ndsu spectrum: movie review
‘Almost Famous’ makes you feel all warm and fuzzy
By JOHN HANSEN
Oct. 13, 2000
“Almost Famous” is so relentlessly warm and fuzzy that at times I just hoped for a character to slug another character just to create a little conflict. But writer-director Cameron Crowe immerses the viewer so much in his love for the music and feelings of the 1970s that you can’t help but be won over by the film’s big heart.
This another one of those stories with a premise so absurd that it must be based on real life (which it is). Fifteen-year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a rock critic for his school paper, meets legendary Creem magazine editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). William’s piece on Black Sabbath eventually earns him a phone call from Rolling Stone editor Ben-Fong Torres (Terry Chen).
William, deepening his voice so Fong-Torres thinks he’s older, says he has a story subject in mind: Stillwater, the band who opened for Sabbath. The semi-famous four-man band that can alternately be described as nice guys and pretentious rock stars takes in William as one of their inner circle along with Band Aids (don’t call them groupies) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Polexia Aphrodesia (Anna Paquin) and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk). And so begins William’s cross-country bus odyssey.
It’s hard to know what about “Almost Famous” is real and what’s fictional—Crowe was himself a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone, yet Stillwater is made up. If William is truly the alter-ego of the film’s creator, then Crowe was a very confident and endearing young man. At the Sabbath concert, when the backstage doorman slams the door in William’s face because he’s not on the list, the kid calmly rings the buzzer again and again. Then Stillwater shows up, William asks for an interview, and Stillwater tells him where he can stick his interview. Personally, I would be running at this point, but William calmly praises the band’s music and wishes them luck. Stillwater tells the doorman, “He’s with us.”
The film’s performances, themes and conflicts are all subdued to create the film’s warmth, but there are some interesting characters and conflicts hidden underneath. William’s pleasant demeanor makes him a perfect audience surrogate. Stillwater’s lead singer Jeff is played with loud-mouth aplomb by Jason Lee, while Billy Crudup takes a laid-back approach to playing guitarist Russell, the band’s sex symbol. And Frances McDormand manages to put a sympathetic veneer on the overprotective mother of William.
Coolness, superficial beauty, crushes, and anything typically viewed as shallow are embraced by “Almost Famous.” As one character asks: “Have you ever loved a silly little song so much that it hurts inside?” Face it, we all have, and it makes it easy to embrace this film even as we laugh at it.
The two magazine editors are amusing contrasts in personality: Bangs stresses the importance of being honest and unmerciful, telling William that the band will appreciate his honesty more than a fluff piece. When William calls Bangs and says “I’m glad you were home,” Bangs replies: “I’m always home. I’m uncool.” Like Bangs, William is uncool and he knows it, but the irony is that by not trying to be cool, William actually is cool. Fong-Torres, much like a rock star himself, is egotistical and cool in a shallower way than Bangs and William.
William thinks he’s in love with Penny Lane, but we can tell it’s just a schoolboy crush since there’s nothing too fascinating about Penny beyond her typical beauty and stylish clothes (I personally wished Paquin was in the lead role, as I found it distressing trying to watch her in the background of every scene while Penny and William got the camera’s attention ). Penny’s actually in love with Russell, or thinks she is, but there’s nothing to indicate it’s anything more than a crush either. Russell is oblivious to all of this; when he gets a little too much acid in his system, he climbs atop a roof and yells, “I am a golden god!” Meanwhile, Jeff is bewildered that Russell‘s picture is the centerpiece of the band’s first T-shirt. Despite all the distractions, William is still a professional writer, but Russell keeps brushing off his interview requests for fear he will be too honest.
There are some great scenes at the end which bring all of these understated conflicts to a boil, but even then you have more of a tendency to laugh than to cry. And maybe that’s Crowe’s ultimate goal: he’s looking back at his formative years with so much love, and through the haze of twenty-some years gone by, that even the bad things are remembered fondly. And maybe there’s even a purpose behind the glossing-over of certain aspects, such as the inconsequential treatment of Polexia and the almost total ignorance of the drummer’s existence.
“Almost Famous” targets both a specific and a wide audience—a soundtrack of ‘70s tunes provides a pleasant (if bland) backdrop to the narrative and there’s some nice insights into the world of writing and editing for magazines. But above all, it’s a fond and funny remembrance of ‘70s music, the touring lifestyle, and the people William meets along the way.
Title: “Almost Famous”
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Terry Chen
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Director: Cameron Crowe