Editor’s Notes: This September marks the 15 year anniversary of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
It’s the year 2000, the start of a new millennium and an age that was promised to be filled with technological advancements like meals in capsule form and flying cars. The movie industry was fighting back the independent insurgence of the 1990s and reasserting its corporate interests, churning out lackluster films that were either throwbacks to the sword and sandal epics of the 1950s or pale imitations of the independent films that left them scrambling in the first place. It is a year that came to be known as one of the worst for filmmaking in a very long time with very few polished jewels wedged into the worn and tarnished veneer: Curtis Hanson’s WonderBoys, Steven Soderberg’s Traffic and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
The other crucial element of the film is the perfect casting. These characters, though well written, would not have come off the page in the same way if the film had been cast differently.
So what is it about Almost Famous that begs for it to be revisited over WonderBoys and more importantly over Traffic, the film that made people realize how talented Steven Soderberg really is? While they’re both excellent films and still hold up today, Almost Famous is the one that’s still in the conversation as one of the best of its decade and well on its way to being a classic (it’s also Crowe’s last great, or even good film, since after this he’s been on a streak of wholly unrewarding and unentertaining films). I should issue an explanation for that. There is no such thing as an ‘instant classic’, a phrase that some writers like to use when they want to be quoted on a poster or a DVD cover. A classic is something that has proven to stand the test of time. Nothing can be a classic without time, without distance. I personally don’t give anything the moniker of ‘great’ or ‘classic’ until it is at least 20 years old, simply because if it still manages to be relevant and urgent and important two decades after it is released, it deserves the title and it deserves to be remembered. Almost Famous is just such a film.
Centering on William Miller (Patrick Fugit), the film is Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film about being a 15 year old writer for Rolling Stone magazine and touring with the fictitious band Stillwater (with Billy Crudup playing guitarist Russell Hammond, Jason Lee as singer Jeff Bebe, John Fedevich as the silent drummer Ed and Mark Kozelek as the dim bass player Larry Fellows) and their groupies (self-titled Band-Aids) and falling in love with one named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) who may or may not be close to his age.
Crowe artfully uses his surrogate, William, as the perfect proxy for the audience. It’s an old screenwriting technique: use someone unfamiliar and new to a situation so there is someone as unknowledgeable as the audience so things can be explained to that character instead of to the audience in clunky expository dialogue. Sometimes this technique is tiresome and ill-used, but not here. We are all William, wide-eyed and eager to see what life inside the tour bus is like. We want to see it all and experience it all and William, the quiet observer, is essential to the audience’s enjoyment and immersion into this unfamiliar (to most) world. Crowe shows us again that his main strength is that of the written word, crafting a screenplay that has fully realized characters all the way through, even the side characters. He doesn’t give us any throw-away characters, each person is there for a reason and each one endears themselves to the audience. The audience is just as invested in William and Penny Lane as they are with Russell and Jeff and even the other band-aids (played by Anna Paquin and Fairuzia Balk) and William’s family (his mother Elaine played by the ever-wonderful Frances McDormand and his sister Anita played by Zooy Deschenel). Everyone is real and alive (possibly because they were all based on real people, but that doesn’t always work in the favor of the film) and each one drives the narrative in their own way. Crowe makes sure the film is about these characters and not the plot, always reminding us that William has an article to write but focusing more on the experience he has in the gathering of material. The journey is the film, not if he writes the article and delivers it on time (though that too is used to create some great tension).
Almost Famous is affirming without being sweet or cloying or pedantic. It never once gives us a moment that isn’t earned and never gets preachy or wistful.
The other crucial element of the film is the perfect casting. These characters, though well written, would not have come off the page in the same way if the film had been cast differently. Fugit is wonderful as William not because of perfect line delivery but because he stumbles sometimes. He’s embodying that 15 year old in all of us that just wanted to be accepted and be cool even when he knew he wasn’t. Fugit has a way in this film of commanding the screen by being quiet and observant. He is that fly on the wall that everyone always says they wish they could be. When he does interject, he does so clumsily but sometimes he hits it just right and earns some respect from those around him. Hudson is so good here that she’s never since been able to find a role that could be its equal, though it has not been from a lack of trying. She is an indomitable force of will throughout the film, endlessly charming and ebullient especially when she is hurt. Hudson plays the role with reckless abandon and courage, making it all the sadder that she can’t get a decent part now. McDormand is her usual magnificent playing an overprotective academic mother that ‘freaks out’ everyone she speaks to, Crudup was wonderful as the enigmatic and elusive star of the band and even Jimmy Fallon shows up as the big-time road manager and turns in an honest performance, quite unlike his SNL and talk show personas he later became famous for. All this and it also gives us Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s finest supporting role in his entire brilliant career. His Lester Bangs, a venerated music critic, is curmudgeonly and kind, offering William some excellent advice and mentoring him through what would have been a nearly impossible task without Lester’s help. Hoffman relishes his role and fills it to the brim with all of his insurmountable talent. In another life, I would have loved to see a Lester Bangs film starring Hoffmann, but alas that day will never come.
Another reason this film has endured, at least in the critical circle, is that the main character is a critic, a person whose job it is to either praise or destroy someone’s hard and nearly impossible work of creating art. The critic, if mentioned at all, is often vilified as in The Lady in the Water or made out to be an overbearing jerk as in the brilliant animated series The Critic starring John Lovitz as a TV film critic that is hated by nearly everyone he encounters. Crowe, as a former critic, made William a fan of what he was writing about first, as all critics are. We love what we are writing about and want to see the best examples of it. Critics are normally best known for what they don’t like, but just as often it is the critic that can elevate awareness of something great but underknown, granting it wider distribution, as in the case of Roger Ebert and the mired of films he championed like Hoop Dreams and Dark City. Crowe makes it known that the band sees William as ‘the enemy’ yet they still open up to him because they know he is a fan as much as he is a critic.
It’s William’s wide-eyed innocence that keeps us coming back to Almost Famous because we can all remember what it was like to be that enamored with something and we all want to be able to look past our own jaded cynicism of age and experience to see something as fresh and new and exciting as William does. Almost Famous is a film that can do that for us, time and time again, no matter how many times you watch it and no matter if you watch the 122 minute theatrical cut or the 162 minute ‘bootleg cut’ that was issued on DVD a few years later. It captures the emotional roller-coaster that youth is and couples it with burgeoning adulthood and the exposure to decadence that many people think they want but when they have it, it leaves them empty. We get to experience all of that through William and his innocence and we come through it with him as wiser people, sure, but also with that sense of wonder and enthusiasm intact and ready to face the world with new eyes, though still tempered with the cautious wisdom of Lester Bangs. Almost Famous is affirming without being sweet or cloying or pedantic. It never once gives us a moment that isn’t earned and never gets preachy or wistful. It is a film that will preserver because it taps into the audience in unexpected ways without trying to be unexpected or crafty. It’s a good story well told and one that has, and will likely continue to, stand the test of time.