Earlier this year, I turned 50 years old! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it. This is Post #22. Spoilers ahead.
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Release Date: September 22, 2000
My age then: 30 years old
What it is about: Young music aficionado William Miller gets an opportunity to write for Rolling Stone magazine about the up and coming rock band Stillwater, against the wishes of his eccentric and controlling mother Eliane. William goes on the road, befriending the band and especially lead guitarist Russell Hammond. He also becomes close to a young but experienced groupie who calls herself Penny Lane. William falls in love with Penny, who is herself in a relationship with Russell even though he is married. William’s travels with Stillwater reveals many deep schisms within the band, which then become a source of tension as he writes his article.
Starring Patrick Fugit as William Miller, Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond, Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe (the band’s lead singer) and Frances McDormand as Elaine. Also featuring Zooey Deschanel as William’s sister, Fairuza Balk & Anna Paquin as two of the other groupies, Noah Taylor as the band’s original manager, Jimmy Fallon as the band’s new manager, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as real life rock critic Lester Bangs, who becomes something of a confidante to William. Rainn Wilson shows up briefly as one of the Rolling Stone editors.
Amusingly, it was only two movies ago in this series that I watched Mumford, which also co-starred both Jason Lee and Zooey Deschanel!
My impressions of this movie before I watched it: I’d heard of it, but didn’t know much beyond the fact that Kate Hudson made an impression in her role (indeed, she won a Golden Globe, amongst other things). In a video about the use of diegetic music within movies I once saw the clip where the band is on the bus and start singing Tiny Dancer by Elton John, but I had the impression that it came from the end of the movie (in reality, it’s in the middle).
Reality: Almost Famous is delicate and almost entirely successful blend of comedy and drama. The movie is quirky and a bit off the beaten path in terms of its humor and the off-the-wall antics that it displays, but deeply honest. By that I don’t mean accurate (although it may be since many of the characters and incidents are based on writer-director’s Cameron Crowe’s real experiences as a teenaged Rolling Stone journalist), but rather authentic in terms of the characters, with their foibles and struggles. Russell Hammond, Penny Lane, Jeff Bebe and all the others are actually incredibly screwed up people, but the movie gets us to care for them as we see the way they try to find meaning in their shared love for music.
As our doorway into a whole world of nuttiness, William Miller is kind of the “straight man” of the story. But the movie isn’t content to just make him an observer.
By taking the time to give us the story of his mother and his sister, William’s status as an outsider is cemented before he ever infiltrates the backstage world of rock music. The movie is, as much as anything else, the story of William figuring out where he belongs. One of the most telling moments comes during the movie’s most famous scene–when the band is on the road after some particularly rough goings-on, and all start singing along to an Elton John song together. During this, William turns to Penny and says, “I have to go home.” She puts up her hand to silence him and replies, “You are home.” In the end, though, William manages to successfully embrace the rock music landscape without sacrificing his family to do it (indeed, he even becomes a reason for his family to come back together).
I don’t completely believe Patrick Fugit in the roll of William, which is one of the movie’s few weaker elements. He’s not particularly bad, but there are moments where he is especially upset that he feels a bit forced and artificial.
This is stark contrast to just about everyone else in the movie. Billy Crudup is rock solid as rock star Russell Hammond, who is in equal parts of troubled and selfish as he is charming and loving. Jason Lee, Noah Taylor and the rest of the boys on the road all inhabit their roles with great ease. Philip Seymour Hoffman is as amazing as you expect him to be, even in his small role.
But it’s the twin treasures of Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand who really steal the show. The two women are incredibly different, but both spark such life in their characters that they are the most memorable part of each scene they are in (and gratefully, between the two of them they are in almost every scene). The accolades they received for their roles are no surprise–they were each nominated for multiple Supporting Actress awards.
A surprising aspect of Almost Famous is how upbeat it ultimately is. I came into it fully expecting it to be about the breakdown and disintegration of a band, as so many other movies about rock bands tend to be. But actually, even though the group really hits rock bottom after all the revelations that comes out of a near plane crash, the bout of honesty actually helps them to find their feet again. Penny Lane comes out of her destructive and dead-end relationship with Russell and finds a new sense of direction. And William finds legitimate success as a rock music journalist, even as his estranged family is reunited with each other. It’s all surprisingly hopeful and positive it is, but is still authentic and believable.
So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Almost Famous is very good movie which transports us into a fully developed world that is an awkward mix of joyful, decadent and brutal.
See here for the Master List.