Almost FamousThursday 08 Feb 2001
Directed by Cameron Crowe, starring Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Cameron Crowe is nothing if not an optimist. From the first love of 'Say Anything' to the twentysomething traumas of 'Singles' to the cutthroat sports world of 'Jerry Maguire', his films thrive on the notion that life always finds its own level and that people always find themselves along the way. And so it is with 'Almost Famous', Crowe's love letter to his own wonder years as a teenage rock scribe in the 1970s. His alter-ego William Miller (Fugit) is liberated from a humdrum teenhood by a hand-me-down record collection: The Who, Stones and Zeppelin serving as guiding lights in a dull adolescence and providing a superior soundtrack to the rants of his overprotective mother (McDormand).
A keen writer, William casually hooks up with famed hack Lester Bangs (Hoffman) and under his tutelage takes his tentative first steps as a journalist. Soon William's articles come to the attention of Rolling Stone magazine who commission him to do a piece on Stillwater, a middle ranking blues rock outfit who may or may not be the next big thing. Denied access to the backstage area at a gig to interview the band, he waits impatiently outside until they appear, bombarding them with his encyclopedic knowledge of their back catalogue. Stillwater - and in particular their guitar legend in waiting Russell Hammond (Crudup) - warm to William and invite him on tour to do an in-depth profile. But William's interview gets sidetracked when he plays gooseberry to an on but mostly off dalliance between Russell and Stillwater's limpet mine groupie Penny Lane (Hudson).
Cynics will say that Crowe's fourth film plays more like an extended recruitment ad for music journalism than anything approaching insightful drama, but it's nigh on impossible to dislike 'Almost Famous'. While music films have the tendency to look like they were realised in a boardroom by people who never owned any records in the first place, Crowe brilliantly captures a time before the chartered accountants moved in and bands became just another group of workers in a worldwide canning factory. Granted the storyline is minimal (will William get the girl, the story or both?) but Crowe's films have always focused more on people than plots and 'Almost Famous' is no exception - Fugit, Crudup and Hudson excelling as the on-the-road love triangle with Hoffman and McDormand dispensing sagely cool and maternal concern from back in the real world.
Driving the film is the little brother/big brother dynamic between breathless fan William and well-meaning but confused guitarist Russell - although who learns the most from who is open to question. Crowe evokes a spot on performance from debutant Fugit as the dreamer who finds that the people whose adorn his wall are only human while Crudup, all hey man sentiments and guitar god moves, is the most convincing turn at a musician you're ever likely to see onscreen. Crowe builds the relationship masterfully, boy and man becoming increasingly wrapped up in each other's lives through their interest and disinterest in Penny until all three are forced to face adulthood.
'Almost Famous' is just a little too sweet and a little too fawning to be wholly convincing, but for anyone who ever looked at a record sleeve and dreamed, it's a one-way ticket to Shangri-La.