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
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
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 naïve 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