“You’re too sweet for rock and roll.” – Penny Lane
After hitting the heights of mega success with Jerry Maguire you could almost forgive Cameron Crowe for deciding to stick with a winning formula and churn out very similar films there on in. Thankfully, though, he went against the grain and his next project was autobiographical in nature as he took us back to the 70s to enjoy a bit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
The year is 1973 and aspiring music journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) will do anything to realise his dream. There are only two problems, however. Firstly, his mother (Frances McDormand) wants him to become an academic and secondly, he is only 15 years old.
Inspired by the album collection his sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) leaves behind for him, he begins to write for an underground music magazine and is soon noticed by rock journalist Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who offers to pay him $35 to review a Black Sabbath concert.
With no ticket or backstage pass, William tries to make his way into the show with a gaggle of groupies called the Band-Aides (Bijou Phillips, Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk) and their leader Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), but is still denied entry. About to give up on the hope, he bumps into the concert’s opening act, Stillwater, and after praising their work in detail, they decide to help him out and he soon starts a friendship up with mysterious lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who sees him as a way to get closer to Penny.
William’s pieces also grab the attention of Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, who, thinking he is older than he is, commissions him to go on the road with Stillwater and write a piece on the band as they stand on the brink of the big time. Joining the tour as well are the Band-Aides.
The first few days on the bus are filled with tension as William observes firsthand the stresses fame can cause. He also finds himself frustrated with the lack of interest Russell has in having an interview done.
While on the road there are some near misses (Russell getting an electric shock on stage) and arguments (the band feeling that Russell is the only one getting any attention) they carry on their journey. When the band gets a new manager, Dennis (Jimmy Fallon), he takes the reins fast and hard, telling Penny she can no longer be part of the tour from New York as Russell’s girlfriend will be joining them there and the band will no longer tour in a bus, but rather a plane so they can do more gigs, get more fame and, of course, make more money.
To add insult to injury to Penny, Stillwater gamble the Band-Aides away to another band, Humble Pie, and although she acts as if nothing is wrong, Penny, who is in love with Russell, ends up taking an overdose. William finds her in time and the two share a moment of real friendship in a world full of fakery.
After a near death experience when the tour plane looks like it is about to crash, William decides to write the entire truth about life on the road. Rolling Stone cannot wait to publish but the story is denied as false by the band, who worry about what a negative story would do to them. Dejected and alone, William waits in the airport where he meets up with his sister Anita and the two decide to go home together.
Still angry at the treatment of Penny, one of the band-aides, Sapphire, tells Russell everything that happened and he gets in touch with Penny, who gives him William’s home details instead of her own. When he arrives he apologies to William and gives him the interview he wanted. He also clears things up with Rolling Stone and William’s work finally gets published.
Based on his own experiences, Almost Famous could pretty much be renamed as ‘How Cameron Crowe Spent his teenage years.’ As the youngest ever writer for Rolling Stone magazine, Crowe had spent time on the road with bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and The Allman Brothers Band (on which the band Stillwater is based) and his articles for the magazine feature heavily on his own personal experiences of falling in love, losing his virginity and getting to hang out with his heroes, all of which the main protagonist in this movie gets to go through.
Set against a backdrop of constant change, Almost Famous is about as honest an account as you would get from life on the road in the 70s and it is so honestly written and heartfelt you cannot help but get involved with the story and the characters.
What I love about this movie is that everything is there for you to see, the good and the bad, and it is written with fondness and not any kind of negativity or stereotyping, which seems to be the road most other music based films seem to rely on (anybody remember Rock Star? Case in point.). It is an interesting, revealing and interwoven story that more than engages you for the entire running time.
As well as writing the script, Crowe also manages to bring alive 70s America from behind the camera. When films tend to be set in previous decades the closer you get to the current date the harder it can be to make the films looks authentic, but this isn’t an issue here, as Crowe manages to effortlessly make everything seem genuine and not out of place.
Good writing and directing is not all the movie is made up of and Crowe managed to pull together an amazing cast of actors who finished off the atmosphere he was so trying to bring to life.
In his first movie role, Patrick Fugit engulfs the role of William, whose innocence is slowly hacked away at but never losing who he is. Billy Crudup plays the leading man well. His pursuit of fame weighed against his passion for music weighed against the struggles fame costs him are wrapped up in a tightly wound persona that only Penny can seem to break. His relationship with band mate Jeff, played by Jason Lee, is also a main focal point and Lee excels in this more dramatic role and I hope now My Name Is Earl has come to an end he searches more for them.
The biggest break-out star from this movie was Kate Hudson, whose role as groupie Penny Lane garnered her much attention and even more award nominations, helping her step out of the shadow of just being Goldie Hawn’s daughter. With a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination, it rocketed her into sought after leading lady status in Hollywood, but a mixed bag of films has seen her falter slightly from the momentum this movie gave her.
Almost Famous also has the luck of having one of the best supporting casts in recent memory with actors including Frances McDormand, Zooey Deschanel, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jimmy Fallon and Anna Paquin all bringing along the acting chops required.
Critically a success, Almost Famous seemed to be everywhere and was nominated for bags of awards and also had a massive selling soundtrack, so it seems amazing that with all the hype it never managed to make its money back theatrically. This, however, didn’t affect Crowe in the slightest as he went into production of his next movie, a re-make of Spanish thriller Abre Los Ojos.
Next time I will be looking at the much maligned Vanilla Sky.
Almost Famous Key Info:Released: 13th September 2000 (US) / 26thJanuary 2001 (UK)Distributed By: DreamWorksBudget: $60,000,000Box Office Gross: $47,383,689Best DVD Edition: Almost Famous: The Directors Cut