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Almost Famous (DVD, 2001)
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"What Do You Love About Music?"
Sep 18, 2000
Review by e_burrell
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Great story, great cast -- stellar performances from Crudup, Hudson and Fugit, great dialogue -- an exceptional film -- perhaps the best ever about music, life and love,
Cons:it had to end
"What do you love about music?" This is the question that fifteen-year-old William Miller tries to find the answer to throughout Almost Famous. Following around lead guitarist Russell Hammond from the up-and-coming rock band "Stillwater" he keeps trying for the golden interview. It's a question that all of us grapple with at one point or another. Director/Writer Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Singles and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of youth culture. As a young man he was a promising rock journalist for magazines like Rolling Stone, interviewing and touring around the country with rock icons like Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Crosby Stills Nash and Young. His latest creation, Almost Famous, culls all his experiences together and gives us a glorious glimpse of the world of rock in 1973. Of course this being a Cameron Crowe film, it refuses to hold a single dimension and you quickly realize the film is not only about the music itself - but the people who played it, wrote about it and listened to it.
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An exceptionally talented - and voracious - young writer, William (played by newcomer Patrick Fugit) is the character whom Crowe bases around his own personae. William is raised by his single mother, Elaine Miller (Played with Oscar worthy grace by Frances McDormand, Fargo and Raising Arizona). Along with his older sister, William is brought up to believe in poetry, literature and soy products. Elaine is a non-conformist who hates rock music and drugs - an attitude made obvious when she confiscates Simon and Garfunkel albums and justifies it simply by saying "They're on pot." She's a typical worried parent, but not in the usual cookie-cutter fashion. There's something electric about Elaine and her zeal for raising her children the best she can.
Two truths are revealed to William on the day his older sister packs up her stuff and leaves. She defiantly puts on Simon and Garfunkel's America and says matter-of-factly "this song explains why I'm leaving home to be a stewardess." This is the first time William is introduced to using music to tell a story. Anyone who's heard America can testify that there's quite a story to be heard. The second truth is revealed when William discovers his big sister has willed her record collection to him and hidden it under his bed. He thumbs through the collection in awe at the albums and finds a little note on the cover of The Who's Tommy that reads "put this on, light a candle and you will see your future." As the record spins, William - and the audience - are transported into the magical world of rock and roll. This world, we'll be told many times, is not "the real world". As the power chords lurch out of Pete Townshend's magical hands the audience knows that they're about to be sent on a magical journey.
At fifteen, William is an accomplished music critic for his school paper. His heroes are ax wielding maestros like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and George Harrison. When "the greatest rock journalist in the world" Lester Bangs (from Creem Magazine) comes into town for a radio interview, William searches him out like a rock groupie and spends the afternoon with him as he spouts out sage words of wisdom. Bangs is played by the incredible Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights and The Talented Mr. Ripley). Bangs is the first person to warn William of the dangers of rock stars - their infantile attitudes, their starvation for exposure and lust for wealth. As a rock journalist, you are NOT to make friends with the rock stars - they'll use you to their own ends by giving you booze, drugs and women. Besides Lester adds, rock and roll is dying.
By a dumb stroke of luck Rolling Stone magazine contacts William and sends him on the road with a fledgling heartland stomp-rock band called "Stillwater". Fronted by lead-singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee, Chasing Amy) and "incendiary" guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, Without Limits). Stillwater is like a cross between Lynyrd Skynyrd, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bad Company. Rolling Stone wants to know more about this group as they start to explode all over the music scene - they think William Miller is the perfect journalist to bring that story.
The group itself is your run-of-the mill smattering of rock musician clichés. Lee plays the egomaniacal lead singer who's wrapped up in the image and look of the band. He can't stand guitarist Hammond who he feels thinks he's above the rest of the band - and who incidentally continually steals the spotlight. Crudup is heavenly as Russell. He's like an American George Harrison. He's one of those 70's rock dudes who are looking to find something real. He's looking for something more. Lee is great as the bearded Bebe, and makes use of his soft-spoken voice to ape the same feel that Val Kilmer used in The Doors. Inevitable rifts erupt during the tour and young William is there to catch it all. These are the usual problems that most bands run into. If you've seen rockumentaries like Let it Be, The Song Remains the Same… even the spoof This is Spinal Tap then you've seen this stuff before. That doesn't mean it's not interesting - it's just nothing new.
Along for the ride (and perfectly cast) are Kate Hudson, Fairuza Balk and Anna Paquin as the "band aids". They're not groupies - no, they're extreme in that they trade sexual favors in order to help further the artistic potential of the musicians they target. The leader of the Band-Aids, "Penny Lane" is like a quasi-Susan-Sarandon from Bull Durham when she tells William that "famous people are just more interesting".
Kate Hudson is intoxicating as Penny, and her character is in love with Russell - there's just one problem - William quickly falls in love with Penny. This is of course a cause of tension between the three of them, and even with the almost-silly circumstances the story moves along nicely with this sub-plot.
You see Russell has a wife but whenever he's on the road he's with Penny. Penny holds out that Russell will finally be with her forever… she's a young girl in love, and she needs someone pure and innocent like William to help her through it all.
Of course, William makes friends with the band (against his mentor's expert advice) and finds it increasingly harder and harder to write a fair and honest piece about them. With so much going on in the film, it's hard for me to break away from back-story and explanation - but I must. What's more important though is what I personally came away with from Almost Famous. The biggest truth is revealed in the last reel of the film when William is down on his luck and gives the enigmatic Lester Bangs a call. Lester tells him not to worry - "it's okay, we're just not cool." He lets William in on the secret that rock journalists aren't as cool as they'd like to think. That's only half of the truth - in a masterful stroke Crowe takes us to the band (somewhere across America) who're arguing about why they can't be made to look cool. "Why can't they just make us look cool?!?" Bebe shouts at the others.
Cameron Crowe has written and directed a masterpiece that will stand the test of time. It's absolutely one of the best movies about music, life and love that's ever been made and I hope when Oscar time rolls around at the end of the year this one is remembered. His blend of his own memories and great storytelling make for some incredible situations and dialogue. It's quite natural - none of it sounds forced. The cast is superb and I hope to see newcomer Patrick Fugit and relative newcomer Kate Hudson again very soon.
Both Crowe and William ask the eternal question to Russell Hammond and to the audience: "What do you love about music?" What is the purpose of this question? Why does it play such a big role in the film? Have you ever picked up a stratocaster and banged out a simple blues progression in front of a group of people? Have you ever sat in your car and been so enraptured with a piece of music that you lost track of time? Have you ever lit a candle or stick of incense putting a copy of Tommy, Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on your turntable to look for the meaning of it all - or to see your own future? If so, the music is talking to you - music has meant something , and eventually you'll be able to answer that question William poses to Russell - and to the audience - for yourself.
OVERALL GRADE: A+
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