Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Almost Famous (2000)

Director Cameron Crowe, starring Russell Crudup, Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Lee, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor

"Rock and roll's gonna save the world... and the chicks are great!". Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe's fond retrospective on an era which really believed those sentiments and which in hindsight appears almost simultaneously to be one of mild depravity (drugs and free sex) and innocence (believing that communicating with people at a concert would actually make the world a better place). The film is a thinly-veiled semi-autobiography, following the coming of age of a boy who manages to blag his place on tour with an American band.

The plot

The film starts in the late sixties. Young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is the precocious son of widowed Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand), a college professor in a state of tension over the rock 'n' roll rebelliousness of her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who subsequently leaves home as soon as she decently can, aged eighteen, to become an airline stewardess, but not before forcing her mother to tell William that he is not in fact thirteen years of age but eleven (the mother skipped him two grades in school on the grounds that they were full of "padding"). As a parting gift to William, however, Anita leaves him her collection of seminal LPs.

A few years later, in 1973, William has aspirations of becoming a rock journalist. A meeting with the cynical music journalist guru Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pushes him further in this direction, although Bangs himself is pretty candid about how "rock stars" should be regarded (they want to be your friend so that you'll promote their product) and pours acid on rock's pretensions, claiming that the scene is now in its dying throes. Finally William gets to blag his way backstage at a gig with the upcoming band Stillwater, and manages to fool Rolling Stone magazine over the telephone into paying for him to go on tour with them as a journalist. Needless to say, the ensuing events mark something of a rites of passage for him in several areas of love and life.

The film

Feelgood and almost nostalgic in its outlook rather than harsh and cutting, Almost Famous probably cannot fail to leave a pleasant, or at worst bittersweet, aftertaste in the mouth of the viewer, especially anyone old enough to remember or have bought any of the music that makes up the soundtrack. Led Zeppelin features prominently in the latter, and if you've read Hammer of the Gods then you'll recognise some of the snapshots or at least the recurrent themes. This was an era before the harshness of OPEC price hikes, AIDS and the last difficult moments of the Cold War, when people thought it possible to enjoy free love, peace and love and unlimited consumerism, and the film succeeds in capturing that sense of naivete while perhaps recognising it for the dream world that it really was. Thus in one pivotal scene on the tour when the band and William are caught in a plane during a violent storm and mostly convinced that they are going to die in the same way as Buddy Holly (the guitarist Russell Hammond even begins singing "Peggy Sue"), the band and their close entourage shamefacedly begin a collective confessional about sexual and other shenanigans, only to fall to bickering as the revelations come out.

More significant in the theme of sex, love and broken hearts is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and her fellow groupies, the Band-Aids, who insist that they are true fans rather than simply groupies and who refuse to accept the condescending term. William clearly falls for Penny very quickly, but has to remain the observer while she becomes the road partner to Russell. She insists that as long as emotions are not involved then it just remains fun and nobody gets hurt, but is obviously cut quite deeply despite her armoured exterior when William, in a fit of anger, informs her that Russell gave her and her fellow Band-Aiders away to the road crew of Humble Pie during a game of cards. Penny deals with it not by opening herself up but by taking an overdose of Quaaludes, fortunately to be discovered in time by William and stomach pumped (not too graphically, but enough to warn you) by a doctor.

An important underlying motif of the film is trust - whom you can trust, and whether you are trustworthy yourself, not only in sexual matters but generally. William himself, while a likeable youth, manages to deceive Rolling Stone into taking him for a journalism major and thus paying his way to go on tour with the band. He fails to return home at the agreed time, thus leading his steely-eyed but protective mother to claim that "my son has been kidnapped by rock stars" (in an amusing scene, her bemused class write this down as well). At the outset, Russell takes William under his wing somewhat, but lead singer Jeff Bebe is initially hostile - the boy is a journalist, and therefore The Enemy (in an interesting reversal of the roles Bangs has urged on his young protegé). And indeed Russell in a quiet moment discusses the issue of truth with William, ie what will he print? He tells the young man that other members of the band and their entourage have girlfriends and wives at home, and urges discretion on him. In the event, after a long and eventful tour that ends with the band being dropped off at a practically deserted airport, Hammond urges the would-be journalist to write whatever he wants - only to subsequently deny the truth of William's article, as do the rest of the band, when Rolling Stone submit it for print. Lest we think that only rock stars are prone to this kind of behaviour, the fast-talking new manager Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) in his moment of candour during the plane scene reveals that he has been haunted by the fact that he hit a passerby in a car once and never stopped.

Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll

Some people may be concerned that the film glamourises promiscuity and drug-taking. The truth is that it actually does not show much of either, although it is obviously implied. Drug-taking is mostly referenced in what appear to be joints among several of the band and crew in "off-duty" moments, while Russell at a party takes some LSD and ends up haranguing his audience from the roof of a poolside shed before diving in. The Quaaludes mentioned earlier are obviously taken in an attempt at self-harm rather than for recreational use. As regards sex, there is little graphic evidence in the film but plenty of inference, for example half-naked musicians in hotel bedrooms with their partners of choice, while in one scene that some might view as coming-of-age, three of the Band-Aiders seduce William. The scene itself is oddly matter-of-fact, and followed immediately after by the harsh realities of life as post-coital slumber is interrupted by a harassing telephone call from Rolling Stone magazine demanding to know of the progress on the article.

"Reality" is indeed another theme in the film. After some in-band bickering, Russell moodily storms out of a meeting and takes William with him on the search for "real people" and "reality", only to wind up at a party where he takes LSD - the complete antithesis, of course, of what most of us would understand by reality. Although the sort of rock 'n' roll played by Stillwater is pretty harmless and edifying compared with, say, the harsh lyrical undertones of the Velvet Underground or of the punk rock that was to follow, it becomes evident that being in a rock 'n' roll band, at least at that stage of history, almost has to involve some detachment from the reality known by most ordinary people, including the fans who pay to see the group. Even the fast-talking manager who comes in to take over has at least some grasp of the basic economic facts of life, namely that rock musicians can't expect to be doing this for most of their lives unless they break through to a certain level in terms of sales that enable them to follow their chosen career path. In this sense both he and Bangs are right. It may not be exactly how the dreamers at the end of the Sixties envisaged it, but it was certainly how the market was to pan out only a few years later, when that bohemian spirit was overrun by punk rock and disco music. One can only imagine how horrified Crowe was at the Stock, Aitken and Waterman period in the late eighties in the UK.

The film ends on a bright note, but part of its genius is that it leaves you (if you're old enough) with a bit of a lump in your throat without ever trying to kid you that this was a serious philosophy of life that could be sustained ad infinitum. And if you've ever been in a band you may recognise some of the power struggles, bruised egos and comradeship. Definitely a film for anyone born before 1963 or thereabouts.

Acting honours

The standard of thespianship is pretty good throughout the film, although focusing mainly on Firgit, Crudup, Lee, Hudson and McDormand, who is icily brilliant as William's mother and provides some of the funniest moments of the film. The bassist and the drummer (Ed Vallencourt and Larry Fellowes, played by John Fedevich and Mark Kozelek) of Stillwater don't get to say much in the film (Ed just gets one line, in fact). Hoffman also shines as the crotchety, opiniated but likeable Bangs. Noah Taylor is amusing as the manager (later demoted to road manager) Dick Roswell.


IMDB's entry
Candid Critic's entry which contains some interesting nuggets of information.

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