Almost Famous
directed by Cameron Crowe
(Columbia TriStar, 2000)

So now that Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" finally is receding from my mind 48 hours after watching Almost Famous, maybe I can sit back and reflect on what I loved about the movie. And there's a lot. The soundtrack is only the beginning.

Based on writer/director Cameron Crowe's experience as a 15-year-old writer for Rolling Stone magazine, Almost Famous follows 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he follows a mid-level-but-aiming-for-stardom band on tour. He gets his gig covering Stillwater for Rolling Stone by following the advice of Creem editor Lester Bangs (the unbeatable Philip Seymour Hoffman).

His mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), is beside herself, but allows him to go -- with many "NO DRUGS!" warnings -- because she's convinced of his writing talent.

What follows is a portrait of the exuberance, excess and excitement of a band by turns pompous and compassionate, a life of young people on the road who, occassionally, supervise each other, bicker, make up and try to make it big without losing their integrity. And Crowe, with his well-honed sense of dialogue and his obvious fondness for and frustration with his characters, never lets their love conflicts overpower the comedic insanity.

Much has been made of Kate Hudson's turn as Penny "I am not a groupie! I am a Band-Aid!" Lane, a girl in her mid-teens who's fallen in love with Stillwater's charismatic guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup). Crudup does a great job of giving us a guy who cares for Penny, in his own way, but expects her to fade into the background when his wife arrives, and who trades her away for $50 and a case of Heineken in a poker match. (Can you spot rocker Peter Frampton in this scene?) And Hudson is luminous. She marries a sly intelligence -- a smirking smile, a genuine warmth -- with a vulnerability and hidden sadness that's heartbreaking.

Fugit, too, is astonishing as William, the kind of kid whose worldliness quotient is that of a 15-year-old, but whose music and writing IQ are boundless. In one scene, as Russell welcomes him as a friend of band, William's sense of being separate is palpable: He so wants to like these guys. Part of him wants to be these guys. But their life of easy love and drugs is completely foreign, and his drive to be "professional" gives him an awkward hesitancy -- it's so wonderful to watch a 15-year-old played by a teen-ager, not a 25-year-old. And it may have mirrored Fugit's own feelings on the set: his sole movie credit before this was a 1998 TV production, Legion of Fire: Killer Ants! Talk about a kid who's suddenly thrust into the big time.

But the real star may be Crowe. Now married to Nancy Wilson of rock band Heart, Crowe's love of the scene -- he and Wilson wrote Stillwater's music -- translates beautifully on screen to an ebullient, insane time in the world of rock 'n' roll.

Along with Frampton (for whom Crowe wrote liner notes to Frampton Comes Alive), see if you can spot Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, Bijou Phillips, daughter of the Mamas and the Papas' John Phillips, and little tributes to the Allman Brothers (the band Crowe really toured with) and Led Zeppelin.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 21 December 2001

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