Almost Famous (2000)
Dir. Cameron Crowe
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand
I was introduced to Almost Famous at exactly the perfect time in my life. I was a sophomore in high school when the girl who would go on to be one of my first serious girlfriends showed me this movie for the first time. It must have been 2001 or early 2002 when we watched this on DVD in the basement of my parents’ house. We made out through a lot of the movie so my memories of that first viewing are fond, if incomplete. We were 16 years old and Cameron Crowe’s love letter to 70’s rock and his own adolescence seemed awfully relatable at the time. Based on Crowe’s real life touring with groups like The Allman Brothers and The Who while he was a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, Almost Famous seemed like it had been made specifically for me. I played in several bands with friends throughout middle school and high school, none of which ever got off the ground or lasted much longer than six months. Almost Famous was just the sort of rock and roll fantasy that a teenage music nerd such as myself would fall in love with.
Crowe’s stand in in the film is William Miller (Fugit), a 15 year old aspiring rock journalist living in San Diego with his over protective mother (McDormand). Early in the film, William meets his idol Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a brief, but great cameo) who gives him his first opportunity to write for a real rock magazine, covering a Black Sabbath show. When William can’t get into the venue despite his press credentials, he meets Penny Lane (Hudson) a groupie who sneaks him backstage, and introduces him to the band Stillwater. After conning his way into covering up-and-coming band Stillwater for Rolling Stone, William hits the road along with Penny and the band. While on tour, he falls in love, witnesses the interpersonal conflicts of a band that he admires, and experiences the excesses of the 1970s rock scene.
The thing that Almost Famous does so wonderfully is establish a sense of place and time. The film’s soundtrack is crammed with 70s rock classics. The costumes and set dressing are period appropriate. However, the 1970s that Almost Famous evokes is a fun-house mirror reflection where the freaks and the burnouts are kings. The crowded hotel lobbies that William must navigate on tour are full of rock stars and their hangers on, all ready to follow their favorite group to the next tour stop, hoping to delay the onset of reality for just a few more shows. As a journalist, William’s role is to document the bacchanal but, like the audience, he can’t help but find himself wrapped up in it. Like the film itself, the world of the tour is immersive, and many of the film’s characters are happy never to leave it, following one band, then another, never wanting to return home.
The realism of Almost Famous is also bolstered by its deep and talented cast. Crowe has said that nearly everyone in the film is based on a real person that he knew in the 70s rock scene, and it shows. Even characters with just a few scenes are memorable, and fully fleshed out. I already mentioned the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cameo as Lester Bangs, but in just about ten minutes of screen time, Hoffman turns in one of his best performances as the “uncool” rock critic who William so admires. Hoffman’s performance shows the chain smoking, mustachioed Bangs in turns manic and enthusiastic about rock and roll, and cynical about it, forecasting its death. Hoffman elevates what could have been a bit part into one of the more memorable elements of the film thanks to his nuanced, subtle performance. Performances like this abound in Almost Famous. Frances McDormand stands out as Elaine Miller, William’s mother, even though most of her scenes are phone conversations. Often without anyone else on screen to play off of, the concern and anxiety that her character is feeling are palpable. Crowe inserts a few shots of McDormand sitting alone after her phone conversations with William that are simply heartbreaking. The mother character could have been shrewish, or used mostly for comic relief, as is sometimes the case in the film, but the emotion that McDormand puts into her performance made me take notice of her character in particular on this rewatch.
The film’s main cast is also deserving of commendation, particularly Billy Crudup and Jason Lee as Russell Hammond and Jeff Bebe, respectively. They play the guitarist and lead singer of Sweetwater, whose creativity and frequent personal clashes fuel the band. Crudup plays Hammond as equal parts con man, mystic, and rock god. He takes William under his wing during the tour, but steadfastly refuses to give him an interview for his story. As the film goes on, Russell and William develop a friendly rivalry over their mutual admiration of Penny Lane. Lee’s Jeff Bebe describes himself to Hammond as, “the you they get when they can’t get you,” underlining the tensions between the two as Jeff chafes at his second banana role to Russell. Both actors turn up their lothario charm for their roles, but they play the rockers in different ways. As mentioned, Crudup plays Russell as some sort of mystic, tapped in to a spiritual connection with the music that he makes so much that he can’t relate to average people. He can go from charming warmth to drug-fueled rage at a coin flip, and Crudup is convincing in both modes. Lee, on the other hand, plays Bebe as an affable, if bristly, uncle to William. He keeps the journalist at arm’s length, referring to him as “the enemy,” but is ultimately far more forthcoming than the seemingly more affectionate Hammond. As the group’s lead singer, Bebe’s personality is more outwardly engaging, and Lee’s upbeat performance style is perfect for that.
It’s unfortunate, but understandable, that the teen actors cast in the film’s leads don’t quite live up to the high bar set by their older counterparts. Patrick Fugit is passable as William, though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of acting for him to do. On the surface, his character learns and grows quite a bit from the beginning of the film to the end, but his performance rarely reflects this. Fugit does a fine job of embodying William’s starry-eyed demeanor at getting to spend time among his idols, but when the film asks him to ramp up the emotion and get angry, he falls short. His line delivery is stilted and he doesn’t have the physical presence in the role to carry the emotional weight that the script sometimes asks of him. This may be a result of both the character and the actor being a teen interacting with adults, so they are both ultimately unable to convey a full adult range of emotion. It’s not that Fugit is bad in the film, he just often seems overmatched when paired with the more charismatic Lee and Crudup.
Kate Hudson fares much better as Penny Lane, the famed groupie and founder of the “Band Aides.” While William is taking in this world for the first time, Penny is a season veteran, and Hudson, who grew up in a famous family, lends the character a world-weariness that feels earned. Hudson plays Penny Lane with supreme confidence throughout the first half of the film. She adopts a matronly position among the other Band Aides and William, and acts a sort of tour guide for the audience. Her youth belies her experience, and she exudes authority. However, by the end of the tour, Penny Lane and her Band Aides are left behind by the band, and the cracks in Penny’s confident façade start to show. Hudson’s last few scenes in the film are impressive, as she lets just a bit of Penny’s sad brokenness shine through those cracks. The scene where William finally tells Penny that she isn’t going on the rest of the tour with Stillwater because Russell sold her, along with the rest of the Band Aides, to Humble Pie for $50 and a case of beer is a perfect example of Hudson’s performance range in the film. She turns her head away from the camera, obviously hurt, and then turns it back to look at William, wiping away a single tear and quietly asks, “What kind of beer?” as a smile starts to bloom on her lips. Penny’s heart is breaking and that single tear contains a lifetime of sadness, but it’s all the vulnerability she can allow herself. Penny Lane could have been a concept, or a cliché, rather than a fully realized character. In fact, most of the men who claim to be in love with Penny throughout the film only know her as a cliché and are in love with the concept of Penny. It’s in these small scenes shared with William that Hudson’s performance lends Penny a well of emotional depth.
As is probably abundantly clear by now, I really enjoy Almost Famous. I went through a big Cameron Crowe phase during high school, and Almost Famous was among my favorites of his at the time. As I mentioned, it spoke to the teenage music nerd in me. Despite all of his obvious flaws, I wanted to be Russell Hammond, although I would have settled for being William Miller. Penny’s bohemianism and easy charm reminded me of my girlfriend at the time. She was an actress, and she was prone to the same sort of poetic daydreaming that Penny was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had asked me to go to Morocco with her, as Penny does with William. Almost Famous caters to that teenage impulsiveness, the feeling that if you can join the circus or a rock and roll band, you might never have to grow up. Of course, somewhere along the way I did grow up. I’m not sure that I have watched this, or any other Cameron Crowe film, since turning 25.
About three months ago, however, I purchased the extended cut of Almost Famous on Bluray. It was on sale an Amazon, and I was curious to see if the movie would hold up to my fond memories of it from adolescence. I was honestly surprised by how well it did, in fact, hold up. I may enjoy Almost Famous more now than I did then. Watching the film as an adult, I was less caught up in the romance and the spectacle of it all. I keyed in on the small performances, like Frances McDormand’s or Jimmy Fallon’s fantastic cameo as the band’s potential new manager. I appreciated the depth that underlies all of the showier aspects of the film. When I was young, I wanted to be Russell Hammond, but now I know that I was far more destined to be Lester Bangs. My role is to be the critic, feeding off of the art of the true creatives, and hoping that maybe my own prose will help someone to find their way to a new favorite film or rediscover an old one. Working on this project has made me much more comfortable in that role, one that I had a lot of trouble accepting and growing into as a younger writer. Brushing off old favorites like this one is a lot like trying on a favorite band T-shirt from your youth. It might not fit exactly the same way, because you’ve changed, but there’s still something familiar and comfortable about it because of all the memories you’ve made wearing it. I’m really beginning to enjoy digging through that old dresser.