Almost Famous (review)

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The Romance of Rock

(Best of 2000)

Ah. It’s autumn, or just about. The weather is turning cooler and lovely, and I can rave about movies again. And I get to start with one of the most intoxicating flicks I’ve seen in ages.

Tears were welling in my eyes as the end credits rolled on Almost Famous, and not because this is a sad story, though it is often bittersweet — no, these were tears of joy for a film that is so complete and perfect and full of life that it swept me up into its world and held me there, and I never wanted it to let me go — and even when it did finally let go, I was happy and satiated. “It fills you up” was my friend’s apt description of Almost Famous.
What this latest gem from writer/director/producer Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) fills you up with is music. Unsentimentally and unironically, it reminds you what it was like to discover rock and roll as a kid, how it lent you its freedom and expanded your horizons… and how, when slightly older and wiser, you learned to just appreciate the music without all that earnest and deep-sounding hogwash. Without actually depicting such things onscreen, Almost Famous reproduces the feeling of taking endless big, black platters out of their big, square sleeves and placing them, one after the other, on the turntable. CDs sound wonderful, but they don’t have the sensual quality of a vinyl record (boy, I sound old), and Almost Famous reminds us that feeling the music is what it’s all about.

Eleven-year-old William Miller (Michael Angarano) has his rock-and-roll wonder year in 1969, when his older sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel: Mumford), leaves home, bequeathing her record collection to him. Music “will set you free,” she promises him, and Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and The Who open up the mystical, magical world of rock for him. Four years later, William (now played by Patrick Fugit) is a devoted music lover with a deep understanding of what he listens to — he’s a budding rock journalist, writing for a local underground paper and sending stuff off to Creem magazine, whose editor, the famous Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia), takes William under his wing. Lester’s rants against the manufactured cool of corporate rock serve as a warning to William when Rolling Stone magazine calls, its editor’s eye caught my William’s local work.

William has a single story pitch: Stillwater. William tried to latch on to this up-and-coming band as a way to get backstage at a Black Sabbath concert, at which Stillwater was opening, and the Stillwater guys latched on to him instead. And now they’ve invited him to accompany them on their Almost Famous 1973 bus tour. Rolling Stone bites, and William hits the road with the band, much to the consternation of his overprotective mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand: Blood Simple).

A combination of wide-eyed wonder, intelligence, and maturity beyond years, William struggles to maintain the journalistic detachment Lester cautioned him to cling to as he befriends the guys in the band, especially lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup: Jesus’ Son, Waking the Dead), and tries to overcome vocalist Jeff Bebe’s (Jason Lee: Dogma) only half-kidding nickname for him: The Enemy. Jeff’s afraid William will reveal all their secrets and make them look like the immature and confused people they are. Russell only begs, “Make us look cool.”

But the sex-and-drugs lifestyle of a band on the road seems to befuddle William, and Almost Famous is his frequently laugh-out-loud-funny coming-of-age story set against this backdrop. Fugit is as precocious as his character, his gaze seeming to age and harden as he watches the band members turn on one another, and sees how they misuse and misunderstand the hanger-on girls who call themselves “band aids”; the poetically named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Polexia (Anna Paquin: X-Men), and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk: American History X) are the life of Stillwater’s movable party, muses to the musicians who go unappreciated.

But always, there’s the music. Stillwater, for all that they’re fictional, is an awesome band — we get to hear only a snippet of their “big hit,” “Fever Dog,” but it’s enough to make me want to run out and buy their albums (though I guess I’ll have to settle for the film’s soundtrack). Crudup and Lee project real rock-star charisma in the band’s concert scenes — and Crudup actually plays guitar — and their off-stage relationship is as contentious as their onstage performances are electrifying.

The screaming crowds at Stillwater concerts obviously delight everyone, from the band in the spotlight to William and the band-aid girls standing in the wings. It’s a much smaller and quieter scene, though, that encompasses the communal spirit of rock that suffuses Almost Famous. As the band and its entourage roll down a lonesome country road on their tour bus, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays on the radio, and one by one they each join in singing along. It breaks the ice after a quarrelsome few moments, and it’s one of the most honest and emotionally real moments in a movie full of them.

Russell wanted William to make them look cool, and this is where the cool is, letting yourself get filled up with music.

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Watch Almost Famous online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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