Despite being a commercial failure when it was first released, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) is the kind of movie that can easily please every audience member with its humour and performances. That being said you might find a lot more to enjoy or indentify with if you are either a fan of rock music or have an interest in journalism because the movie focuses on a young reporter imbedded with an up-and-coming rock band in the early 1970s. Since the movie is based on Crowe’s own experiences touring with big name bands in his youth it gives a very accurate behind the scenes look at that unique, entertaining, and sometimes damaging world.
The first time I tried to watch the movie was during movie night when I was still living in my mom’s place and it was my older brother’s turn to pick the movie. Unfortunately this was still the days of renting DVDs and some nimrod had scratched the disc so about ten minutes into the movie we gave up because the image kept screwing up. Fast forward to last year when I finally get to check my brother’s choice on Netflix without having to worry about a scratched DVD. Sorry Blockbuster, this is why you went out of business. It actually helped a little for me to wait a few years since now like the film protagonists I am a reporter and I sometimes interview rock bands as part of my job. Maybe it’s because the 70s are long gone, but I have yet to interview a band member who gets high on drugs and jumps from the roof of a house into a pool while claiming to be a golden god.
Crowe’s stand-in throughout the story is William Miller (Patrick Fugit) a young man who is actually much younger than he imagined since his protective mother Elaine (Frances McDormand) lied to him about his age. His older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) is instrumental in his life journey by deciding to leave the family home early and telling William to pursue his dreams and to also go through her extensive record collection. Dedication and hard work gets him a job working for rock journalist Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to cover a Black Sabbath concert. William’s young looks make it difficult for him to even get through the front door of the concert, but he does manage to get backstage where he befriend Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) the guitarist of a band called Stillwater, and Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) a rock groupie.
Proving that sometimes you need to know the right people, the connections land William a job with Rolling Stone magazine to cover Stillwater on the road. Of course the magazine has no idea William is actually a minor, but if he pulls this off and gets a great article published it could be the start of a long career. Not to mention he would be touring with a rock band all over the country, which by all accounts sounds awesome. Only it is and it isn’t.
Some of the many words of wisdom Lester Bangs gives to William are that the members of Stillwater are not his friends. He should focus on his assignment and getting the story done, but as the tour progresses the line between professionalism and friendship becomes blurred as he hangs out with the band members like he was one of them. He also watches them do crazy things on drugs and put up groupies as a stake during a poker game. Adding further complications is the love triangle between William, Penny, and Russell. What exactly should he choose to include in that article?
Meanwhile of course William’s mom is constantly worried about the bad things her son could be doing on the road, and rightfully so in some cases. It could have been easy for McDormand to play that character as just a conservative mom who hates hippies, but she does genuinely worry about her son’s well being and understands why William worships the band. In a great scene she talks to Russell over the phone and lets him know very bad things will happen to him if her son’s spirit is broken. That is one mama bear you do not want to mess with.
This being a movie about a touring 70s rock band the soundtrack is of course fantastic, with hits from Elton John, David Bowie, and The Who. Also noteworthy is the supporting cast made up of actors who had not yet achieved huge success, such as Jimmy Fallon, Anna Paquin, Rainn Wilson, Jay Baruchel and Eric Stonestreet. Oddly enough Patrick Fugit is now actually less famous than these actors despite starting his career in an award-winning film.
Almost Famous has a lot to say about fame, music, journalism, but also life in general. You don’t have to be an aspiring reporter to see wisdom in the words of Hoffman’s or McDormand’s characters, since they are grown-ups in a movie populated by characters who all have a lot of growing up to do, regardless of how famous they are.