EXPERIENCE IT. ENJOY IT. JUST DON’T FALL FOR IT.
I don’t think there’s a rock critic around who doesn’t love this movie. In fact, it should appeal to any kind of critic because it’s not really about music but passion for the art of writing about it. I bet that every press screening back in 2000 had about 90 per cent of critics watching the movie with wide grins – they could all connect with the 15-year-old in the lead. America as a whole was less enthusiastic, resulting in disappointing box office numbers. Well, the people are not always right.
The year is 1969. William Miller is growing up in a family where the mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), is trying to raise her son to become a prominent member of society, perhaps a lawyer, and his sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) is doing her best to rebel against Elaine’s strict rules. On the day when Anita finally tells her mother that she’s leaving to become a flight attendant she does so with a Simon and Garfunkel song. Four years later, William is 15 years old and tries to make it as a rock journalist. After trying to connect with Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a legendary Creem and Rolling Stone writer who knows how to spot a talent, William is given the assignment to write a review of a Black Sabbath concert. That’s when he first meets Stillwater, an opening band, and its followers who prefer to think of themselves as “Band-Aides” rather than groupies. Stillwater takes a liking to the naive, eager young man… and so does Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), leader of the “Band-Aides”, who also has a history with the Stillwater guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).
Details ring true
This sure is a labor of love for Cameron Crowe. In 2000, he had already proven his credentials as a filmmaker with movies like Say Anything … (1989) and Jerry Maguire (1996), but this story was particularly close to his heart. He used to be a writer for Rolling Stone himself, touring with bands like The Allman Brothers. Virtually every ingredient in the film is inspired by something that happened in real life, even that hilarious scene where Stillwater is in a plane that flies into a storm. The movie is about as close to the beautiful benefits and dirty downsides to rock ‘n’ roll life that you’re bound to come. The details ring true, from the observations that a virgin teenager makes of a band trying to grow a larger audience as its members fight over the things rock bands always fight over (money, creative control, image), to the experience of seeing America on the road on drugs… right up to the portrayal of Lester Bangs, a writer who is still idolized for good or bad by modern rock journalists. It’s a coming-of-age saga portraying the teenage years of a child, as well as rock’n’ roll itself. The cast is sheer perfection, with Patrick Fugit as the wide-eyed kid, McDormand as the well-meaning but overbearing mother, Crudup as the constantly searching guitarist of Stillwater, and Hudson as the groupie who learns the hard way, in spite of what she thinks, that a groupie is all she is.
The film is beautifully shot, features great, classic rock music and one memorable scene after another. Still, in the end, where Crowe definitely proves himself as a prime filmmaker and rock journalist is choosing the right, powerful moments to reintroduce audiences to an artist who used to be great in the 1970s but has lost favor with most critics now. In 2000, Elton John became almost famous again to a new bunch of kids thanks to the use of “Tiny Dancer” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” in pivotal scenes. That’s how a critic should work.
Almost Famous 2000-U.S. 122 min. Color. Produced by Cameron Crowe, Ian Bryce. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Cinematography: John Toll. Editing: Joe Hutshing, Saar Klein. Cast: Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), Frances McDormand (Elaine Miller), Kate Hudson (Penny Lane), Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Jason Lee, Anna Paquin… Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Frampton, Jimmy Fallon.
Trivia: Frampton taught Cudrup how to play the guitar and also wrote Stillwater’s songs, with Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready providing guitar. Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were allegedly considered for the roles of Russell and Penny. The alternative ”bootleg” cut of the film runs 159 min.
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Original Screenplay, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Supporting Actress (Hudson).
Quote: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world… is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” (Hoffman)
Last word: “The battered idealist. It’s just my favorite character. I write it no matter what I do. It sort of comes from my upbringing. My mom would always say, ‘Be positive, be positive. It’s rough out there, but don’t succumb. Don’t succumb to the cynicism in the world.’ To me, a hero is somebody who’s able to accept the environment of the world, deal with the stuff that’s thrown in their path […] and somehow keep their heart. And I think there’s a way to write a movie like that and a character like that without it being sentimental or Capra-esque in the worst way. […] You can have a bunch of people on a bus singing ‘Tiny Dancer’ if you also have the brutal truth of the world represented. Because the way you battle the brutal truth of the world is to find that corner of the universe where maybe you get lost in a song and you do sing ‘Tiny Dancer’. Which is embarrassing, and you don’t want to look to your right or left, but you have that private moment. And when you’re allowed to make a movie where you celebrate those private moments, you can’t ask for more.” (Crowe, A.V. Club)