Almost Famous

Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring: Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, and Patrick Fugit

Four Stars

Almost Famous

"Is a song better when it actually happened to you?" This is the question posed to up-and-coming rock star Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) by 15-year-old wonder-kid journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who is on his first assignment for Rolling Stone magazine. (Yes, at 15!) Russell never does answer him.

Cameron Crowe's autobiographical film, Almost Famous, is a real pleasant departure from stereotypical big-budget studio movies. It will appeal to the 20-something crowd because of its clever infusion of humor and be a big hit with the baby boomer crowd for its nostalgic glimpse into that late '60s, early '70s, rock 'n' roll period, just before disco crashed the scene.

It was an era of a lot of drugs, a lot of "free love," and lot of disillusioned souls who were caught between expectations of the life they had always been taught to follow and the life that was waiting to be lived.

Most of the trippers back then didn't think too much about the life that lay ahead (read: yuppies!), but instead were content to sit back, light up a joint, and tell themselves that they were concentrating on the moment at hand. They were "in the moment," so to speak, always high and always happy. But was this happiness a facade for something far more complex lurking under the surface? Those unexplored, often turbulent waters are the stuff that makes going on the journey with the fictitious band Stillwater in Almost Famous so entertaining.

William lives with his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand) and sister (Zooey Deschanel) in San Diego, California. He is a kid who, mind-blowingly, has his goals set in life at an age before most of us are old enough to get our driver's licenses: He wants to be a music journalist.

He finds tutelage and his first assignment writing for Creem Magazine under the wing of legendary music critic Lester Bangs. It's not long before he gets a call from a Rolling Stone magazine editor (true story, folks) who has read his work and wants to commission him to do a piece on what could be the next hot band to emerge from the rock 'n' roll rubble.

William takes off on the road with the band and their usual set of hangers-on and groupies and is quickly swept away in the sense of family and community that abounds. William has found a place to belong. But is this sense of community real or imagined? Through it all, the struggle for William becomes trying to stay true to his beliefs, just like a good journalist, so his piece will remain objective.

The lovely groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) befriends him, and together they form a bond of friendship more akin to brother/sister than adoring groupie/promiscuous rock star, which is what Penny is to hunk guitarist Russell Hammond. Penny is young, infatuated, and lost, symbolizing the emotional undercurrent of the time.

And, strangely enough, it is not our protagonist, William, for whom we feel deeply (perhaps because Patrick Fugit, while competent, is the least experienced among the cast), as much we do for Penny Lane, who elicits the real emotion in the film.

Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson
Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson

Through all the confusion of trying to navigate life on the road, William stays on course and is persistent in his dogged pursuit of actually getting an interview with Russell Hammond. His journey takes him from city to city, missing school one day after another, in hopes that Russell will eventually open up and tell him his story. But Russell is dealing with a few demons of his own, and he's overly paranoid about being taken down by the "enemy," a 15-year-old reporter from Rolling Stone.

In the end, the notion that nothing is more important than reconnecting with family and community resounds. It is something that the "me first" society could take a lesson from.

The music in the film is very unobtrusive, and this is a relief. Just a few quick glimpses of Stillwater on stage are enough for us before we are transported back to the real behind-the-scenes trenches. Even the soundtrack is done tastefully and not jammed down our throats in the usual way, with five Zeppelin songs (Crowe actually flew to England to screen the film for Page and Plant) and a smattering of other introspective ballads of the times.

The acting in the film is remarkable. Kate Hudson (daughter of Goldie Hawn) practically steals the movie out from under a line-up of very talented actors. Her ethereal, caring soul lights up the screen. In addition, Billy Crudup shows tremendous charisma and vulnerability playing Russell Hammond. Jason Lee is a great deal of fun as the buffoonish lead singer, Jeff Bebe; Philip Seymour Hoffman is right on the money and hilarious as the definitely "not cool" Lester Bangs; and the film is anchored down with an exquisite and wonderfully complex portrayal by Frances McDormand as William's slightly overbearing mother: "I know what's going on there. Don't do drugs!"

One can only hope that Almost Famous does well at the box office because it is a film so much more emotionally true than Crowe's studio extravaganza Jerry Maguire. It is a film which should demonstrate to Hollywood that stories aren't entirely dead yet, and that they would be wise to give more filmmakers the opportunity to do something that means something to them.

Is a "film" better when it actually happened to you? A resounding "yes."

Rick Cipes