by Jason Whyte
The 1970's are a decade I wish I lived in. The parties, the attitude. But more importantly, the freedom. Sure, responsibility was few and far between in that decade, but the 70's represents the cultural freedom of not just the people, but the artists as well: great movies were plentiful (until "Star Wars" changed everything) and the creative forces of music, as caught masterfully in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," was coming out in full force.I think "Almost Famous" is a film to celebrate, a movie that gets the feel of the 1970's as authentic as possible, while still being funny, honest and heartbreaking, AND maintaining a rich, epic feel to it. I certainly want to see more films where it is clearly evident where the director knows his material, trusts his material, and uses his material and doesn't abuse it.
"Please don't give him any more acid....thank you."
The story begins with William Miller (a wonderful Patrick Fugit), who is a young, budding writer who sends his school-paper news articles to journalists and writers, and even the expert tutilage of "Creem" magazine (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When William works his way to a concert, he gets an "in" with the opening act, Stillwater. This attracts the attention of Rolling Stone magazine (then a small office in San Fransisco that published onto newsprint rather than magazine stock today), who pursue William to go along with the band and get a full report on their status.
When William begins his journey, so does the audience. While the film's story is always moving, Crowe wisely focuses on character interaction and how people speak to one another. It's nearly Altmanesque how beautifully Cameron's wordplay is. With Patrick, we discover the entire life of a travelling rock concert, with the band-aid's (or groupies), girls who are along for the ride for sex and a good time, the spirit of the backstage, the feel of the bus trips (they're so obsessed with the Almost Famous - Tour 73 bus that they laugh at the thought of taking a plane), and the fights and relationships that come out of it.
In particular, William's relationship with the main guitarist (Billy Crudup) and the groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) take the story on an interesting journey of a writer's relationship with the artists he is going to write about later. William is told not to get personally involved with the performers, but the life of the party wins him over, and the confusion and pubescence of his 15 year old self doesn't help either.
The young William is loosely based on the real Cameron Crowe, who was a young writer for Rolling Stone. He wrote several articles, toured with bands, went to post-secondary school, then went a whole year underground to a school to write the book that would later become the film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"...Crowe later went on to do the wonderful "Say Anything" (still the best teenage romance film ever made that is not Romeo and Juliet), "Singles" and "Jerry Maguire", all great films. One of Crowe's greatest gifts is his attention to human emotion and to character, and to make everyone in his film interesting with a certain degree of reality, and yet have them all be a little odd and goofy at times as well. Just how human emotion should be. And like all his other films, he makes three-dimensional characters out of the supporting roles as well. (The "It's Bowie!" guy is one of my favorites.)
Patrick Fugit, in his first film role, is so wonderful as William, a performance that blends all aspects of childhood innocence, confusion, shyness and coming-of-age angst, and Fugit brings all of this across. Billy Crudup is a standout as a guitarist who strikes up a relationship with William, and his best scenes are where he recognizes the true horrors of where he has gotten (watch the reaction on his face in the scene where he is on the phone with William's mother). Frances McDormand, as William's mother, is the exact kind of afraid 1970's mother that fears for her children, and everything artistically is altogether bad for them (Simon and Garfunkel, according to her, appear stoned on pot on one of their LP covers). And the rest of the supporting cast, including Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Noah Taylor, Zooey Deschanel, Fariuza Balk and others are wonderful, proof that Cameron loves his characters and knows how to show them.
However, there is one, brilliant performance that I will never forget: Kate Hudson as Penny Lane. She gives one of these "Where the heck did she come from?" kinds of performances. Before this, I had never seen her in a film (though she has been in a few, like "Gossip", "Desert Blue" and "200 Cigarettes"), and here she is the amazing soul of the film, with the wild, free spirit that joins the groupies to give her a place in the world, since she probably doesn't have any. Hudson owns the scenes she is in, Cameron Crowe saidin many interviews that Penny Lane is based on a real character. I believe him.Films like "Almost Famous" don't come out often, but neither do Cameron Crowe films. He seems to go away for a three-four years (a typical director would have one movie every two years), write a script, do other work, then come back in full force with a new film that bleeds with his own view on life and people. They say movies can change your life if done well, and "Almost Famous" is certainly one of them.
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originally posted: 04/02/04 04:19:37