Review: Almost Famous (2000)

The Thinker by Rodin

Some years back I reviewed Dazed and Confused. I said it was a flawless rendering of the high school experience of my generation, who are now in our upper 50s. It wasn’t a great movie but it certainly was authentic.

Apparently it wasn’t quite the only movie of its kind, because I recently learned about and watched Almost Famous, released in 2000. This is a much more enjoyable though improbable romp into the world of rock music in the early 1970s, as seen through the eyes of fifteen year old first time Rolling Stones reporter William Miller (Patrick Fugit). Fugit plays an almost impossible not-to-hug teen. Fugit resembles and acts a lot like Tobey McGuire. Two primary forces shape him. First there is his mother Elaine (Frances McDormond), a single mother who teaches college and challenges her students with her unconventional thinking. She combines an interesting mixture of new age parenting with old-fashioned parenting. She sees potential in both her son and his older sister, but feels the need to be an obsessive helicopter parent too. This means a lot of questioning about their choices and too much distrust about their choices. Her concerns are somewhat dubious because they include Simon & Garfunkel, who she thinks are pushing a drug agenda. At the same time she challenges her kids to think independently, but won’t quite give them the space they need to act independently.

Early in the movie this becomes too much for William’s sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel). The moment she is eighteen she is out of the house, anxious to escape her domineering mother for her boyfriend and a life she hopes to create as an airline stewardess. She leaves something of a time bomb: a collection of vintage Rock and Roll records for William to discover. Discover them William quickly does, and he subsumes himself into the rock and roll revolution. Along the way he meets other hipsters, most noticeably Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who acts as something of a mentor into the world of rock and roll.

With Lester’s help, William learns some of the tricks of interviewing rock stars — not an easy thing to do when you are fifteen years old. His mother though is now willing to extend half a leash, so he gains her permission to hang out around a concert by the fictitious rock band Stillwater. There with the help of a local fan girl Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William gets a backstage pass. Through a series of improbable events, the doe-eyed boy quickly gains intimacy with the rock band, and turns his access as a rock and roll reporter for Cream into a sight-unseen assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which asks him to write a behind the scenes article on the band.

If the movie has an incredulous part, it’s what happens next. Perhaps due to her daughter’s rebellion, William’s mother lets him follow the band on tour, providing he makes it back in time for graduation (he skipped a lot of grades). William immerses himself in his assignment, and quickly becomes savvy navigating the personalities in and around the band. The guys in the band seem on the cusp of making a big breakout, but can’t quite seem to make it. They see William as their potential ticket to the big leagues of rock and roll stardom through his connection to Rolling Stone. William though seems doggedly determined to get insightful interviews and to hold to the journalistic standards, all while being included in the social life and mechanics of a band on tour. This means lots of late night parties, hanging out with a tight gang of girl groupies, drugs and sex. The curious thing is how William is sort of left alone. They sense his virginity and at least initially no one seems anxious to lose that precious part of him.

At least one real rock and roller makes it into the film: Peter Frampton, who plays the role of Reg. No matter, the film feels quite authentic and should engage you. Stillwater and its groupies form a reasonably complete sample of society at large. The band members have their quirks, personalities and egos, which are easily bruised. The groupies, all young women, make a sort of life for themselves through an uncommon intimacy with the band members. Penny Lane though is clearly someone special. Kate Hudson does a delicious and exceptional job of portraying her, who William quickly falls in love with. Of course band members’ affections for them turn out to be mostly superficial. They are simply using the girls, and Penny Lane is not alone. William keeps filing away observations and quotes on index cards while grabbing interviews when he can with the help of his portable cassette recorder.

What makes the movie memorable is the careful attention given to it, which adds to its feeling of eerie authenticity. All the characters have their interesting quirks too, which contributes to its plausibility. The only one who seems to grow in this movie though is William. Both band members and their groupies seem trapped in dysfunction. It makes for a hell of an interesting ride, and it is all done so very well. Like with Dazed and Confused, there is no real off note here. The quirks in its characters strangely enhance its plausibility. In short, it’s as authentic as Dazed and Confused, just a whole lot more enjoyable and watchable.

Almost Famous is sort of an almost landmark of a film: really well done, really authentic, quite hard to stop watching and yet very much a film about real human beings. Director and writer Cameron Crowe can take a big bow for this movie, and viewers overall seem to really like it. imbd.com gives it 7.9 out of ten stars.

I liked it too, particularly the frequently mesmerizing performances of Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, but also for the lesser seen roles, like Frances McDormand as William’s mother. Yet this is a movie principally focused on William. His mother is right in one respect: it was good to give him this opportunity to follow the band. William quickly turns from boy into man. In a few short weeks he gains a maturity that takes many of us decades to acquire, if we reach it at all.

In other words, the movie is really good stuff and well worth the two-hour investment of your time. 3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

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