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Almost Famous

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Almost Famous

Starring: Billy Crudup, Jason Lee
Director: Cameron Crowe
Rated: R
RunTime: 122 Minutes
Release Date: September 2000
Genres: Drama, Music

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
4 stars out of 4

I was 13 or 14 when I had my first rock and roll adventure. Two years earlier, The Beatles made their initial appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and changed my life. From that night on, I devoured anything connected with the British Invasion. Not content to wait for acts to break on our shores, I bought the latest rock singles from England via a mail order company I'd found in the back pages of Hit Parader magazine.

When I learned that a package tour starring Herman's Hermits and featuring The Who and The Blues Magoos was scheduled for two shows at the Indiana State Fair, my fevered adolescent brain went into overdrive. After many phone calls, I received permission to meet the groups when they arrived in Indianapolis. Armed with a Brownie camera and a flimsy "Teen Press Card" purchased for 50 cents from Flip Magazine, I headed for a private gate at Weir Cook Airport and watched the plane taxi to a stop.

As the scruffy guys ambled down the steps, I ignored Herman's Hermits and The Blues Magoos and made a beeline for The Who. Although the group had yet to hit it big in the U.S., they were white hot in England, courtesy of several amazing singles coupled with their habit of smashing their instruments at the end of each concert. Taking a deep breath, I introduced myself to the band and we chatted briefly. Then, to my utter amazement, they invited me to join them for the shows.

My dad, bless his heart, put his wariness aside and allowed me to go. The afternoon and evening was pure magic, as I hung in the dressing areas and stood backstage during both incredible performances. The highlight of the experience came between the shows, when Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and I toured the State Fair Midway. Somewhere, I still have a faded black and white photo of Moon and me on the Scrambler, snapped by Mr. Townshend.

It was the greatest day in my young life.

"Almost Famous," the latest from writer/director Cameron Crowe ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Say Anything," "Jerry Maguire"), conveys all the wonder I felt. The semi-autobiographical film, which chronicles the life and times of a 15-year-old writer on the road with a rock band in the early '70s, celebrates the majesty, the joy and the insanity of those giddy days. With a first-rate cast and a flawless screenplay, Crowe has crafted a wildly entertaining movie that effectively captures lightning in a bottle. If rock music ever sent a shiver down your back, this is the film for you.

Crowe became a journalist as a teen and William Miller (Patrick Fugit) serves as his stand-in here. After writing several pieces for Creem magazine and a local underground paper, the San Diego boy lands a plum assignment over the phone from the editors of Rolling Stone, who have no clue just how young the writer really is. William soon lights out with Stillwater, an up-and-coming band, to gather material for a portrait of the group. Days turn into weeks as the young journalist struggles to remain objective while immersed in the lunacy of a rock tour.

The writer/band relationship begins with warnings all around. Stillwater lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) urges the group to remember that "this guy is the enemy he writes what he sees." William's mentor, legendary journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), cautions the boy to keep a critical distance, because "these people are not your friends." And Elaine (Frances McDormand), William's extremely fretful mother, never misses a chance to call him and exhort "Don't take drugs!"

On the road, William becomes close to charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and a stunning "band-aid" (a groupie with much more class) who calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). In short order, William learns that it is virtually impossible to remain a neutral observer in the dazzling traveling circus.

While watching the film, I scribbled notes frantically before realizing that the story was so well-written that I wanted to quote the whole script. The acting matches the screenplay in quality. Jason Lee, who was great in "Chasing Amy" and "Mumford," is a dynamo as the exuberant, mouthy Stillwater frontman. The remarkable Philip Seymour Hoffman does outstanding work as Lester Bangs, delivering a series of delicious tirades, including a beaut on the value of being un-cool.

Patrick Fugit, making his feature film debut, anchors the film perfectly as the nave journalist. He is exceptionally good in his scenes with Billy Crudup, who makes Russell appealing despite his many flaws. "Fargo" star Frances McDormand continues her winning streak with a crackling good turn as Elaine, who is less a mother and more a force of nature. Finally, Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's daughter, gives the production's most naunced performance as Penny Lane, a character radiant in body and spirit.

Loose, funny, poignant and totally engaging, "Almost Famous" is a valentine to the glory and madness of rock and roll. Some viewers may find the goings-on too outrageous to be believed, but let me assure you, both as the veteran of a rock band and as that wide-eyed kid walking the Midway with The Who, it's all true.

And it's all wonderful

Copyright 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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