Almost Famous – 4.5 stars

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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!”

  1. Cal said:

    I loathe this movie, as I loathe all Cameron Crowe movies. It is no accident he married a rock star. All his movies are about the importance of unrequited, all-encompassing, all-giving love. It’s because he’s a groupie at heart, who just happened to get famous.

    Fugit is really too young and too virginal for the part, too.

  2. I can’t understand such vehemence but if it is any consolation, Crowe and his wife divorced!

  3. Crowe’s experiences on the road occurred when he was 18 and I loved the fact that Fugit was 15. It kept the film in the sweeter, safer world of the child, which is the viewpoint Crowe, for better or worse, wanted to show. If Fugit is 18, he’s had sex, he’s doing drugs, and there is no 2 call a day rule with his mother.

  4. Cal said:

    I think you can have a 15 year old who doesn’t look 12.

    Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous. All of these movies have as a key character a person without tremendous talent or drive who loves, unstintingly, a person with more talent, drive, and ambition. Their entire goal is to be the caretaker of that person, and this is seen as an admirable trait. It was interesting in the first, cloying in the second, and pretty offensive in the third, as she’s only a step or so up from a prostitute.Toss in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he only wrote, in which the primary romantic lead worships virginally from afar (but at least, he’s the high achiever).

    Significantly, these are all the movies Crowe is famous for. When he left the groupie model, he didn’t do much.

  5. I actually agree with your analyses, but these are essentially light comedies with very strong and funny supporting characters and sharp dialogue, so your central criticism seems but a glancing blow. Almost Famous is also a different fish in that it is constructed as a love story to a thing (rock and roll), whereas the other two films are love stories about people (Cusack to Skye, Zellwegger to Cruise).

    The Hudson-Crudup-Fugit “love” triangle is really just a means to an end, to create some dramatic tension to what is otherwise a travelogue in the vein of a kid’s trip with a traveling circus. Fugit can’t really be with Hudson – he has a boy’s crush, which is charming and ineffectual. Crudup doesn’t really love Hudson, and vice versa, but they are ornaments of what they do love – the circus. And the circus is fun, light, wry and smartly evaluated by McDormand, and the greatest profession of love is the group sing-a-long to Elton John.

  6. Cal said:

    In the same vein, I don’t disagree with your analysis, but once you see the pattern, it’s hard to unsee. Say Anything is by far the best, in large part because of the gender switch of the support. John Cusack is the charming underachiever who wants nothing more than to be a good “wife” to the high achieving brilliant girl. This is not only unexpected, it’s something that almost every high achieving or even just brilliant girl/woman secretly wants.

    In Jerry Maguire, Zellwegger is nothing more than a dedicated wife who pretends to be a secretary. In Almost Famous, Kate Hudson is little more than a hooker who doesn’t actually collect money, but just has her expenses paid. You can see the decline, can’t you? It’s hard to unring the bell, even though viewed individually there’s nothing wrong about your analysis. Yes, I thought McDormand was wonderful. Crudup was fine. I do disagree with you about Hudson’s dedication to r&r; she talked a good line, but she was clearly dedicated to the star, and just pretending to be dedicated to R&R because that’s what her boy wanted to hear.

    So once you know the pattern, Crowe’s movies become actively offensive. In the meanwhile, they do no harm.

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