In Almost Famous, we have all problems wrapped up in a nice little bow with not much more than smiles to remember. There should have at least been some sort of venerial disease as a result of all that messing around.
Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Patrick Fugit, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Zoey Deschanel
Cameron Crowe had a pretty good run, from writing Fast Times at Ridgemont High through Almost Famous. After that, only We Bought a Zoo landed. The last universally loved film of Crowe’s is Almost Famous, and it is a good bordering on great film. Culling off of his experiences as a uniquely young writer for Creem then Rolling Stone magazines and subsequent interactions with rock bands of the 70’s, Crowe creates a charming film of a time that most people understand was not all that charming.
In the story, we discover that his character Billy Miller (Fugit) is at least 2 years ahead of the rest of his classmates and somehow did not realize that he is actually that much younger than his schoolmates until his sister (Deschanel) makes his mother (McDormand) explain it to him somewhere in Middle School.
The next time we see him, he is meeting Lester Bangs (Hoffman) for the first time. This, like many guys working in magazines, is the real person portrayed. He gives young Billy a boost to write an article on Black Sabbath and the story takes off.
Much of the film takes place on a tour with a fictional band called Stillwater. The band has an insecure lead singer (Lee) and a guitarist (Crudup) who is emerging as the real talent of the band. Amidst the touring is a group of women who eschew the name “groupies” for the term Band-Aids led by the never more charming Hudson in what is the performance of her career.
The gift of Almost Famous is that it feels like an insulated world where a mother’s fears about her son heading off with a bunch of strangers having sex and doing drugs regularly between gigs is nothing to worry about. Most kids the age of Miller would not last a week after their innocence is shredded. Crowe, however, gives us the PG version of a 70’s touring band. There are incidents, but nothing so shocking that it might corrupt young Billy Miller for life.
That said, there are some real star making performances here. As Miller, Fugit has all of the innocence in the world wrapped up in his eyes. Every scene feels like the first time, and he never appears to be jaded by any of it. Both Lee and Crudup are great as members of the band who really just need to work a few things out, but forever put it off, just like the interview Crudup’s Russell Hammond keeps putting off with Billy. That none of the three went on to bigger things (outside of Lee’s TV show My Name Is Earl) may well demonstrate the power of Crowe to get great performances out of his acting talent.
One of the better performances in the film aside from Hudson is McDormand’s widowed mother. She gives all of the right impressions of a mother worn down by a challenging daughter into allowing her son more rope after the daughter left and never came back. Her subtle performance shows that parents change with each child because they don’t stop growing either.
Crowe’s screenplay is tight and it won the Acadamy Award. If there is a challenge that time has not allowed the film to overcome, it’s how neatly everything in the story plays out. There are some near losses, but everyone comes out with no bruises, much less a scar of any kind. Seems more unlikely with each repeated viewing.
Another way to look at it is that Crowe, ever the optimist, sees the bright side to even the most awkward situations. He was able to make some rough landings in Fast Times…, Singles and even Jerry Maguire. It feels less like life and more like a dream, and that is okay if one didn’t hear about The Who, or read Hammer of the Gods.
Almost Famous is incredibly affectionate to its characters, even when they do things that really are not nice. Inside of a couple of scenes all is back to good times. There are worse things one can do to a movie, but then again, the film reveals the seeds of an undoing that will soon start with Crowe’s career. What is cute here will eventually seem a bit smarmy in other films like Elizabethtown.
Crowe is not here to make people feel bad. That much is obvious. The challenge is wrapping the hard times in with resilience. For him the habit becomes to have some epiphany save the day. Nothing saves the day for Ridgemont’s Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the wake of her life altering decision. She just endures, like her brother Brad (Reinhold). In Almost Famous, we have all problems wrapped up in a nice little bow with not much more than smiles to remember. There should have at least been some sort of venerial disease as a result of all that messing around.
(**** out of *****)