Watching ALMOST FAMOUS by writer/director Cameron Crowe (JERRY MAGUIRE)
is like enjoying one of those old vinyl LPs that are collecting dust in
your closet. As you kick back, you can remember your younger days,
while listening to some great rock 'n' roll.
Our guide on this journey to the past is William Miller, a cherubic
15-year-old high school senior about to graduate. He not only looks and
is much younger than his fellow classmates, he even seems younger than
15. In an inspired bit of casting, Patrick Fugit, a kid with sweetly
penetrating eyes and an androgynous bowl haircut, plays William. With
his expressive little smile, he looks like a kid in a candy shop whose
mother just gave him her credit card.
Today's kids dream of becoming video game designers or dot-com
zillionaires. Back in 1973 being a music critic would rank second only
to being a rock star. With no apparent musical skills but with a gift
for writing and a passion for listening to music, William sets his
sights on a career writing about rock bands. Whether anyone will take
this boyish figure as a real critic seems questionable at best.
William's mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), is a professor who warns
her family against rock 'n' roll. Even Simon and Garfunkel's music, she
tells them, is just about "drugs and promiscuous sex." Whenever she
speaks to her son, she is just as likely to say, "Don't take drugs!" --
which he never does -- as she is to say, "I love you." The
good-spirited script softens Elaine's image so that we find her a
strong, lovable character and not merely a cliché.
As a cynical music writer named Lester Bangs, Philip Seymour Hoffman
plays William's brash mentor. Lester tells William that it's too bad he
missed rock's heyday and that it's all over now. He generously gives
William his first assignment -- a small piece writing about Black
Sabbath. William repeats Lester's writing advice like a mantra from on
high: "Honest. Unmerciful." Lester warns him about the pitfalls of
writing about a band that he likes. "Friendship is the booze they feed
you," Lester admonishes him.
Although he can't even get past the stage door bouncer to see Black
Sabbath, he does manage to strike up a friendship with Clearwater, who
end up inviting him to join them on tour. This lands him a writing gig
with Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) of Rolling Stone to interview the band
on the tour, which is called the "Almost Famous Tour 73." (The
real-life Ben Fong-Torres was at our press screening, and he seemed
quite amused by it all.)
Right away, the pixyish kid is adopted by the band like a mascot, and
they take William (and us) into their world of concerts, bus trips and
groupies. They also provide enough quotes for our young scribe to fill
several volumes. "Rock 'n' roll can save the world!" Jeff Bebe (Jason
Lee from DOGMA) tells William. "And the chicks are great, right?"
Traveling with Clearwater are girls that call themselves "Band-Aids"
rather than groupies since they don't have "sex" with band members, just
oral sex -- where have we heard that one before? The leader of this
contingent is a girl who calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and who
says that she's about William's age. She and William become best
friends, but she is the mistress of Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup from
JESUS' SON), the band's most popular member. Russell, who bonds with
William, explains that all of the band members have wives and permanent
girlfriends back home so that he shouldn't write about the Band-Aids.
Crudup, who frequently seems so serious in his parts that you wonder if
he's having any fun, clearly gets a kick out of his role this time.
Russell knows that no matter how innocent William looks, he could still
be the enemy if he writes something that trashes the band or reveals too
many secrets. Russell's a trippy philosopher ("In 11 years, it will be
1984 -- think about it."), who is more profound sober than stoned.
The music is great, the concert footage is energetic and John Toll's
cinematography is luscious. A completely entertaining film, it manages
to find a cathartic way to wrap it all up. And it makes this film
critic a bit jealous since William's assignment is like the job of a
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes