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Movies Everybody Should See – Almost Famous

Once a week here at TWBT we will be discussing a movie we agree everyone should see at some point in their lives. For the most part we will try to avoid the really obvious choices (The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Die Hard, etc) as their reputations are such that if you are at all interested in film you’ll already have seen them, or you will be aware you probably should. In certain cases an obvious classic may be discussed if we think we have something new to say, or just really want to talk about it, but by and large we are looking at films the casual film fan may not have seen. This list will run the gamut as we’ll be looking at older films, foreign films, genre films, cult films, exploring the whole diverse world of the movies.

This weeks entry is…

Almost Famous.

Cameron Crowe, director of Say Anything and Jerry Maguire, the films that gave us the image of a lovesick teenager holding a boom box above his head, and the line “you had me at hello”, had a pretty interesting life before he became a director. And when I say pretty interesting, I mean a life many people would kill for. He was a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, who went on tour with The Allman Brothers Band, and interviewed, among others, The Eagles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and David Frickin’ Bowie. Also, he was fifteen years old. He spent his teenage years (a period many would say is our most awkward) hanging around some of the greatest artists the world has ever known. Needless to say, this experience gave him some interesting anecdotes.

Almost Famous is that story.

Sort of.

The fifteen year old in the movie is not Cameron Crowe, but William Miller, and the band he goes on tour with is not The Allman Brothers Band, but Stillwater. This step back from reality and a beat by beat retelling of Crowe’s experiences allows him some artistic license and the room to craft a richer narrative.

William Miller is raised by his single, over-caring, college professor mother (Fargo‘s Frances McDormand) who believes that rock music will corrupt her children into drug addled sex maniacs. William’s sister finds this type of love so overbearing that she leaves home as soon as she is eighteen. But before she goes she leaves William a little present: All of her rock and roll albums. And so begins William’s infatuation with (seriously great) rock music.

It is not long before William is writing for a local rock magazine and is sending his stuff to legendary real life rock critic Lester Bangs (here played by a never better Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He soon gets commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine, who have no idea he is fifteen, and he starts touring with Stillwater, a band on the verge of hitting the big time. What follows is a note perfect coming of age story that captures the love between characters, the love of rock and roll, the love between fan and artist, the love of the scene, the vibe, and the friction between creator and critic, and creativity and commerce. Or, as frequent Brevity contributor Dan puts it, “Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe’s love and fascination with that strange, lurid, micro world rock n roll inhabited in the early 70’s before everything went to shit and fucking iTunes.”

The film may be a love letter, but its genius lies in the way it handles its own sentimentality. This is a film that could easily veer too far into saccharine territory but it manages to avoid this by keeping all of its characters human, and flawed. This is most apparent in the members of Stillwater. They see themselves as rock icons, one character literally labels himself a “Golden God!”, but the film shows us the vain, needy, self conscious and vulnerable people beneath the surface. It’s clear why William would think these guys are cool, and at times they are, but at other times they’re all kinda… dicks. Everyone on Stillwater’s tour is desperately trying to avoid the real world, except William who is trying to truly experience it for the first time. Into this shared make believe steps Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a groupie (who refutes that label, calling herself a Band Aide) who tours with the band and has an on again off again relationship with the band’s guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup). Penny’s friendship with William is the heart of the film, and it takes him about two seconds to fall in love with her, which is one second longer than it will take you.

None of the characters on this tour want to be themselves. They are attempting to inhabit their ideal selves, no matter how impossible. Jason Lee’s front man wants to be the center of attention that gets the audience off and can’t stand that the guitarist is stealing some of his limelight. Russell wants to only be seen through the eyes of those who adore him. Penny doesn’t let anyone know her real name. She just wants to go along for the ride, afraid to start her own journey. But William, as a journalist, someone whose literal job is to report on who these people are and what they do, confronts them with the truth. And it hurts. And that is rock n roll, there is glamour and there is magic, but there is also truth and pain.  It is not just William who grows up over the course of this film.

Every character in Almost Famous is a fully realised, textured person. It is clear Cameron Crowe loves them, it comes across in the writing and in the performances, and that makes us love them too. William is an eager, overly earnest, adorable little dork. His mother is a delight. In any other film she’d irritate, but here, thanks in large part to McDormand’s performance, is the funniest character in the movie. It’s obvious in every scene she is in her heart is in the right place. Lester Bangs is amazing, his brief conversations with William having so much depth. When Hoffman died I posted an article in memory of him and the bulk of it revolved around his scenes in this movie. Penny Lane is a miracle, one of the most beguiling characters in film. She’ll break your heart just as quickly as she steals it. Every member of the band has a personality, wants and fears, and their relationships with each other is layered. The highlight of the film comes with the band, after a troubling incident, all sat in silence on the tour bus. “Tiny Dancer” (one of the all time great songs) is playing on the radio, and the power of that music slowly brings the band together and reminds them of their purpose. That might sound cheesy but in the moment it feels powerful.

The film loves these characters. It loves this music. It loves this period. It loves it all, even when acknowledging its flaws. It feels honest. A truthful capturing of the time, of the scene, of the people who made the music and the people who loved them. It is, like the world of rock n roll itself, both true and magical.


Further viewing – If you like Almost Famous you should check out…

Cameron Crowe’s other films.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Crowe went undercover in a highschool to get material for his script for Fast Times… and what he got was pretty great. Immensely quotable, and full of before they were famous faces such as Forrest Whittaker, Sean Penn, and Nic Cage.

Say Anything. Witty, warm, surprisingly mature. One of the best movies about teenagers ever made.

Come back next week when we’ll be discussing another movie everybody should see with Amadeus.

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