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Almost Famous

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All-Reviews.com 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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll. Burhanuddin Rabbani understands the power of this troika, which is why he keeps his Taliban morals squad combing Kabul with whips and chains to take care of any woman who dares show her left eyebrow in public, keeps an ear out for degenerate music, and may not be too sure that coffee is not the Devil's brew. The picture of America imprinted on Rabbani's brain like a tattoo on a with-it American girl's ankle could be that of the bygone era in which the beards sported by our country's youth symbolized anything but the religious fanaticism of today's fundamentalists.

Where have those liberated times of the late sixties and early seventies gone now that the cell phone is our country's soundtrack, the personal computer the hallucinogen of choice, and Wall Street replaces the sack as the instrument of getting off? No wonder that Cameron Crowe's autobiographical character in "Almost Famous," William Miller (played by the heretofore unknown Patrick Fugit), could keep not a semblance of objectivity when asked to write an unbiased journal article about the fictitious rock group known as Stillwater.

Cameron Crowe, whose blockbuster hit "Jerry Maguire" dealt with a sportscaster's crisis of conscience, takes on a similar theme with this work. This time a 15-year-old kid, asked write objectivley about a rock band in 1973, must tackle his guilt as he decides to cast aside a journalist's detachment and replace neutrality with passionate partisanship. In the role of a 15-year-old prodigy about to graduate from high school, the bright, curious, eager William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is assigned by a second-tier magazine to knock out an article about the explosive rock scene during the still robust days of student rebellions a couple of years before the U.S. withdrew its forces from Vietnam. A virgin in many ways--never been kissed, never been out of San Diego, not the sort to fit in with the regular guys in his high school, William is full of anxieties and excitement as he tries to get through the back door of a Black Sabbath rock concert but is shunted aside as a novice. But when he suddenly impresses members of the band with his knowledge of their background, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) invite him to join them backstage. Fortuitously gaining an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine editor Ben Fong- Torres (Terry Chen) and smitten by Russell's adorable mistress Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William gets far more than he bargained for. Not only does he capture the spirit of this effervescent but occasionally confrontational group with their women followers (known as band-aids because they serve as the group's muse): he joins them on their nationwide bus tour as they knock the crowds dead wherever they perform, gets as intimate a view as is possible for a non- member of the players, and is introduced, wide-eyed as a pug in heat, to a bevy of women just a couple of years older than he. All the while he is pursued by a profusion of phone calls from his stern but loving mom, Elaine (Frances McDormand) whose way of saying "I love you" is her repeated mantra, "Don't take drugs."

Though the band is seen through William's eyes, the face that decks the posters on almost every bus in New York City is that of Kate Hudson, who performs in the role of Penny Lane, who is captivated by Russell and uses the 15-year-old William as a liaison between her and her main man. Teased and bewitched by this lovable beauty--who even playfully urges him to join her on a trip to Morocco--William is all but ready to sell out and to write a puff piece about his experiences rather than a take-no-prisoners account of the ensemble's vehement in-fighting and marital infidelities.

"Almost Famous" is an enticing surprise, a major studio release coming on the heels of a summer of the usual dumbed-down Hollywood rubbish. Splashy, loud, and full of itself, Cameron Crowe's autobiographical coming-of-age film looks more like a beautifully photographed, gloriously scored, effectively realized project that could win the affections of both the popcorn set and fans of the loosely-structured panoramas of a Robert Altman. Though admittedly a stretch, "Almost Famous" is this year's "Nashville," which critic Leonard Maltin called "full of cogent character studies, comic and poignant vignettes, done in seemingly free-form style." Yet you could be disappointed if you expect "Almost Famous" to give you greater insight into the meaning of rock music, the wherefore of its hold on so many of the world's young people who'd lift their arms, swaying and rocking and caught up in its ecstatic grip which is often fueled by hallucinogenic substances. Many of the songs on Nancy Wilson's soundtrack are secondary, completely unknown by those who are not denizens of the scene... strains that include performances by Led Zeppelin in "Bron-Yr-Aur," Deep Purple's "Burn," and Todd Rundgren's "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference." The music is not the thing, any more than it was in Crowe's well-received "Jerry Maguire."

Instead, this is primarily a slice of Cameron Crowe himself, informed by his 1975 interview with Led Zeppelin in which he asked such penetrating questions as "When you wear the makeup, how does it make you feel?" We get the idea that the impressionable lad's excitement in taking in the essence of rock-band ambiance is matched by the band's own devotion to an interviewer who makes them feel even cooler than could an entire room of dancing devotees. When Crowe interviewed the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne in 1974, Browne was talkative with the young Crowe in speaking of his record of youthful delinquency and sexual exploits. Through this film we feel the pain of Billy Crudup's Russell Hammond, who is the stand-in for Jackson Browne--a man who treated the cub journalist like a little brother and felt betrayed by the kid's all-too-honest exposure in the magazine piece. "Almost Famous" does not give us enough of the spirit of the times, of the world outside the cocoon of rock concerts--the rebelliousness, the antiwar protests, the excitement and vigor of an age less wrapped up in money concerns than our own. But the movie has more appeal for an audience not a part of the rock world than other greats and near greats, satiric or otherwise like "This is Spinal Tap" and "Stop Making Sense" because it is told from the point of view of a kid we all wish we could have been. And to the bliss of those of us who spend our time writing about the movies, few other films glorify the critic as much as Cameron Crowe's.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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