ALMOST FAMOUS is a lovingly crafted delight from 2000, one of the most purely entertaining pictures released in that decade. It won great reviews, hit the awards circuit and has many fans, yet it oddly eluded a large audience, coming in just 78th place for the year, the modest $47,400,000 gross sunk by a production tab of $60,000,000. Like many high-value projects that seem sure-fire as crowd-pleasers and yet somehow strike out (the terrific Walk Hard comes to mind), it at least is guaranteed a long afterlife on small screens, and, like a classic rock anthem from days gone by, is cool enough to reward frequent replay.
“If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.”
LESTER: “So, you’re the one who’s been sending me those articles from your school newspaper.” WILLIAM: “I’ve been doing some stuff for a local underground paper, too.”LESTER: “What, are you like the star of your school?” WILLIAM: “They hate me.” LESTER: “You’ll meet them all again on their long journey to the middle.”
1973. William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is 15, likes to write and loves rock & roll. Though lamb-innocent, he’s smart, ambitious and sincere, and a good enough writer to land an assignment from “Rolling Stone” magazine, working up a piece on a band called ‘Stillwater’. Buoyed by advice from well-known music journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), William hitches onto a road tour with Stillwater. They’re fronted by guitarist ‘Russell Hammond’ (Billy Crudup) and lead singer ‘Jeff Bebe’ (Jason Lee), and accompanied by devoted ‘band aids‘ like ‘Penny Lane’ (Kate Hudson) and ‘Sapphire’ (Fairuza Balk). William’s follow-your-dreams stewardess sister ‘Anita’ (Zooey Deschanel) would be proud, but his over-protective, hard-sell, single Mom, ‘Elaine’ (Frances McDormand) is understandably freaked out. After all, Rock means Parties, Drugs and Sex. Don’t worry, Mom; for a normal 15-year old guy, that sounds like living hell.
Coming off three winners—Say Anything…,Singles and Jerry McGuire—writer-director Cameron Crowe mined his own past for this semi-autobiographical time capsule, as he’d lived William’s eye-opening experience himself, on rowdy roads with the likes of The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Lynryd Skynryd. Friendships were forged, lessons hard-earned, audacity rewarded. Virginity was an unavoidable casualty.
“Some people have a hard time explaining rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think anyone can really explain rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe Pete Townshend, but that’s okay. Rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle and a way of thinking… and it’s not about money and popularity. Although, some money would be nice. But it’s a voice that says, “Here I am… and fuck you if you can’t understand me.” And one of these people is gonna save the world. And that means that rock ‘n’ roll can save the world… all of us together. And the chicks are great.”
The look and sounds, clothes and decor, the defiant, giddy, reckless, creative attitudes of the time are recreated not with surface gloss but with detail and fidelity, affection that’s infectious; it’s a retro party you want to go to. Those who came of age then will see a looking glass: you knew these people.
The casting is inspired. Though billed 5th, Patrick Fugit has the crucial central role. An unknown who sent in an audition tape, the 17-year-old had no acting experience beyond a high school play, but his combination of boyish cutes, awkward freshness and honesty sold Crowe: he nailed ‘William’ to a tee. He could relate, saying “I was terrified and nervous and excited all at the same time, which really helped me relate to this character. This was a new world for me, so there are a lot of comparisons to William’s experiences. It was my first movie, my first sex scene, my first onscreen kiss, and on and on… I could put all that into what William was feeling. It wasn’t exactly the same, but I could apply similar feelings and it worked.” Fugit actually grew three inches during the months of the shoot.
Billy Crudup’s laid back guitar star ‘Russell’ and Jason Lee’s intense lead singer ‘Jeff’ are quite amusing, immediately recognizable types, much due to the informed script and their nuanced playing, giving them believable personality layers. Kate Hudson, 20, drew the most praise; ‘Penny Lane’ was her breakout, and remains her best work. She’s really good, though I admit to not being much of a fan: we’re more won over by her sister ‘band-aid’ essayed by smart, funny and devilishly hot Fairuza Balk. Wide-eyed charmer Zooey Deschanel has winning moments as William’s sis, and Frances McDormand racks up smiles, laughs and the right dash of poignancy as the naturally protective mother. Philip Seymour Hoffman is glove-fit as the journalist mentor Lester Bangs, equal parts cynical and passionate.
Crowe won an Oscar for his insightful and very funny Screenplay, both Hudson and McDormand were nominated for Supporting Actress and the Film Editing was up as well.
Others in the cast: Michael Angarano (William at 11), Noah Taylor, Jimmy Fallon (25, in his film debut), Anna Paquin (as ‘Polexia’), John Fedevich, Mark Kozelek, Bijou Phillips, Terry Chen, Rainn Wilson, Jay Baruchel, Eric Stonestreet and Peter Frampton. *
123 minutes originally, but the director’s “bootleg” cut runs 161: seize it by the amp and Rock the F-On.
* Frampton helped Crowe and Crowe’s wife (at the time) Nancy Wilson, from the band Heart, write the original songs the dudes from Stillwater play. Including those five numbers written for the movie, a total of 51 songs from the era decorate the soundtrack, riffing memory chords from the daze and confusion of some free-spirited days.
Crowe—–“I wanted to find a way to tell a story that captured the people I’ll never forget, and the feelings I had meeting the bands, doing interviews, going to see shows…I didn’t want it to be like some of those semi-autobiographical stories that glorify the writer because the truth is I never felt like the center of any room I was in at that time. I was an observer. That’s what the character of William Miller is – he’s an observer.”
“In some ways, doing this movie was my way of saying thank you to the people who spoke to me and reached me and changed my life: my mom, my favorite bands, my sister, Lester Bangs, and the girls that taught me a little bit about love along the way. Those times and places and people are unforgettable to me. It was a time that in some people’s eyes is ancient history … but it was just around the last corner and hopefully we caught a whiff of it with this movie.”
WILLIAM: “Well, it was fun.” LESTER: “Because they make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.” WILLIAM: “I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn’t.”LESTER: “That’s because we’re uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.”WILLIAM: “I can really see that now.” LESTER: “Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start.” WILLIAM: “I’m glad you were home.” LESTER: “I’m always home. I’m uncool.” WILLIAM: “Me too!” LESTER: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”