Friday, November 3, 2000

Almost Famous / **** (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” is the kind of movie you might have mused about during the consistent onslaught of cinematic travesties from earlier months of the year: the one movie so well made, so enticing and so intelligent, that there comes a moment at the end when you want to break the silence with thunderous applause. It is one of the year’s crowning achievements, a film that not only cares and builds on its characters, but envelops them in a compelling story that derives serious messages through human drama and sophisticated comedy. I don’t even really mind now that it’s taken ten long months to arrive at this point.

Don’t assume, however, that the movie is actually about journalism or any of its appendages (which is what the promotional campaign seems to indicate); even though it is grounded there, the story is actually a blend of the traditional coming-of-age tale, family relationships, and a 70s rock music retrospective. The center of the picture is founded in a bright teenager named William Miller (indeed the ideal mirrorization for Crowe’s semi-autobiographical plot). He is played by Patrick Fugit, a relatively unknown young actor who, judging from this portrayal, will have calls coming in from producers by the dozens no doubt. William lives with his defensive but loving mother Elaine (the always-radiant Francis McDormand), and occupies his time listening to his sister’s record collection (in the opening scenes, she runs away from home to become a stewardess). Those tastes eventually reflect onto William’s true forte—writing—and a music reporter working with a publication called “Creem” named Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes the youngster under his wing. Soon William is writing articles for them.

His talent does not go unappreciated, as soon after, William gets a call from an editor at Rolling Stone (who has no idea that the person he is talking to is actually only 15 years old). He is asked to write a feature for the magazine on an up-and-coming rock band named Stillwater, which is headed by an easily-angered vocalist named Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), and a quirky (but down-to-earth) guitar player named Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Of course, all of this comes with an important piece of advice that every music journalist should have written down in their memory banks: never make friends with the band. 15 is an age of naivety for most of us, however, so it’s a given that William does exactly the opposite of what his mentor, Lester, encourages.

The ticket behind the film’s ultimate success is in the rich relationships between characters. Russell, the guitarist whose popularity seemingly overshadows his band mates, is one of the movie’s spinal columns, and both he and William converse with each other like lifelong friends who bask in the notion that they have similar problems waiting at home. Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), one of Stillwater’s female groupies (although the movie proudly labels them “band-aids”), also has a significant relationship here with William: sort of like a tour guide for what goes on behind stage and off camera at a Stillwater rock concert, she has such admirable charm and conviction that it’s no wonder the young guy is literally whisked off his feet by her.

But the heart of the story (and perhaps rightfully) lies in the more low-profile relationship: that of mother and son. Elaine is a woman who feels like a failure, so to speak, in terms of raising children (her runaway daughter being the prime excuse), and that regret reflects on William, whom she guides with the utmost concern and involvement a mother can possibly give. And what’s most efficient is how Crowe never tries to overplay his characters in this situation: William isn’t a spoiled brat who takes advantage of the situations, and Elaine isn’t the narrow-minded, “rock music is devil’s work”-kind of mother she might have been. In fact, when William informs Elaine of his plans to leave school and pursue this article writing thing, she’s upset and worried, yes, but supports his decision.

Crowe is one of the more fascinating filmmakers of our time, because his material over the years seems to get more and more inspired by the events that initially helped catapult him into the Hollywood spotlight (few will argue that even “Jerry Maguire,” his last big endeavor, shared a similar thread). Perhaps the experience of living his stories is what makes him such a passionate director, because “Almost Famous,” like his other films, blends solid performances, incisive dialogue, edgy humor and firm chemistry all under a narrative that has something relevant to say to everyone who sees it. This year’s many disappointments now seem almost excusable: an intellectual and charming masterpiece, “Almost Famous” would have been worth ten times the wait.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); 2000; Rated R; 122 Minutes

Cast
Billy Crudup: Russell Hammond
Frances McDormand: Elaine Miller
Kate Hudson: Penny Lane
Jason Lee: Jeff Bebe
Patrick Fugit: William Miller
Zooey Deschanel: Anita Miller

Produced by Ian Bryce, Cameron Crowe, Marty P. Ewing, Scott M. Martin, Steven P. Saeta, Lisa Stewart and Jerry Ziesmer; Directed and screenwritten by Cameron Crowe

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