Sunday 28 December 2014

Movie Review: Almost Famous (2000)

A sweet coming of age story set in the world of 1970s rock music, Almost Famous is an engaging dramedy inspired by the true life adventures of writer and director Cameron Crowe.

It's 1973 in San Diego, and 15 year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is an aspiring music writer, despite the protestations of his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), who wants him to become a lawyer. Inspired by a meeting with the dean of rock critics Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), William tries to sneak backstage at a Black Sabbath show, but instead connects with the opening band Stillwater, a middling rock outfit on the cusp of either stardom or obscurity.

The band's guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) sees something that he likes in William, especially once William stumbles his way into a free-lance assignment to write for the influential Rolling Stone magazine. Stillwater have their groupies, including the wispy Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who regularly sleeps with Russell, although the guitarist has a wife stashed in New York. William anyway develops a serious crush Penny, and they both end up on Stillwater's bus as the band tours across the United States in search of their moment in the spotlight. With William growing up quickly surrounded by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, he struggles to focus on writing as the band starts to tear itself apart and Penny falls hard for Russell.

Crowe himself wrote for Rolling Stone, and toured with bands including The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He created the fictional Stillwater as a prototypical 1970s rock band, and amalgamated his tour experiences into the adventures of young William Miller. Almost Famous has the unmistakable feel of a heartfelt trip to the nostalgia of youth, a young man discovering the world and himself while enjoying a real live soundtrack.

The film draws its energy from a diverse group of believable characters surrounding William. Starting at home with his mother (frazzled as she loses control of her children) and his I've-had-enough sister (Zooey Deschanel) and extending all the way to the groupies, band manager and the Rolling Stone editors, Almost Famous feeds off the dynamics of suburban normalcy colliding with the parallel universe of the rock stardom industry. For the first two thirds Crowe keeps the drama on an even keel, the film unfolding gradually as a slice of life. The final third introduces a heart-stopping near-catastrophe for the band followed by an overdose, as the dramatic quotient spikes up. Both incidents are fully believable, but they also detract from the more impressive gentle focus on relationships.

Russell Hammond is the heart of the film, the guitarist at the centre of his band, bonding with William as an older brother and leading Penny to a potential broken heart. Billy Crudup provides Russell with a world weariness stemming from an appreciation that while the lifestyle is great, time is running out, Stillwater is still a second-rate band, and maybe the dream won't come true. Penny Lane remains one of Kate Hudson's best roles, as the young actress finds both confidence and fragility within Penny, a young woman who thinks she has all the answers but finds herself irresistibly drawn to an unavailable man. Less interesting is Patrick Fugit as William, as Almost Famous is a film where the main character is more of an observer than an instigator. Fugit is unfortunately stuck with a goofy smile and floppy hair for too many scenes.

With a soundtrack of music both from the era and inspired by it, including songs written for the film by Peter Frampton, Almost Famous captures the spirit of an era, where rock came out to play and to a young man coming of age, everything in love and life seemed possible.

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