Based on writer/ director Cameron Crowe’s experiences touring with rock bands like Poco, The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin, Almost Famous gives us Crowe stand-in Patrick Fugit, a 15 year old rock fan who writes for his school newspaper and a San Diego alternative mag. His work garners the attention of Creem magazine and its famed rock critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Bangs tutors Fugit, who gets an assignment from Rolling Stone to cover rising band Stillwater, fronted by the suspicious and bloviating Jason Lee and the more talented and enigmatic guitarist Billy Crudup. As Fugit is ensonced with the band on the road, he is charmed by groupie (or, Bandaid) Kate Hudson while his mother (Frances McDormand) monitors his trip via regular phone calls. Fugit falls in love with Hudson, who is in love with Crudup and considers herself a muse to both.
The film is unabashedly nostalgiac, particularly the scenes of McDormand allowing and then regretting letting her son go on the road with the band. McDormand is a conflicted personality, half free spirit, half overbearing “DON’T DO DRUGS” nag. But her affection for her child is undeniable and as she sees him grow up, their distance becomes more painful. Worse, she intuits he has found a new family (all of whom assure her when she calls that she has raised a wonderful boy while raising the specter that he is being plied with sex, drugs and rock and roll).
This is a fan’s movie, interspersing great 70s rock with a coming of age tale. Fugit evokes the awkward, sweet nature of a 15 year old lovestruck boy and his performance is beautifully sentimental. Crowe shows no fear of the maudlin which is for the most part to the film’s advantage. When the band and its coterie, breaking apart due to various strains on the road, spontaneously sing Tiny Dancer on the tour bus, you can imagine eyes rolling after reading the scene. But it works perfectly, all part of Crowe’s love letter to rock.
This is not to say that the film never missteps. It is occasionally too cute, a Crowe weakness. At one point, Hudson tells Fugit, “You’re too sweet for rock and roll” as if it needed to be said. Crowe then makes him prove it. Hudson, despondent over Crudup’s rejection of her, overdoses on Quaaludes. Fugit saves her and as she gets her stomach pumped before his eyes, he remains starstruck, mooning as she vomits (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” plays in the background). In another scene, the band plane appears to be going down, and the members all trade simmering accusations and long held secrets, which feels pat and forced.
But by and large, the film’s tone is just right, evoking the memories of your first LP and the moments when your mother actually read the lyrics on a record sleeve and took it away.
There are also laugh out loud moments, my favorite being Lee’s first interview with Fugit, where he waxes poetic on rock: “Some people have a hard time explaining rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think anyone can really explain rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe Pete Townshend, but that’s okay. Rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle and a way of thinking… and it’s not about money and popularity. Although, some money would be nice. But it’s a voice that says, ‘Here I am… and fuck you if you can’t understand me.’ And one of these people is gonna save the world. And that means that rock ‘n’ roll can save the world… all of us together. And the chicks are great. But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music.”
When the quote makes the article, his response is priceless: “Rock ‘n’ roll can save the world”? “The chicks are great”? I sound like a dick!”