Almost Famous (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One of the best reviewed movies of 2000, Almost Famous is sure to appear on many critics' end-of-the-year Top 10 lists. A number of respected voices have already declared this to be the best film of the year. However, although there's no doubt that Almost Famous represents a thoroughly engaging two hours spent in a darkened theater, lauding it as one of the year's greatest may be an overreaction by some to the poor quality of other 2000 entries to date. In fact, one could argue that Almost Famous is not even 43 year-old writer/director Cameron Crowe's best feature - both Say Anything and Jerry Maguire were superior.

Almost Famous looks back at the world of rock 'n roll as it existed in the early 1970s. 15-year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a San Diego high school senior who skipped two grades in elementary school, gets the chance of a lifetime: to spend a few weeks on the road with his favorite band, Stillwater, and write an article about them for Rolling Stone magazine. His mentor, Creem rock critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), gives him one key piece of advice: "You cannot make friends with the rock stars." That, however, is exactly what happens, as William allows himself to be seduced into the lifestyle by the group's guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). He also falls in love with one of Stillwater's groupies, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who has a "thing" going on with Russell. Meanwhile, back home, William's mother (Frances McDormand), does her best to keep tabs on her son's whereabouts by calling the hotels where he's staying, leaving one clear message: "Don't use drugs!"

By all accounts, Almost Famous is semi-autobiographical. Crowe, like William, was once a music journalist. Later in his early career, he served as an associate editor for Rolling Stone. The end credits also include an unusual disclaimer, stating that the character of Penny Lane is based on an actual individual. Nevertheless, Almost Famous views the '70s rock scene through a largely nostalgic lens, softening many of the uglier aspects of life as it was during the era. This is not intended to be a hard-hitting expose or a grim tell-all type story. Instead, it's an upbeat and endearing motion picture that pushes all the right buttons.

In actuality, Almost Famous isn't really about the '70s or the music scene. These are little more than background elements to William's coming-of-age story. The movie's central element is its depiction of how the socially immature William comes to grips with who he is, what he wants to do, and who he will become. For him, the trip with the band is about exploring his sexuality and learning how to live outside of his mother's protective umbrella. In the process, he loses his virginity, rejects the drug scene, forms a few lasting friendships, and saves a life. While few of us have experienced what it's like to travel with a band on tour, almost everyone can relate to the emotional and character-building challenges that William encounters. We all face them in one form or another.

The film pays lip service to a few standard music/creativity-related issues: the struggle between commercial acceptance and remaining true to one's art, and the difficulties faced by band members whose constant contact with one another creates a powerful source of friction. Ultimately, however, these are side issues that Almost Famous addresses but allows to remain in the background. They occasionally come to the fore, such as during a scene when circumstances encourage the band members to unburden themselves to one another, or when William must weigh the value of his friendships with the guys of Stillwater against his responsibilities as a journalist.

As has been true of every script Crowe has contributed to (including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he adapted from his novel for director Amy Heckerling), the screenplay for Almost Famous sparkles with wit and intelligence. There's no "show me the money" line, although Crowe tries for the same kind of impact on a few occasions. There are also a couple of times when the dialogue gets too cute for its own good - when a comment is made about Mick Jagger not performing at age 50 and when the concept of a modem is explained. Aside from those exceptions, nearly every line spoken by every character in this film is worth hearing.

Almost Famous contains a number of memorable characters. First and foremost is William, the ordinary young man who provides our portal into the movie. Effectively underplayed by actor Patrick Fugit in his feature debut, William is instantly likable. Kate Hudson (Desert Blue) gives what is by far the most charismatic performance of her short career, a luminous star turn as Penny Lane, the girl who is at the center of the movie's romantic triangle. Before this part, Hudson has frequently exhibited star quality; this is her first real opportunity to display significant acting chops. Oscar-winner Frances McDormand should be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress nod for her participation. As William's mother, she not only has some of the best scenes, but represents the movie's only truly unique character - a mother who is struggling to find the right balance between smothering her children and giving them their freedom. Phillip Seymour Hoffman has a wonderful turn as Lester Bangs (he gives a great speech about the benefits of being "uncool"), and Billy Crudup and Jason Lee are solid in their rolls as rock stars.

The movie has a great classic rock soundtrack (including some new songs by Peter Frampton) and strong production values that enhance the illusion that Crowe has turned back the clock by a quarter of a century. Many period pieces set in the '70s do little more than pay lip service to the era via a few bellbottoms and shaggy hair-dos; Almost Famous takes things to the next level, allowing us to believe that the motion picture is transpiring during the era when it is supposed to be taking place.

Almost Famous will be hard to top for its sheer exuberance and high feel-good quotient. The film's ecstatic atmosphere is only briefly interrupted by the sense of longing that is associated with first love and the pain that accompanies the inevitable separation between a child and a parent. Crowe's fourth feature represents another unqualified success for the director, who has yet to have a bad outing. Regardless of whether or not the movie is given a Best Picture nomination, it will do well at the box office because it offers the kind of top-notch entertainment that has been sadly lacking in multiplexes this year. Almost Famous is an unqualified success.

Almost Famous (United States, 2000)

Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2000
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2000-09-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1