The devil’s music has no place in her academia-minded home, and certainly no place in the life of William, her "accelerated son," whose high marks in school have seen him placed two grades ahead. William appreciates such maternal concern, but he’s becoming alienated and lonely, awash in a sea of older peers. The loss of his father in an auto wreck years earlier only adds to this awkward kid’s desperate need for acceptance.

There’s a magic scene in which William initially peruses his sister’s records. The Rolling Stones’ "Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out," Led Zeppelin II, and classics from the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Who stare back at this starry-eyed onlooker, who probes the sacred discs like Indiana Jones relishing a priceless archeological find. As the familiar record covers jumped from the screen, audience members at a recent Seattle screening muttered audible "Ooohs," "Aahhs," and cheerful giggles, no doubt reliving their own adolescent initiations into rock ‘n roll.

Flash forward to 1973, and William is a high school rock fanatic who seeks out Creem editor and rock critic Lester Bangs (a weathered Phillip Seymour Hoffman). A seen-it-all cynic, Bangs believes that rock music is on a downward slide and on the verge of selling out. "You got here for the last gasp of rock ‘n roll," he tells William. Despite such negativity, Bangs becomes a mentor to the doe-eyed kid, who aspires to become a rock writer. So much for following in the legal footsteps of Atticus Finch, as his mom would have hoped. "The pay is low," Bangs admits, "but you get lots of free records."

There’s a telling scene where the hunched, homely Bangs (who could almost be the adult version of William, sprinkled with liberal doses of bitter wariness) looks into his protégé’s virgin eyes and lets loose with a hearty chuckle." There’s absolutely nothin’ controversial about you, man. You’ve got an honest face." Sensing that bands will open up to William’s seeming naivete and benign presence, Bangs sends him on a mission. "Thirty five dollars for 1,000 words on Black Sabbath," he offers. "Make it honest. Unmerciful." His parting advice to William is the sacred rule that a rock journalist never makes friends with the band. "Friendship is the booze that they feed you," he insists, convinced that such an error would result in a compromised article.

There’s genuine humor in the image of William’s mother driving him to the Black Sabbath concert and urging him to return to the car at the sound of her "family whistle." Equally honest is the following scene, where the green journalist tries to persuade a backstage bouncer to let him in. "You’re not on the list," he’s told, before having the door slammed in his face. Seemingly defeated, William eyes the concert’s opening band, up-and-comers Stillwater, as they emerge from a tour bus. Requesting that the band provide him with backstage access, he’s initially given the cold shoulder. "You’re the enemy," grunts band vocalist Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), "a rock writer." However, when William starts babbling obscure trivia about the band, praising them for their choice in album producers, they suddenly take an interest in this runty dweeb with an encyclopedic knowledge base. Certainly, someone who is this much of a fan and so unthreatening of a presence can’t be that bad.

Stillwater takes the boy backstage, befriending him. Pleasantly overwhelmed by the barrage of energy found amidst this zoo of roadies, groupies, musicians, and amplifiers, William’s jaw drops like that of a lottery contestant being told he holds a winning number. He hangs out with Stillwater’s enigmatic, mysterious guitarist, Russell Hammond (played by the under-appreciated Billy Crudup), and meets Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, daughter of Goldie Hawn), a young strawberry blonde who insists she’s not a groupie but might be in denial. "We don’t have intercourse with band members," she insists, referring to the Band Aids, a group of female fans who travel with Stillwater as they tour from city to city. "Only blow jobs. We’re in it for the music."

Eventually, William is hired by Rolling Stone magazine to cover Stillwater’s rise to prominence. His over-the-phone conversations with assistant editor Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) are comic masterpieces. Unaware that William is a mere fifteen years old, the magazine asks him sight-unseen to do the feature. William deepens his pipsqueak voice, trying to sound like an older, more seasoned writing veteran. Later, when Fong-Torres demands that William picks up the pace and completes the story, the boy responds, "I’m getting a lot of good stuff out here." Listening to the nubile young Band Aids giggling in the backdrop during a party, the Rolling Stone staffer offers the classic retort: "Yeah -- it sounds like it."

The rest of the film follows William’s odyssey as he tours the country with his newfound musical friends. Meanwhile, ever-vigilant mother Elaine monitors his every move via phone conversations, ending each talk with her gospel: "Don’t do drugs!" It’s a hoot to watch the brown-haired, corduroy-covered lad holding out a microphone, only to pull the tape player off of a table and onto the floor. The band gets a charge out of this new blood, but they’re also wary that William’s pen could be used as a formidable weapon. "Remember that he’s writing for the magazine that broke up Cream, and trashed every record that Led Zeppelin ever put out," snaps blowhard singer Bebe. "But it would be great to be on the cover."

Bebe’s warnings have merit. Stillwater aren’t always a model of competent perfection, as when samples of new tour merchandise are brought backstage, and the singer fights with Hammond over the fact that the guitarist’s silk-screened image stands out more than those of the other band members. "I’m one of the out-of-focus guys," he snarls. Bebe’s jealousy over the more handsome and popular Hammond also comes to the surface when he points an accusing finger and barks, "Your looks have become a problem." Meanwhile, William also gets a glimpse of Russell at his most candidly reckless, when the musician drops some acid at a fan’s house and climbs onto the roof. "I’m a golden god," he exclaims, before leaping into a swimming pool below.

Almost Famous culminates in an inevitable cycle of betrayals. Penny Lane, covering up her teen vulnerability with tough talk and surface sophistication, becomes Russell’s love interest, but William is also smitten with this energetic waif. Jealous of her romance with the guitarist, and disappointed with Stillwater’s poor treatment of her, the boy ultimately confronts the band and risks losing both their trust and his hard-earned story. Suddenly, Stillwater doesn’t look so cool anymore.

The miraculous thing about Almost Famous, however, is its ultimate faith in humanity -- even the humanity of road-weary rock stars. This is the flip side of Sid & Nancy, The Doors, and The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II, all of which pummeled us with rock’s most unsavory, and excessive qualities. It’s ironic that Crowe, who actually lived life in the clutches of Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, and The Eagles, portrays his subjects in a much more sympathetic light than previous directors helming rock films, who didn’t "live it." Crudup’s string-picker Hammond has a dark side, but he’s also capable of truly decent deeds, shifting from sinner to saint depending on how guilty his conscience is at any given moment. Compared to Oliver Stone’s portrayal of Jim Morrison in 1989’s The Doors, where booze and blow jobs seem the only true priorities, Hammond at least comes across as a guy who cares about what others have to say. During a telephone conversation with Elaine, she chastises him for having "compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like confetti." Instead of laughing her off, however, Russell is terrified by this maternal call onto the carpet. "Your mom kind of freaked me out," he admits to William after hanging up the receiver with a trembling hand.

It’s this genuine concern for others that makes Crowe’s motley crew a more sympathetic bunch than, say, Motley Crue. These are guys trying to be ruthless, but feeling the wrath of Jimminy Cricket whenever their lives veer too far into the fast lane. Such was the spirit of Crowe’s last film, the megahit Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise played a sports agent whose decency is challenged by his yuppie peers, but ultimately acts as the anchor that balances his marriage and career. While Maguire’s arenas were marked by touchdowns, not guitar solos, he could almost be seen as a spiritual cousin to the less extroverted, but equally tormented Hammond. There’s also an echo of John Cusack’s character from Crowe’s Say Anything, a hopelessly romantic slacker who ultimately wins the heart of high school overachiever Ione Skye by throwing his jacket over glass shards so that his goddess can walk across a curb uncut. He might not be Gladiator, but his noble gesture truly does come from the heart. This sense of goodwill permeates all of Crowe’s work and sets him apart from other directors.

If you’re after the seedy side of rock ‘n roll, read Stephen Davis’ books Hammer of the Gods (a less-than-sympathetic Led Zeppelin tell-all) and Walk This Way (the official Aerosmith history, so chock-full of drug anecdotes that you’ll get a contact high just reading it). For a satire that skewers rock’s more pretentious, silly qualities, This Is Spinal Tap does the job brilliantly. However, if you’re looking for the humanity and idealism that marks the music’s best moments, Almost Famous is the next best thing to a backstage pass.

Written and
Directed by:

Cameron Crowe

Patrick Fugit
Kate Hudson
Billy Crudup
Frances McDormand
Phillip Seymour Hoffman




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