Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
When he was just fifteen in the early 70's, writer/director Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire") became a rock journalist , graduating to the staff of 'Rolling Stone' at sixteen. In his new film, "Almost Famous," fictional William Miller (newcomer Patrick Fugit) is a fifteen year old rock writer whose meeting with his hero, legendary Creem editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) results in an assigment that turns into a Rolling Stone story on the road with his favorite band, Stillwater.
Clearly a labor of love, "Almost Famous" charts the maturation of a young rock journalist amidst a world of conflicts. William's single mother Elaine, (Oscar winner Frances McDormand, "Fargo") an educator with unusual ideas, has watched her eldest, Anita (Zooey Deschanel, "Mumford"), fly the coop in a fit of rebelliousness. Now she overcompensates, fearfully allowing William to follow his dream, even though that will lead him into the clutches of rock and roll, which she knows is all about drugs and sex.
When William's met with resistance getting into the backstage area, he's befriended by the BandAids ('we're not groupies, we're into the music'), particularly the mysterious and worldly Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, "200 Cigarettes"). Meeting Stillwater, particularly the charismatic Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, "Jesus' Son"), immediately catches William between his true fan incliniations and Lester's advice to never become friends with those you write about. This intensifies when the group board the 'Almost Famous 1973' tour bus and hit the road. William will watch as his beloved Penny disregards her own advice and falls deeply for the married Russell while lead singer Jeff (Jason Lee, "Chasing Amy") fumes as Russell captures the lion's share of their publicity. Russell evades William's interview attempts from one state to the next as Rolling Stone dogs him for material and mom insists he return home for his high school graduation, constantly reminding him 'Don't do drugs!'
Two shattering events finally force William to play his hand, report his story and return home wiser and experienced, if disillusioned. Crowe neatly manages to heal both of William's families, the one he was born to and the one he adopted, at the crossroads of Penny Lane.
"Almost Famous" is a well acted ensemble piece without a single lackluster note. Fugit anchors the film as the intelligent innocent abroad who faces ethical challenges beyond his years. Kate Hudson gives a starmaking performance as the naively experienced Penny Lane, a sixteen year old earth mother, a worldly babe-in-the-woods. Crudup is startling good as the gorgeous rocker who tries to do right in the face of too much temptation. Crudup's really coming into his own with this performance following "Jesus' Son" and "Without Limits" and should cease to be mistaken for Johnny Depp. Frances McDormand provides most of the film's humor as the relentlessly protective mom who terrifies hotel managers and quotes Goethe to a cowed Russell long distance. Jason Lee adopts the proper rock star slouch and swagger as Stillwater's lead singer and the ever brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman embodies the 'uncool' Bangs. Fairuza Balk makes an impression as stylishly hip yet caring BandAid Sapphire while Anna Paquin only makes any impression at all when her character is utilized to impart early, important information to William.
Crowe and his team, cinematographer John Toll ("Braveheart"), art directors Clay A. Griffith and Clayton R. Hartley ("Jerry Maguire"), and costume designer Betsy Heimann ("Jerry Maguire") capture the look and feel of the early 1970's. Crowe's wife Nancy Wilson (formerly of the band Heart) provides the score which is complemented by rock standards of the time. Peter Frampton acted as technical consultant, teaching the members of the fictional Stillwater how to play like a real rock band on stage.
"Almost Famous" is a warm, human and true rite of passage that will bring baby boomers back to times of incense and peppermints while introducing younger generations to a golden era on the fringe of corporatization.
Following the tremendous success of his last film, "Jerry Maguire," writer/director Cameron Crowe digs back into his own past to tell the quasi-autobiographical story of 15-year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit). It's 1973 and rock music is in transition. William, a passionate fan of music and damn fine writer for a kid, gets a gig with Rolling Stone magazine to interview an up-and-coming band - Stillwater. Much to his mom's (Frances McDormand) consternation, he takes the assignment and hits the rock tour circuit in "Almost Famous."
Helmer Crowe has had an eclectic career in the entertainment industry from his early days as a teen reporter for such underground and mainstream publications as Creem, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and The LA Times. He was only 16-years old when he made editor at Rolling Stone and published his best-selling novel, 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High', at the tender age of 22. Crowe was tapped to write the screenplay of his book and, in 1982, the highly popular film adaptation was released. Since then, he has busily worked in the film industry, receiving major kudos for "Jerry Maguire" in 1996. The writer/director utilizes his own past experience as a rock and roll journalist to create the story for "Almost Famous."
Crowe's alter ego, William, is a remarkably bright kid who loves the music of his day. His writing talent really impresses legendary rock 'n' roll journalist Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who helps publish the youngster's articles. This friendship, with Bangs acting as William's muse and mentor, results in a golden opportunity for the young writer and the chance to write a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine - at the tender age of 15! William chooses a favorite band, Stillwater, as his subject and, with expense account in hand, joins the band while on tour.
The tale begins slowly as baby-faced William tries to use his credentials as a journalist for Rolling Stone and is denied access backstage for an interview. A pretty, young "Band-Aid" - devoted followers of Stillwater - named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, "200 Cigarettes"), only 16 herself, takes the bewildered William under her wing and introduces him to the band. Stillwater's leader, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, "Jesus' Son"), takes a liking to William and an uncertain bond is formed between journalist and band.
For William, the experience is a coming of age that impacts him both personally and professional. His mentor, Bangs, had advised him from the start not to make friends with the rock stars. Doing so would only cause the budding journalist to compromise his work. William also has to contend with a loving, protective mother who doesn't want to let her boy go out into the cold, cruel world. And, along with the inevitable friendship that does grow between William and the members of Stillwater, he falls for Penny. All of these crises and considerations are tough for a teen, but, in the end, William overcomes every obstacle.
Even though it's based on Crowe's real-life experiences, "Almost Famous" is a true fantasy tale with William entering a dream world populated by the music-makers he has idolized all of his young life. But, there is more to the story as we watch the rise and fall and resurrection of an American rock band. And, because of the wonderful Frances McDormand, we see the impact on the family as she unwillingly sends her babies go off into the world. Plus, there is romance, rivalry, rowdiness and recklessness, too.
Newcomer Patrick Fugit is the picture's anchor from the start. The fresh-faced youngster is not deterred by the presence of the veteran actors around him and has an incorruptible sweetness about him that makes his William a likable kid. Of those supporting William, McDormand shines out. Her Elaine Miller is a single parent, intelligent and educated, who suddenly hits that crossroad of life where her chicks leave the nest and there is nothing she can do to stop it. She tries to keep hold of William, from long distance, and advise him, repeatedly - and, to very funny effect - "DON'T DO DRUGS!" There is a warmth and richness to McDormand's performance that really fleshes Elaine into a real, loving, caring and intelligent parent and person.
Kate Hudson gives a star-making turn as the irrepressibly buoyant, yet pragmatic leader of the Band-Aids. Penny treats her devotion to the band of the hour with an almost reverence. Her particular closeness to Stillwater's leader, Russell, causes a friction between William and the band as the writer falls deeper and deeper for the vivacious Penny. Billy Crudup carries himself well as the handsome rock star in the making. The actor is not just a pretty face and provides depth to his performance of the near-hedonistic guitarist.
Jason Lee ("Chasing Amy") plays the band's lead singer, Jeff Bebe, and, while not given a great deal to do off stage, he cuts a convincing swath as a rock musician when on stage. Fairuza Balk ("The Waterboy") and Anna Paquin ("X-Men") play two of the Band-Aids and Noah Taylor ("Shine") is unrecognizable as the band's manager, Dick Roswell.) Philip Seymour Hoffman is, once again, terrific in his pivotal role as William's muse, Lester Bangs. The more I watch this actor, the more I think that he is developing into one of the greats in his field.
Two-time Academy Award winner John Toll ("Legends of the Fall" and "Braveheart") gives a crisp look to the photography, especially the concert footage. Art director Clay A. Griffith ("Jerry Maguire") provides the right look to the 70's period design without ostentation. Nancy Wilson (from the rock band Heart) provides a score that fits in with the 70's mood of the film. Rock classics from the 60's and 70's - Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder and others - give just the right and familiar note for the time.
The quasi-documentary feel of "Almost Famous" gives the film an edginess as we watch the slow disintegration of the band while, simultaneously, their fame begins to build. We see things through the same rose colored glasses as William and we, too, become disillusioned with the star machine and what it does to its members. By film's end, William is a wiser young man, but one whose innocence is now a thing of the past.
"Almost Famous" may be looked upon as an indulgence by auteur Crowe, but there is an honesty and reality to the film that make it a worthwhile flick to catch. I give it a B+.
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