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IN SHORT: yummm. [Rated R for language, drug content and brief nudity.]
There's been a rat-a-tat-tat of messages slamming the 70s as being a worthless decade for film and music. Well, if that's the way you feel, stay the hell away from writer/director Cameron Crowe's follow-up to Jerry Maguire, 'cuz Almost Famous is squarely planted in 1973, a story loosely inspired by Crowe's own experiences as a 16 year old reporter for Rolling Stone magazine.
That being written, Almost Famous is not an autobiography. It does not provide a reason to wallow in nostalgia. Mixing real people with created characters allows Crowe to salute his mentors and deliver the life inspiring bits that seem to mark his movies. Simply, Almost Famous is a heapin' helpin' of warm fuzzies with a soundtrack which may have you mouthing the words as the music blares out of the surround sound speakers. All the above, it is a beautifully written film topped by terrific performances by Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson and newcomer Patrick Fugit, who plays the 15-year old, almost high school graduate William Miller.
The Miller household, ruled by widowed philosophy professor Elaine (Frances McDormand), is a world which forbids meat, sugar, white flour, caffeine and the corrupting influence of rock and roll. When daughter Anita (Zoey Deschanel) attempts to smuggle in a vinyl platter filled with songs about drugs and promiscuous sex -- Simon and Garfunkle's "Bookends" -- Elaine brings the hammer down and Anita flees to San Francisco with her boyfriend, to start a life as a stewardess. Crowe sets up a mother so controlling that she destroys one parent-child relationship and is well on the path to doing the same to her son. The exception is that William was always the "special," favored child who, because of the great age difference between himself and his classmates, is empty and aching and terribly lonely. Discovering a cache of rock and roll records that Anita had left behind, William's world secretly starts to open as he stares into a lit candle and listens to The Who's Tommy.
Let's stop for a second and talk about Frances McDormand's performance. It is almost cliché to describe her character as a controlling monster, but to the eyes of a fifteen year old, and this is a story told from those eyes, she is. While William is the apple of her eye, and thus allowed to roam a bit, without either child this woman is nothing. McDormand's performance rings bells for any of us who've had mom problems -- it did for me. It did for the woman next to me. It may for you. It is nothing less than the high bar which we've come to expect from the actress.
William, by now fifteen, actually gets mom to sit and listen to the records with him. He begins to write for local papers in San Diego. He idolizes Creem Magazine writer/editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who takes a liking to the kid and offers him thirty five bucks to do a thousand words on Black Sabbath. In pursuing that gig, a couple of very significant things happen. Bounced at the backstage door of a Sabbath gig, William is befriended by a trio of "band Aids" (as opposed to groupies, the difference left to you to discover in the flick) -- leader Penny Lane (a luminous Kate Hudson), Polexia Aphrodisia (Ana Paquin) and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) and with their help gets past Security as a guest of opening act Stillwater.
"Luminous" is not an improper adjective for Kate Hudson's performance, either. Fancying the "band Aids" to be muses for the musicians she inspires the road hardened pros, protects the new sprout and will break any teenboy's heart, on or off screen.
The band regards William as "the enemy," as he is of The Press. He is also a major fan of the band and the band likes having their egos stroked as much as they like having the backstage groupies . . . well, you know. The danger doubles when an unsolicited phone call comes in from editor Ben Fong Torres (Terry Chen) at Rolling Stone magazine, and Miller sets off on the road with the band to do his first feature piece.
Lester Bangs told him not to get friendly with the band, but William does. He also gets his first kiss, makes his first real friends and starts that long path towards adulthood as four days on the road turns into a couple of weeks. While the the leaders of the band (Billy Crudup and Jason Lee) fight it out on and off the stage and everyone else smokes their dope, puts the do not disturb signs on the door or recuperates in the bus named "Doris," William is a wide eyed observer to the rock 'n' roll circus, trying to do a very adult job in a world filled with grown up kidlets and kidlets who want to be grownup too damned soon. The bus rides take up a good hunk of the film as this band becomes family. When fame comes calling on the band, the folk in San Francisco take notice. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner (Eion Bailey) calls demanding his article and the kidlet must choose between the pros and his professional duty. There's so much more woven into this tapestry that I'll leave the rest to you.
Those of you that have read the History of Cranky know that I was involved in the radio side of the music biz for a good number of years (from about 1975 on) so I can report that the detail in Crowe's work is pretty much dead on -- there were no such things as "band aids" by my time, but the story works so well I'll accept it as fact. I'm guessing that this Stillwater is fictional (there was a Southern Band by that name that did an album around 1983 or '84) and I never met Lester Bangs, though what comes out of Philip Seymour Hoffman's mouth sure sounds like what I read in Creem Magazine. Even more trivial, the record label on Tommy correctly reads "Decca." You'd be surprised how many movies screw up with details like that and Crowe's attention to detail alone would be worth an extra half a star . . . if that's what we gave out.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Almost Famous, he would have paid...
You're going to be hearing Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" on classic rock radio formats three or four times a day for at least the next month or two. It's appearance in the soundtrack is a turning point in the film and continues a long stretch of soundtrack songs that perfectly fit, but never overwhelm the story. I think you could bet hard cash that there's not a song written after 1973 in the soundtrack, except for the Stillwater material contributed by composer Nancy Wilson (half of the band called Heart and the marital half of director Crowe) and Peter Frampton.
And yeah, there's a ton of Led Zep in there, too.
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