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Almost Famous   A

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Zooey Deschanel, Noah Taylor, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Review by Rob Vaux

Late in the proceedings of Almost Famous, an early '70s rock band on the brink of success finds itself stuck in a plane that may be going down. As turbulence shakes the cockpit and lightning flashes outside, they launch into a orgy of recrimination at each other: rampant egos, marital infidelity, every sin and vice hurled at each other in a moment of fragile mortality. What makes it so striking is the beatific face of 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) right in the middle of the sturm und drang. What would a nice young man like that be doing there?

The dichotomy forms the linchpin of this semiautobiographical work from practiced charmer Cameron Crowe. Like all of Crowe's films, Almost Famous drips with funny dialogue, interesting characters, and a unique take on personal relationships. And like his other films, it paints a world of compromised values where an awestruck innocent comes blithely wandering through. Before the band, Miller's life consists of writing for the school paper and keeping his album collection hidden from his force-of-nature mother (Frances McDormand). All of that changes when a quixotic effort to interview Black Sabbath lands him right in the middle of their front band -- an Allman brothers-style group called Stillwater -- who seem to hold the key to all his dreams. Before he knows it, he's on tour with them, working on an article for Rolling Stone while making eyes at their enchanting lead groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

At first, he's intoxicated. "They make you feel cool," William's rumpled mentor (the always great Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells him, and he's right. They invite him into their entourage, they reveal secrets they've never shared, and they genuinely seem to like him. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) takes particular care of the young man, despite his mutual attraction to Penny. As time goes on, however, he begins to see the hollow center of their rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Though still attracted to Stillwater, he finds himself wondering whether they adhere to any real values... and how long he can stay with them before losing his way.

Crowe handles this slow realization with a deft touch, which helps skirt some of the potential clichés of the script. Everyone knows the "dark underbelly of rock" story, but Almost Famous never quite succumbs to such easy stereotyping. Everything about Stillwater rings true, from their backstage machinations to the power of their musical presence (Peter Frampton served as a technical advisor, which doubtless augmented Crowe's own familiarity with rock in the early '70s). That package of reality carries some of the more far-fetched notions without even trying. We believe that rock stars could show up in suburban Kansas block parties, or that a 15-year-old could be writing for Rolling Stone, because Almost Famous is so passionate about its subject. Crowe has such assurance, and his characters are so richly developed that we believe wholeheartedly in every part of his tale.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a fabulous ensemble of actors at work here, or that Crowe understands how to bring the best out of them. Fugit's performance strikes a perfect chord of innocence and intelligence, giving the audience (and director) an ideal on-screen surrogate. The band (including Crudup and a fabulous Jason Lee) strikes a perfect balance of energy and hedonism, while McDormand's fretful mother is as three-dimensional as your own. Almost Famous is marvelously funny at points (Crowe's wit is second to none), yet it never milks humor at the expense of genuine emotion. The story here contains real pain and real joy, and while we often laugh at the characters, we never see them as simple gags. The director clearly has a great deal of affection for this material, and shows us how entrancing Stillwater's world can be without glossing over its ugly side.

Almost Famous is the second great film about rock 'n' roll to come out this year (High Fidelity being the first). Like its predecessor, it implicitly understands the material it presents, but doesn't feel limited by it. Its lyricism runs deeper than Fender amps and stadium crowds, and you don't have to be a rock junkie to appreciate its beauty. Cameron Crowe has made a heartfelt piece of work that stands among his best: a love song to anyone who ever wanted to be cool... and never quite found their way.

Review published 09.15.2000.

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