For a time, Cameron Crowe was one of the most loved voices in American cinema. He was kind of a mainstream version of Richard Linklater, making films about ordinary people, usually with a great soundtrack and a knack for love and heartbreak like few others. Say Anything, Singles and Jerry Maguire each made Crowe a bigger and bigger name.
Then came 2000’s Almost Famous.
Earning raves, awards and a loyal fanbase, if not much money initially, it extended the cult of Crowe. This was aided in no small part because it reached across multiples groups of obsessives; music and film geeks. Add to that a classic Philip Seymour Hoffman performance as the legendary – and real – critic Lester Bangs, and it was sure to become one of the definitive movies of its time.
Yet, that never really went through. Almost Famous is fondly remembered, but not talked about too often. It’s critical status is solid, if in somewhat hushed tones. The movie is the equivalent of an album you loved in high school and fear is so angst-ridden that it’s almost embarrassing to still love. The following year’s Vanilla Sky was too odd for some, not as good as the original to others. Then came 2005’s long-awaited Elizabethtown, a romantic picture that was derided, re-edited and then derided again. The cult was in chaos and then six long years went by without another Crowe release, eventually ending with 2011’s moderately earning, moderately received and barely remembered We Bought a Zoo.
Now, Crowe is about to be back on screens with Aloha. It looks to be mingling romance, comedy and drama; the things he built his career upon. If it’s a hit, perhaps Almost Famous could get a little fire going again and once more be seen as a must-see. If not, that film’s legacy could continue to be viewed as something of a time and place. Either way, I’m taking another run with Crowe, the boys of Stillwater and the movie that made Kate Hudson a star. Uh-oh. Let’s see if this thing is a Golden God.
Released on September 13, 2000, Almost Famous came out to raves and mediocre box office. While grossing $47.3 million isn’t terrible for a movie with few leading stars and which focuses around a decades old fictional rock band, it cost more than it made ($60 million) and came on the heels of Crowe’s financial and Oscar success Jerry Maguire.
The movie stars Patrick Fugit as William Miller, a would-be music journalist whose love of all things rock emerged when his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) left the house. Receiving her private stash of records, William fell for Led Zeppelin, The Who and the like in fright that his rather conservative mother (Frances McDormand) wouldn’t approve. Eventually accepting her son’s musical preferences, the barely a teenager William gets the chance to do what he loves and write about music, following the band Stillwater on tour. Drugs are offered, so is sex, and William finds himself lost and in love as he travels the country, with the legendary critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his only stone of sanity.
Almost Famous came out just after high-school ended for me and I was beginning to write more and more about movies in my spare time. Saying it resonated would be quite accurate. Helping matters was how great it all was, with Crowe conquering a balance of drama and comedy. This was mainstream cinema with intelligence, a variety of creative, live-wire characters and consistently inspired dialogue. Included in that was Hoffman’s energetic and cynical Bangs, an invigorating figure that refused to praise mediocrity and the egocentric guitarist Russell Hammond, which we all expected would make Billy Crudup huge.
Instead, that fame went to Kate Hudson. Almost Famous turned Hudson into a star and the thought was that her excellent, enigmatic performance as ultimate groupie/Band-Aid Penny Lane showed her as an actress on which to keep an eye. A career of genuinely awful romantic comedies though might imply otherwise.
This one has to be good right? I mean, sure Vanilla Sky didn’t’ quite hang together, Elizabethtown fumbled along and We Bought a Zoo was forgettable…but……
I mean, sure Kate Hudson went on to make Bride Wars, Fool’s Gold and You, Me & Dupree…but…
Some filmmakers just peak and that’s how it turns out to be. I’m putting my foot down; Almost Famous is excellent…right?
Almost Famous hasn’t aged a day. In a manner, this makes sense. It always was a period piece, released twenty-some years after the initial semi-fictitious events that were inspired by Crowe’s actual work as a teen journalist for Rolling Stone. Now, those events are removed further as its times remain vibrant, wild and temperamental.
Crowe’s movie is a great one, with a streak of humor that always know the precise time to pop its head in and when to linger a few beats longer on a dramatic note. This all stems from the fascinating characters he crafted, each one complex and flawed in their own particular manner. Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane is an optimist, thinking the words said in private are always the truest. She is smart about the world she surrounds herself with, as long as it isn’t about her. Penny is the kind of person who can give the best advice, while remaining naïve to every lie or emotion aimed her away. Our lead William is a teenager in over his head, thankfully played by the actual teen-aged Fugit. William is talented, perceptive and quick to fall in love, be it with music or a woman, in the way only a person of his age can.
Rounding out our core trio is Crudup’s Russell Hammond, the guitarist and most admired member of Stillwater. Russell is ego run amok. He’s a man so careful about his own persona that he consistently lets William in enough to admire his coolness, but at an arm-distance to conceal the messier bits. A rather sad, pathetic person, Russell’s defining moment comes at the dawn of the last act as the band and their closest crew are under the belief that their airplane is about to crash. In this instant, Russell admits, rather genuinely, that he’s essentially sorry for being a piece of shit and not stating his love and admiration for those dearest to him. Amidst this honesty, they largely throw it back in his face, stating the fact that they hate his guts. Crudup, who is incredible here, plays this beautifully. He is shocked, having finally opened up to get a punch right to the gut.
Crowe controls these high-level revelations, and all of the drug-fueled insanity around it, with a gentle touch. There is intimacy in each scene, with William as the well-rounded entry point. When he is by Russell’s side on a brief sabbatical from the band, William witnesses this rock-star at his silliest/worst. Russell talks about how he just wants to be with “real people.” William gets stuck watching Russell with said people, blabbering about the authenticity of every object in some random teenager’s bedroom. As Russell speaks these ridiculous profundities, his audience is captive only due to the man’s stardom and when a pause is given, one kid just asks, “Want to see me feed a mouse to my snake?”
This knack for ending a scene with a gag to emphasize character is Crowe at his finest. This can be seen from the onset, as we learn of the paranoia and particular nature of William’s mother Elaine, played to perfection by McDormand She rants about the evils of rock music, citing the quaint Simon & Garfunkel of all people as prime examples of the genre’s indecency. Of course, Crowe also depicts the kindness.
Elaine finding Simon & Grafunkel to be frightening pop culture; how quaint. As an even younger William finally learns that his true age has been a lie and that he in fact is a full two years younger than his classmates, Elaine says, in full sweetness, “Honey, I knew you were expecting puberty but you’re going to have to shine-on a few more years.”
Then there is the glory of legendary and actual rock-critic Lester Bangers. Philip Seymour Hoffman never looked as pumped and joyous in a role. Lester is the grounded voice for William, stating time and again that, “You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful.” His love and hatred of music is a loving, rather genuine portrait of the critical community. Comfortable in being uncool, Lester is introduced in a dynamite scene where he yells about the “drunken buffoon” Jim Morrison, before telling William he doesn’t have time to shoot the shit with a fan. Of course, seconds later Crowe shows him on what is likely his seventh cup of coffee babbling and ranting with the young fellow at a diner.
These little touches are ever-present in Almost Famous. Crowe has such control over the tone, never undercutting the progression of his narrative for the sake of a joke, while also saving the heavy stuff for when it will hit the hardest. When we finally get to Penny at her lowest, dumped and alone in a city where so many of her “friends” are also hanging about, the impact weighs all the more because Crowe hasn’t punched that card to that point. It’s a showcase for Hudson, who has never been this good again, but is nevertheless worth the praise she garnered here.
The whole thing bares an earnestness that refrains from tipping into sappy. Many filmmakers have tried for this since, attempting to blend the heart, drama and laughs in a confident concoction. Most of them have failed (Mendes’ abysmal Away We Go), a few handfuls have succeeded (Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right) and some have been by Crowe himself. I hope Aloha is a return to form. If not, we’ll always have Almost Famous.