By Rob Blackwelder
Writer-director Cameron Crowe's fond fictionalization of his first assignmentfor Rolling Stone -- as a 15-year-old cub reporter in 1973 -- "Almost Famous" is a vividly realized labor of love and an absolute pleasure to watch.
Having gestated in Crowe's fertile mind since before "SayAnything," his 1989 directorial debut, it's a born crowd-pleaser honedinto an entertaining cinematic paragon of rock 'n' roll that boasts sharpperformances from a sublime cast, speaking page after page of Crowe's uniquebrand of intrinsically quotable, yet seemingly true-to-life dialogue.
A winning young actor named PatrickFugit -- who prior to being cast had only twoepisodes of "Touched By An Angel" on his resume -- carries themovie as William Miller, the director's mop-topped alter-ego. Like Crowehimself, William gets his start as a rock journalist by being taken underthe wing of Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a jaded but passionatemusic reporter for the fanzine Creem.
After writing a few pieces for that publication, a phonecall from Rolling Stone changes his life. Not realizing he's talking toa 15-year-old boy, an editor offers him an assignment to cover an up-and-co=mingband on tour.
In real life, teenage Crowe toured with Led Zeppelin, theAllman Brothers and several others. In "Almost Famous" the hippiehard rock band is called Stillwater, and is fronted by a temperamentalsinger (Jason Lee) and a talented guitarist (Billy Crudup) with a laidback charisma. The guitar player befriends the naive, awestruck Williamas he tries to put together a behind-the-scenes story about the band withoutlosing his objectivity.
Ironically, while William is doing his best to write ano-holds-barred expos=E9 that is fair to his newfound friends at the sametime, Crowe looks at this 360-degree view of backstage life through a rose-=coloredcamera lens. Sure there are drugs, but there are no addicts. Sure there'seasy sex with star-struck groupies that follow the band, but they're thehanger-on equivalent of the hooker with the heart of gold. Crowe depictsthem as sweet, squeaky-clean girls who just happen to be a little hot totrot. Goodness knows they're not troubled girls starved for affection,goodness knows!
But then Crowe's movies have always been a little overly-=scripted,a little contrived and innocuously upbeat -- while being wildly entertainingnonetheless. If you realize the story is being told through the wonder-fill=edeyes of a teenager who gets to hang out with his musical heroes, most ofthis soft-peddling can be forgiven. (The film's biggest inescapable flaw:We never see William's creative process. We never see him actually write.)
"Almost Famous" captures with vivid, nostalgicprecision the atmosphere of early '70s and the handwriting on the wallthat spelled out what those who grew up in that era consider the deathof true rock 'n' roll at the hands of commercialization.
Crowe definitely puts the audience right there on the tourbus, right there on the stage (there's a fish-eye lens shot from the footli=ghtsduring a concert that made me feel like a rock star), and rightinside William's mind as he begins to wake up to his heroes' humanity andrealize their blemishes.
Crowe faithfully taps into what it is to be a teenager,too. "This song explains why I'm leaving home to become a stewardess,&=quot;William's sister (Zooey Deschanel) announces to their mom as she dropsthe needle on Simon and Garfunkel's "America" and packs her thingsto run away.
But what really sustains the film is its treasure troveof memorable performances -- something Crowe always inspires in his actors.(Ren=E9e Zellweger and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "Jerry Maguire." QED.)
The enormously appealing Fugit was a casting coup in therole of William. This talented kid effortlessly captures everything that'sstill innocent about his age, while convincingly portraying the blossomingof an inherently gifted journalist (the stuff young Crowe wrote for RollingStone was at least as good as his screenplays to follow).
In a break-out role as a groupie with fantasies about hersignificance to the band, Kate Hudson ("Gossip=,""200Cigarettes") adds a hint of darker hones=tyto her buoyant character who serves as something of a white rabbit in Willi=am'strip through this rock 'n' roll Wonderland.
Even though her character is more comedy than conflict,Frances McDormand is absolute perfection as William's overprotective momwho in an early scene picks him up backstage in her station wagon and whotakes some serious convincing before allowing him to go on this trip witha bunch of long-haired rock musician.
"Your mom is kinda freaking me out," says Crudupafter she gives him an earful on the phone about behaving in front of herboy.
Speaking of Crudup, his under-the-radar aptitude as anactor (anyone who has seen "Wakingthe Dead" knows what I'm talking about)may finally get recognized after his dynamic performance as Stillwater'sguitarist, the nonchalant-on-the-outside, troubled-on-the-inside soul ofthe band. Jason Lee, hitherto known mostly for caustic comedy roles inKevin Smith movies (Banky in "ChasingAmy," a demon in "Dogma")turns in a droll but measured portrayal of the band's begrudging frontman.
But the scene-stealer here is Hoffman as Lester Bangs,who doles out valuable advice to his young apprentice and waxes on endlesslyabout the poetry and depth of rock and roll, man. This could be said ofalmost any Hoffman performance, but give that man an Oscar.
"Almost Famous" loses a lot of momentum in thelast two reels. It becomes pretty trite too, with Screenwriting 101 epiphan=iesand apologies that smack blatantly of fiction, whereas the rest of themovie feels fairly true. Worse, the ending is so long in coming it feelslike the credits could roll at any second during the last half-hour.
The movie falls short of the great potential it shows inits first hour, during which I thought I might be watching -- at long last-- the first four-star movie of 2000. That wasn't mean to be, it seems.But so what? I sill had a great time
Run time: 122 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd September 2000
Box Office USA: $31.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $47.4M
Distributed by: DreamWorks SKG
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Vinyl Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 144 Rotten: 20
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond, Frances McDormand as Elaine Miller, Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe, Patrick Fugit as William Miller, Zooey Deschanel as Anita Miller, Michael Angarano as Young William, Anna Paquin as Polexia Aphrodisia, Fairuza Balk as Sapphire, Noah Taylor as Dick Roswell, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, Jimmy Fallon as Dennis Hope, Rainn Wilson as David Felton
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