2000, R, 122 min. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Noah Taylor, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Terry Chen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 22, 2000
This sweet, amiable, accurate, and knowing coming-of-age tale is Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical boyz-to-men story about how he grew into the role of a rock & roll journalist in 1973. Of course, the movie is about much more than that. Its sunny disposition embraces narrative strands relating to parents and children, first love, the seductive pull of rock & roll music and the lifestyles of its stars, the generational divide, the communal bond with the music, and one young man's pluck, ambition, and good fortune that kick-start his career as a writer and future filmmaker. Acting newcomer Patrick Fugit anchors this story as 15-year-old William Miller, Crowe's fictional stand-in, a precocious teen who snags a writing assignment from fellow San Diegan, critic Lester Bangs (Hoffman) of Creem magazine. Although Bangs advises William that rock & roll's glory days are over, he becomes the kid's mentor and is on the receiving end of phone calls whenever William finds himself stuck between rock and a deadline. Bangs' mantra to William is to “be honest and unmerciful” and to warn him of getting too close to his idols. “Friendship is the booze they feed you,” he sagely cautions. William uses his wits to cadge his way into the backstage area for his first writing assignment, and in the process meets Penny Lane (Hudson), who describes herself as a “band-aid” rather than a groupie, and the fictional band Stillwater, a hard-rocking group whose personal dynamics are colored by the star rivalry between the lead guitarist (Crudup) and the lead singer (Lee). William accepts their invitation to go on the road with the band, despite the pleas of his mother (McDormand), an eccentric single mom whose liberalism is countered by her primary mantra to her children: “Don't do drugs.” Fueled by all these various sources, William remains a keen observer, teetering between his delight in becoming a member of this inner circle and his professional-beyond-his-years wisdom about remaining aloof and impartial toward his subjects. All this leads to a story for the cover of Rolling Stone -- and who among rock stars and journalists hasn't dreamed of that? Almost Famous is graced with impeccable period detail, sharp writing, brilliant music choices, and sensational performances. Fugit is a real find; his facial expressiveness reveals so much about the visceral intangibilities of rock & roll revelations. Hudson, as Penny Lane, is a beautiful delight -- amusing, coy, self-diminishing, and mysterious -- a paradigm of womanhood in the rock & roll cross-hairs. Crudup turns in some of his finest work ever, completely capturing the character's smoldering ambivalence, while McDormand creates another one of her uniquely memorable characters. And so dead-on is Hoffman as Bangs that the actor practically steals the whole show. In fact, his Bangs is so compelling a character that the performance almost comes across as one of the movie's few flaws. Here is a character who fully warrants a feature-length movie being made of his life; he is an infinitely more interesting figure than the fictional William. But, really, the only thing that Almost Famous really lacks is a strong beginning-to-end narrative. The focus is on a few weeks in this young man's life and the moments of personal revelation it conveys are truly wonderful. But as far as its plotting goes, Almost Famous is an “almost a story.” Still, Crowe has created a genuine love song for all those who've ever felt their lives to have been saved by rock & roll.