DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

 
ALMOST FAMOUS (director/writer: Cameron Crowe; cinematographer: John Toll; editors: Saar Klein/Joe Hutshing; cast: Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), Frances McDormand (Elaine Miller), Kate Hudson (Penny Lane), Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe), Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Zooey Deschanel (Anita Miller), Fairuza Balk (Sapphire), Anna Paquin (Polexia Aphrodisia) Michael Angarano (Young William), Noah Taylor (Dick  Roswell), John Fedevich (Ed Vallencourt), Mak Kozelek (Larry Fellows), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lester Bangs), Eion Bailey (Jann Wenner), Terry Chen (Ben Fong-Torres), Liz Stauber (Russell's girlfriend); Runtime: 122; DreamWorks; 2000)

"Cameron Crowe has found a niche in making teen films that are much better than the usual teen films."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Cameron Crowe (Say Anything.../Singles/Jerry Maguire) in his fourth film creates an endearing and sleekly fictionalized semi-autobiographical coming-of-age rock 'n' roll story. It explores the ethical relationship of a young aspiring writer to the musicians he covers. Crowe, in actuality, started out as a rock writer at 15 and joined the staff of Rolling Stone when he was 16.

"Almost Famous" knows exactly what buttons to push to engage the audience in its very gentle and touching tale of a 15-year-old precocious San Diego native, the drug-free William Miller (Patrick Fugit), and his flight from his overprotective though loving college professor mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), whose main role as mother seems to be to warn him not to take drugs. Her strictness chased his older sister (Zooey) out of the house to become an airline stewardess in 1969; but, she leaves her rock album collection behind with her brother, thus getting him interested in the music. The sister explains her reason for doing what she did -- by playing for her mother a cut from a Simon and Garfunkel album: "I walked out to look for America."

For those with a sense of nostalgia for that period it was fun looking at how colorful those rock album covers were back then, as William goes through his sister's collection which includes the artistically designed albums of such entertainers as Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Bob Dylan.

William scores a journalist deal with Rolling Stone magazine after he sneaks in with the help of some groupies to see Stillwater (a fictional group), after being kicked out by the bouncer in his attempt to see the real group called Black Sabbath. Rolling Stone asks him to write a story about the rising four-man band Stillwater with its leader, the guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), as they go on their cross-country 1973 tour. The film is not raucous 'rock' but offers a sweet view of the music world pointing out why its popularity is high among adolescents, while also exploring its business side.

The casting was perfecto not that the acting was necessarily great, but it was that everyone seemed natural for their roles and gave expression and a sense of truth to what was happening.

I always enjoy watching Philip Seymour Hoffman perform. Here he has a small supporting role as Lester Bangs, the wizened music critic of a rock magazine called Creem, who acts as a mentor to William. He forms an uncool but smart guy pact with him, warning him that commercialism and uncritical journalists will kill this music -- which is really dead already but doesn't know it. His caveat to William is: don't make friends with the performers, they are just trying to use you. All you can do is write about them honestly. That will be the mantra of the film and also its hardest attack on the industry, but it is carried out to perfection by this great cast and directed with a sure hand by Crowe for drawing out the comedy and whatever goodness there is in the artists and the groupies who follow them.

A large portion of the film is about the groupies who hang around with the musicians smoking dope and screwing them, as this film distinguishes between groupies and "band aids", those who claim they are devotees of the music more than they are just in it for the thrill of sleeping with a celebrity. But the film will go on to show that everyone connected with the music is delusional, the musicians are not as serious about their music as they pretend to be and the "band aids" are only fooling themselves if they think they're not groupies. They stroke their unsatisfied egos by basking in the glory of someone else. One such "band aid" is the lovely teenager Penny Lane (Kate Hudson-Goldie Hawn's daughter), who is Russell's girl on the road when his girlfriend is at home. Penny's relationship with William and Russell becomes the focal point of the film, as she lights up the screen with her rich presence and adorable charm.

What William sees on the rock tour is a fantasy world of drugs, easy sex, and an aura of coolness in the band he writes about. He develops a loving relationship with Penny Lane trying to understand why she does what she does; but, he is also overawed by the band accepting a square like him into their cool world which is the natural way for a teen to feel, especially one who comes under the influence of the band's charismatic leader Russell. He, thereby, fails to heed Lester's advice.

The band considers the journalist the enemy and wish to compromise William so that he will only write a story making them look cool, as they give him access to their lives and expect him to come through for them. While Penny looks to William as an ally someone she can trust, who is in the same fringe position with the group as she is. She along with two other groupies deflower William, which brings him down to their level.

This is not a provocative film, as much as it is a film of small observations as seen through the youngster's eyes and heard on the tape recordings he makes as he interviews the rock stars. He goes backstage to see them before and after the show, sits with them in their tour bus, swings with the groupies in their hotel, and goes to their parties, witnessing how high they get on mind-altering drugs and sees first-hand how insecure they are as performers. He also corresponds with Rolling Stone which is viewed as being on about the same superficial level as are the band members, but is trying to be purveyors of hipness thinking that rock 'n' roll will change the world. The magazine has the smug belief that they are above the fray.

What I thoroughly enjoyed was the casual way it let its characters act and be themselves, even if it was rehashing characters and rock music scenes played out in many such films -- but here it seemed to be very easy to absorb. It let the story make whatever sense it could without going overboard. I doubt very much if the film caught the full-flavor of that period; but, it did catch what it had to, and the characters avoided falling into being stereotypes.

Billy Crudup is a very fine actor and he is able to be different things to different people in this film without making it seem as if he were disingenuous. To Penny he is her escape from reality, ditto for William, but to the other band members he's part of their mealticket even if they know that he is only out for himself; while to William's mother he's a bad influence. She advocates that the drug music is destroying the younger generation.

The film might not have been flawless. It had some mild lapses in character development (groupies were thinly sketched), and the story's resolution was not convincing (a contrived bumpy plane landing scene where the band fearing they are about to die in a crash confess what they really think of each other); but, the overall zeal of the film overrides those gaffs. It's much more entertaining than most serious rock films. Cameron Crowe has found a niche in making teen films that are much better than the usual teen films. He seems to have a genuine sympathy for teenagers and for those whom teens idolize, not categorizing them as either good or bad people. Also, this film is suitable for both parents and kids, R rating or not, which is not an easy chore to accomplish when making a so-called hip film. The Frances McDormand characterization was more eccentric and mannered than one-dimensional and after all, the kid listened to her and didn't take any drugs (at least it wasn't shown in the story) which should please most moms. It should also be noted that the director knows his rock music scene and accurately caught the scene at the now defunct Max's Kansas City, a 1970s rock hangout where Lou Reed and scores of rockers, freaks and groupies frequented as their holy shrine. It was one of the places in NYC where the famous rockers crossed paths with the almost famous groupies.

REVIEWED ON 10/12/2000     GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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