Entertaining, Thoughtful Expose
Release Date: September 15, 2000
Audience: Teenagers & adults
Runtime: 123 minutes
Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Cameron Crowe
Producer: Cameron Crowe & Ian Bryce
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Address Comments To:Jeffrey Katzenberg & Steven Spielberg
100 Universal Plaza, Bldg. 10
Universal City, CA 91608-1085
Based on Crowe’s own life story, ALMOST FAMOUS opens with a sequence that sets the stage for a family drama that years later has repercussions for a rock and roll band struggling to become famous. William Miller is a young boy being raised by a strict single mother who’s a teacher and an intellectual. Played by Frances McDormand, the relentless police chief of FARGO, Mrs. Miller loves to converse with her smart son (who’s skipped a couple grades) about the finer things in life, including the characters in TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. Her strict moral code grates on the nerves of William’s sister, however, who flies the coop as soon as she hits 18. On her way out, the sister gives 11-year-old William all of the rock and roll records her mother has banned from the house.
Four years later, in 1973, William has become a true rock aficionado, and has even taken to writing rock and roll reviews for the local alternative newspaper in San Diego. He makes friends with Lester Bangs, the famous editor of Creem magazine, who gives him insightful advice on how to be a rock journalist. Never be friends with the band, Lester tells him.
William then gets an assignment from the prestigious Rolling Stone magazine to go on tour with an up-and-coming band called Stillwater, even though the magazine’s editors don’t know he’s only 15. Against her better judgment, Mrs. Miller lets William go, but only if he doesn’t miss any tests in his final semester at high school and only if he promises not to take any drugs.
On the tour, William becomes smitten with a young groupie who, he later learns, is in a heavy relationship with Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Russell (played by Billy Crudup of WAKING THE DEAD and JESUS’ SON). The groupie calls herself “Penny Lane” after the famous Beatles song. Despite his affection for Penny, William cannot bring himself to hate Russell, whose talent has surpassed that of the band’s other members. Russell suffers in silence, trying to keep the band together until they can finally taste the success they’ve worked so hard to attain. William admires this sacrificial quality in Russell, not to mention his talent, but William himself starts to suffer in silence when he learns that the band members realize what’s going on anyway. They suspect that Russell really wants to break out of their shadow, and William starts seeing the tension among the band. William is further distraught when he learns that Russell is actually married and plans to ditch Penny when his wife is with him when the band’s tour hits New York City.
Russell and Penny’s encounter with William, who retains his mother’s sense of moral integrity, leads to a series of revelations and outcomes that affect everyone, including William’s mother and sister. In the process, William comes of age and learns a few lessons of his own.
ALMOST FAMOUS is an extremely entertaining movie full of humor and, of course, rock music. Although R-rated for some strong obscenities, a few drug references, a shot of female nudity, and some suggestive sexuality, the movie is not excessively salacious. In fact, the writer-director, Cameron Crowe, is not interested in showing viewers explicit sex and nudity, or assaulting their eardrums with heavy metal music or music with vulgar lyrics. He’s mainly interested in the moral, redemptive themes in his story. In fact, he is so interested in them that some critics might accuse him of being overly optimistic and sentimental, to the point of distorting reality. These qualities are what give the movie its charm, however. Clearly, Crowe is enamored with the best that classic rock music of the mid 1960s to mid 1970s had to offer. In a way, his movie is a lament for that music, which has been killed not only by commercial demands but also by the gritty urban punk and rap music that has emptied pop music of its beauty and goodness.
This is not to suggest that ALMOST FAMOUS glosses over the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle in which many bands indulged at that time, and still do. Indeed, the description of the story in this review only scratches the surface of the revelations that threaten to tear the Stillwater band apart. In fact, that’s where much of the movie’s satire comes – in naïve William’s encounter with the wild life of an “almost famous” rock band on tour. How he handles that situation, not to mention his first major assignment as a professional writer, is one of the things which make ALMOST FAMOUS unique, as well as enjoyable and endearing. The contrast between William’s innocence and the wild rock scene he encounters will make viewers see that scene through his eyes. One of the most important lessons William learns is that, contrary to what his sister tells him, trying to be “cool” like the rock stars he idolizes is not a proper goal in life, but having moral integrity is. Moral integrity is also a lesson that Russell and Penny learn as well.
Another important theme in ALMOST FAMOUS is the idea that you can lose your true identity when you become famous, or when you hang around famous people whom you idolize. This is true for both Russell and Penny, who have indeed lost their identities. Their story is one of making a journey back to the real world. Even William, when he finally comes home from the tour, is greatly relieved to be back in the real world with his mother.
Once again, Billy Crudup turns in another excellent performance, as Russell, Crudup’s third good performance this year. Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson are also perfect as William and Penny. Hudson and Crudup’s scenes are especially good when they appear onscreen with Fugit. ALMOST FAMOUS is clearly a personal movie for the director, and these three actors make the story come alive. Finally, Frances McDormand is a treasure to behold as William’s mother. Despite some flaky comments, she does an excellent job of portraying the warmth that only a strong, concerned parent can give. The quirks in her character’s nature add zest to that strength, making it more memorable than it otherwise would have been.
The subject matter of ALMOST FAMOUS makes it a problematic movie for family audiences, however. Crowe may not concentrate on the sleazier aspects of the life of a rock and roll star, including the foul language, and his primary interest may be the redemptive aspects of his story, but there are enough objectionable elements to give parents second thoughts about allowing their teenagers to see ALMOST FAMOUS. For example, although the 15-year-old rock journalist retains his mother’s moral integrity, in one scene he does eventually succumb to the sexual temptations on the rock tour. Such an incident may indeed have happened to Crowe in real life, but teenage sexuality, no matter how “tastefully” portrayed, is very dangerous to depict on screen, even if you make it very clear that it is a bad thing. Crowe does not, in fact, make that clear, but the rest of the movie implies that the rampant drug and sex on a rock tour is not conducive to having healthy relationships with other people.
The subject matter of ALMOST FAMOUS is problematic, but the director, Cameron Crowe, does not focus on the sleazier aspects of the wild life of a rock band, including the strong foul language. He is more interested in the redemptive aspects of his movie. In fact, the most important lesson William learns is that having moral integrity is better than trying to be “cool” like the rock stars he idolizes. Ultimately, ALMOST FAMOUS is a very entertaining, insightful piece, which is marred by some very objectionable elements