First released in 2000, Almost Famous was the first of Cameron Crowe’s films that I saw at the cinema. Drawn in by the strange concept of a young teenager on the road with a rock band in the 60’s, it was certainly one I wanted to see. This started my love of Crowe’s movies, one of his later films becoming my all time favourite.
The movie is based around William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a bright 15 year old who is overly protected by his mother (Frances McDormand). As his sister leaves to start a new life leaving her record collection behind, William writes music reviews and starts a fascination with the band Stillwater. The backstage world is full of wannabes and groupies, with love interest Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) holding court. As William is given an assignment by Rolling Stone to follow the band on the road, he sees that rock and roll isn’t all it initially appears to be and that there are many casualties along the way to fame.
Characters that are out of their depth feature repeatedly in Crowe’s movies. Drew Baylor in Elizabethtown, Benjamin Mee in We Bought A Zoo, even Jerry Maguire is operating way out of the comfort zone for most of his story. In Almost Famous, William is young, inexperienced and sent on a mission by the icon of rock media Rolling Stone. We desperately want William to succeed. It’s not like he doesn’t have the talent, but as layers of new experiences fall towards him, we see he’s just a kid. He’s a very talented kid, a lucky kid, but his ability to write can’t take away his youth. Despite this, if it weren’t for William this film would just be a road movie following a band. We need him for a different perspective. It’s William that cuts through the false sentiments surrounding Stillwater and their increasing fame, tries to find some truth and shouts steadfastly over the din.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is great in this movie, featuring in the cameo role as rock journalist Lester Bangs. Bangs is one of the only truly grounded characters in the film. I am fascinated by Bangs’ comment to William that “we are uncool”. He’s right. The vast majority of us are essentially uncool. Well, perhaps those of us that might actually be in a rock band or work directing movies might be slightly cooler, but as William tries to reveal, playing rock is just a job in the end, a job done by people who start to believe the hype and treat people in a way that is just not cool. A lot of the process, the hanging around, the promotion, the traveling, the infighting, just become like the old 9 to 5 if you do it long enough. It creates uncool. William gets behind the myth of what’s supposed to be rock and roll, and finds much of it is wanting. In the end we just want him to better than everyone who has been sucked in by the whirlpool of fame and he manages to be just that. In the end it’s William that is cool.
There are some lovely sequences in the film. The scene where the whole band joins together to sing Tiny Dancer was one that stayed with me long after seeing it originally. Setting it alongside his other films, it is the lingering shots and slow close ups that we recognise as Crowe’s. This coupled with his ability to foster some emotional plots and performances, create stories and characters that lodge with us long after the film finishes. In Almost Famous we see it through Kate Hudson as Penny Lane. Hudson has never been more fragile and luminous. Why don’t people cast her in parts like this anymore?
And – oh! – the soundtrack. I am a sucker for amazing music on film soundtracks and Cameron Crowe never disappoints me. With Almost Famous, we have Led Zepplin, early Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Yes. On the DVD there is an extended scene of concert footage from Stillwater. The music has a nice Southern Rock swagger and the band we see really does seem to have that on-the-road chemistry, Billy Crudup as the front man being styled like a young Paul Rodgers in his days with Free. There must have been an awful lot of rehearsal before these concert scenes, the footage hitting the cutting room floor rather than featuring in the final movie.
At the very end of the movie after the credits have rolled, we hear the sound of the arm of a record player lift off the vinyl and click back into its cradle. The film really has come to an end, somewhat symbolically perhaps. Maybe this tells the viewer that Crowe has drawn a line under this part of his life. As a semi-autobiographical story based on Crowe’s own experiences of touring with rock bands, perhaps the end of the record is the end of what he wanted to explore about this phase of his life. The adolescent music journalist, who went on crazy road trips with a rock bands has evolved into a movie director. The story is told. End of record. End of story.