A loving tribute to the long lost artform of rock and roll, Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (IMDb listing) is a jubilant celebration of the artists, their muses, and those who stand back in the shadows with pen and paper and watch it all unfold. It would be tough to find a better, more genuine film this year. In fact, and this is only September, but I would guess that this is the best film of the year.
The prerelease sound bite is an easy one to remember: "Almost Famous" is in fact a thinly veiled recount of Crowe's real life adventures reporting for Rolling Stone magazine as a teenager in the 1970s. Crowe's alter ego in the film is young William Miller (Patrick Fugit), and in place of the Allman Brothers Band of Crowe's era, "Famous" has the fictional group Stillwater. A struggling writer for local underground rock papers, William finds himself with the opportunity to write for Rolling Stone and follow Stillwater's tour, much to the chagrin of William's college professor mother (Frances McDormand). Befriending the lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and falling in love with one of the "band-aids" (groupies with class), with the ubiquitous moniker Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William finds himself on an journey that alters and challenges his innocence and also threatens his journalistic integrity.
The teachers always tell students to write what you know, and "Almost Famous" is the end product of Cameron Crowe's adolescence. Though the press materials suggest that the story is more nonfiction than you might believe, the proof is in the details. Crowe's world for "Famous" is extremely authentic. From the masking tape arrow trail leading to the concert stage, to the color and wear of the group's T-shirts, all the way to the warm feeling of family on the tour bus. The whole motion picture is a work of pure love. While Crowe's earlier films have always exuded sweetness, "Famous" hits you to the core with its unfettered honesty. I've always believed Crowe was enormously talented. With "Almost "Famous," he's become a true filmmaker.
Playing the young William is newcomer Patrick Fugit. In his first starring role, Fugit holds the film together with his shaggy mane and his innocent eyes. A heartbreakingly naive 15 year-old, Pugit and Crowe never allow William to come off stupid. His intelligence is deftly realized without making him into some MENSA goofball. This will most likely be the best that Pugit will ever be in his whole career. A perfect role at the perfect time.
Filling out the rest of the cast is the bombastic Jason Lee ("Chasing Amy") as Stillwater's lead singer, Noah Taylor ("Shine") as the band's manager, Jimmy Fallon (a "Saturday Night Live" vet in a peculiar humorless role) as the band's second manager, Zooey Deschanel ("Mumford") as William's caring sister (she also wins the award for most beautifully lit by Academy Award winning cinematographer John Toll), and the everlasting Frances McDormand as William's mother. McDormand steals the film away from the rockers with her performance as a mother who believes she has raised solid kids who know right from wrong, yet hopelessly worries about them as they enter the big, evil adult world.
Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond, played by Billy Crudup, and Kate Hudson as Penny Lane share a nice tenderness as the romantically involved rocker and groupie who each have different beliefs to where their commitment is headed at the end of the tour. Both characters allow themselves to be exposed to William in more intimate ways than the rest of the rock world, and both engage in a affair that infuriates the adolescent William, who has fallen head over heels in love with Penny Lane. Crudup, a talent quite unlike any of his peers, manages to make his rock star a complete jerk and retain some hard earned humanity. Hudson, however, finally breaks though with a vulnerable performance that sheds her sillyheart exterior and delves deeper into the folds of a solid dramatic actress in the making.
Set in the heart, if one of the most hated periods, in American music, "Almost Famous" harkens back to a time when everybody played their own instruments and sang about life, love, and drinking. The performance scenes in "Famous" are thrilling. They take the viewer not into the front rowthe norm in films about musicbut onstage with the roar and adulation of 15,000 fans washing over you like a hot August sun. Although brief, the scenes show the thrill of an era of live music that didn't depend too strongly on choreography or special effects.
It's performance moments like these, and William's interaction with his mother, that showcase Crowe's magnificent gift for staging moments. Often without dialog or movement, Crowe's moments are the little things that stay with you long after the film ends. Lloyd Dobler holding his boombox up high in "Say Anything"; Jerry Maguire watching his stepson sleep; and in "Famous", Penny Lane skating across the littered remnants of a concert crowd on two napkins. Tiny moments like these add up in the end.
With "Almost Famous", Crowe has finally achieved a career milestone after knocking each one of his previous films out of the park. He has made his "Citizen Kane". A remarkable achievement in personal filmmaking, "Almost Famous" will be the film he is remembered for.
Filmfodder Grade: A+