Los Angeles Times

Almost Famous


Wednesday September 13, 2000

     "Almost Famous" is not almost anything, it's all there. It's the latest project from writer-director Cameron Crowe, who's used the free ride he earned with "Jerry Maguire's" success to create something to cherish and enjoy, an intimate yet universal film that will delight you and involve your heart.
     Almost alone among makers of personal movies, a genre frequently characterized by moping and inordinate special pleading, Crowe has used irresistible performances and fine writing to turn a dramatized version of his own past as America's youngest 1970s rock journalist into an intoxicating mixture of Hollywood and reality.
     William Miller, Crowe's 15-year-old protagonist, is a young person in a very old tradition, wanting to find out about himself and the real world and hoping that the price of experience doesn't come too high. Crowe has laid hands on what's essential in his own sentimental education, has in effect made his life yours and your life his for the time this story is on the screen.
     Like Jim Brooks, who's been an influence on him, Crowe has a gift for blending things that don't usually coexist. With innate fairness, he's made "Almost Famous" as pointed as it is loving, able to cast a sympathetic but always clear and unblinking eye on the foibles of human nature and the humor implicit in them.
     Crowe also joins a keen sense of the richness of ordinary experience to an ability to catch humanity on the fly. His feeling for his characters is so exact, his affinity for personal frailty so touching, that, when matched with a cast in sync with his intentions, what results is a naturalness that films often forget how to convey.
     Above all, "Almost Famous" knows how to deal with sentimental material--the joys and embarrassments, victories and disappointments of growing up--without pushing too hard. By resisting the temptation to jam emotions down our throats, it allows them the space to be authentically moving.
     Essential to this was Crowe's decision to cast the unknown but enormously likable Patrick Fugit as William Miller.
     Fugit is a kid we warm to at once, someone whose emotions are always accessible. Fugit easily conveys the levelheadedness William will need to survive in his heady environment as well as the all-encompassing sense of yearning, the drive to be what you not yet are and fear you may never be, that could well be the defining emotion of adolescence.
     For William Miller is not coming of age somewhere in the Corn Belt; it's all happening to him in the middle of a full-fledged 1970s rock 'n' roll tour. With Crowe as guide, "Almost Famous" captures the rush, the buzz, the glamour of rock while giving meaning to the period's heady ambience of hysteria, decadence and unlikely innocence for those who remember it as well as for those who do not.
     Though it's set in 1973, "Almost Famous" starts with a prelude four years earlier that introduces the family dynamic that shaped William (played as a young boy by Michael Angarano).
     After his father's death, he's been raised in San Diego by his eccentric, fiercely protective mother Elaine (a completely wonderful Frances McDormand), a strong-minded college professor who thinks "adolescence is a marketing tool" and bans rock 'n' roll as a direct link to promiscuous sex and dangerous drugs.
     This doesn't sit well with William's older sister Anita (a fine Zooey Deschanel), who loves rock and hates living in "a house of lies." One of those lies, it turns out, is William's age. Though he thinks he's 13, like his classmates, it turns out he's only 11. "This," he says woefully, "explains so much."
     When Anita leaves home to become a stewardess, she whispers to William, "Look under your bed, it'll set you free." Waiting for him is Anita's clandestine stash of rock records, and as he carefully handles the albums by Dylan, Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and the Who, you can see what will become the defining passion of William's life start to stir.
     By 1973, though he's only 15, William is precociously hooked on writing about rock and when his idol, Lester Bangs, one of rock criticism's seminal wild men and the editor of Creem magazine, comes to town, the kid journalist wangles a face-to-face meeting that changes his life.
     Superbly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, more and more the most gifted and inspired character actor working in film, what could have been the cliched portrait of an older mentor who speaks the straight truth blossoms into a marvelous personality. (The real-life hard-living Bangs died in 1982 at age 33.)
     Write about what you know, Bangs tells him. Make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful and, most important, do not get close to the rock stars. "These people," he says with a hint of foresight, "are not your friends."
     Bangs also gives William his first assignment, to cover a Black Sabbath concert at the San Diego Sports Arena. There he is befriended by the next generation of groupies, young women including Polexia (Anna Paquin) and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) who call themselves "band aids" and are there because they truly love the music.
     Leader of this particular pack is the self-invented Penny Lane, whose combination of beauty, affability, savoir-faire and determined fragility completely overwhelms William even after he realizes, in a very amusing scene, that she is barely older than he is.
     Penny is played by Kate Hudson (it's her face behind the sunglasses in the film's poster), and her work is so delicate, authentic and accomplished that this is probably the last film for which anyone will feel the impulse to identify her as Goldie Hawn's daughter.
     Penny Lane helps William get access to Stillwater, the concert's opening act, and to the group's charismatic, sexually charged lead guitar, Russell Hammond (a role Billy Crudup absolutely nails). Almost before he can believe it, Rolling Stone is calling William (the magazine's editor Jann Wenner has a tiny cameo as a cab passenger) to offer an assignment.
     So, much to his mother's increasing horror, this pipsqueak reporter ends up hanging out with Stillwater (apparently an amalgam of the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and other bands) on their Almost Famous bus tour of America.
     Protectively looked out for by the girls and benignly neglected by the band's manager ("Shine's" Noah Taylor), William thinks his toughest problem is going to be lining up quality interview time with Hammond and tendentious lead singer Jeff Bebe (an effective Jason Lee), but that proves not to be it.
     Instead, all unawares, William has to face some major life issues: being a responsible journalist in an irresponsible milieu, determining who your friends are and who they're not and giving those who are on your side what they deserve. Throw in being 15 years old and you've got an exceptional dramatic scenario.
     Crowe may have been over his head emotionally when he traveled with rock bands before he was out of high school, but as a director he's got the wisdom of an old soul. "I'll quote you warmly and honestly," William promises Stillwater when they ask about his journalistic style, and the qualities he guarantees the band are identical to the ones Crowe lavishes on his film. See it and it'll stay with you as your own memories do: funny, poignant, bittersweet and irreplaceable.

Almost Famous, 2000. R, for language, drug content and brief nudity. A Vinly Films production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Cameron Crowe. Producers Cameron Crowe, Ian Bryce. Screenplay Cameron Crowe. Cinematographer John Toll. Editors Joe Hutshing, Saar Klein. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Music Nancy Wilson. Art directors Clay A. Griffith, Clayton Hartley. Set decorator Robert Greenfield. Running time: 2 hours. Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond. Frances McDormand as Elaine Miller. Kate Hudson as Penny Lane. Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe. Patrick Fugit as William Miller. Zooey Deschanel as Anita Miller. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs.

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