Almost Famous (Dreamworks, 2000)
"Be honest and unmerciful." - Lester Banks
Lester Banks of Cream magazine has had many brilliant quotes about writing reviews attributed to him throughout his life, but this is the one that sticks with me most. Here is my honest and unmerciful review of the Cameron Crowe film, Almost Famous. Truth be told, there's not really a need to be unmerciful.
Almost Famous is the story of William Miller, a very intelligent young man who wants to be a rock 'n' roll journalist in the early 1970's. At the age of 15, he manages to get a job writing for Rolling Stone magazine and tours with the up-and-coming band, Stillwater. In the process of touring, William learns about life, love, friendship, disappointment and the importance of family.
Patrick Fugit plays William with a sincerity that reaches out from the screen, grabs you and makes you care about him. Patrick had a good resource to pull from in developing this character though. The movie is loosely based on the real-life experiences of director Cameron Crowe, who actually did write for Rolling Stone and toured with The Allman Brothers. This extra insight makes Fugit's performance all the more believable. This is not a caricature of Cameron; this seems to be an honest glimpse into what it was like for him.
To begin his journey into this wild world, William meets Penny Lane. Penny is played masterfully by Kate Hudson. She shows an incredible range of talent, portraying a plethora of emotions in this performance. While not the first choice for this role, she proved she was the right choice and in doing so earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Penny Lane is not a "groupie." As she explains, "groupies" are there because they want to be with someone important. She is a "Band- Aid," there for the music; her ministrations help the artist to relax and be creative. "Never take it seriously, and you'll never get hurt." These are words she uses to teach other "Band-Aids", but doesn't seem to take to heart when she gets involved with Russell Hammond, the lead guitarist from Stillwater.
Billy Crudup was the perfect choice to play the part of Russell. He, and the rest of the Stillwater band, really captured the feel of a band "struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom". Russell battles to be honest with himself, and this internal conflict is excellently portrayed by Crudup.
To help Crudup prepare for this role, Crowe brought in Peter Frampton as a "Rock 'N' Roll School" teacher. Crudup and the rest of the members of Stillwater prepared for their rolls by working with Frampton in a warehouse for hours. When Frampton felt the band was ready, they opened rehearsals to the public to give Stillwater the idea of what it felt like to actually be a band and perform live. To quote William from the movie, "The guitar work on 'Fever Dog' was incendiary!"
The original songs written for Stillwater by Cameron Crowe, Nancy Wilson and Ann Wilson really capture the feel of the 1970's and lend credibility to the band. After hearing these, I wished that Stillwater was a real band as I wanted to see them in concert. I would love to hear them perform, 'Fever Dog'!
Frances McDormand plays William's loving but sometimes overprotective single mother, Elaine. Her dilemma lies in trusting her son in a world of debauchery, but also in trusting that she raised him well. McDormand portrayed this role so well, she garnered the film's second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Cameron Crowe wrote the screenplay for Almost Famous and it won him the 2000 Academy Award for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. His storytelling ability with the script is really only part of the whole. His directing ability, guidance for cinematography and choice of music really complete the picture. He is adept at conveying emotion through action without dialog. Some of the most poignant scenes in the movie involve only music and visual cuts between the characters. One of my personal favorite scenes occurs on the tour bus, where there is an extreme of tension between all the characters, but no one is saying a word. Elton John's 'Tiny Dancer' is playing in the background, as if on the radio. One by one, the characters start to sing along, and the tension seems to melt away.
Having put together the wonderful acting, the beautiful cinematography, the excellent script, and a soundtrack that includes Black Sabbath, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Jethro Tull, Simon and Garfunkel, Yes, Cat Stevens and originals from Stillwater, Cameron Crowe has really proven that he is a master storyteller. He is honest and unmerciful, and delivers a film about the rock and roll mythos that is truly genuine.