Almost Famous Is Almost Perfect
Original review written: September, 2000
For many people, music is a passion. Music is the thing that gets us through the bad times, reveals our intimate emotions, fuels our anger, and, too often, opens our wounds. Even film, my favorite medium, is made better by a good soundtrack. What would we be without the music that affects us? What do we owe to the artists who we listened to when we were growing up? How could we ever capture how those dark nights spent in a lonely room listening to headphones shaped our souls?
Every generation has their music. Every generation has the music that moved them. My mother tells me stories of when she and her best friend used to listen to Elvis Presley sing “Love Me” and would just weep. When I was in junior high, long before I bought my own records, I would thumb through my dad’s collection and pull out the Dire Straits and Elton John and Eagles records and listen to them for the first time. My years were the eighties, and the bands that moved me were Tears For Fears, OMD, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Alphaville, A-Ha, Thompson Twins, and Nik Kershaw. While these bands, and their music, had profound relevance in the shaping of my life, and I will forever stand by their importance and power, I somehow realize that I arrived on this planet a decade too late.
The first time I ever saw the name Led Zeppelin was when it was spray-painted on the walls of my junior high in Berlin in 1981. The first time I ever heard a song by that band was here in Los Angeles when I was in college, on a classic rock station. Now I’m living with a Zeppelin fanatic, who has also introduced me to classic Springsteen (there was music before “Born in the USA”?), The Who, The Doors and The Clash. Only now, after having spent the first eighteen years of my life exposed only to EuroPop, do I know what I’d been missing.
Cameron Crowe was born at the right time. He was one of the lucky ones. Not only did he get to hear the “classic” rock when it was still new, but he had the opportunity to be around his rock and roll idols at an early age, and he got to write about them and share his passion and love with other fans. And now, years later, he gets to set aside his journalistic objectivity and write a love letter to the music that shaped his early years, just as our music has shaped every one of us.
Almost Famous is almost un-critique-able. It is a film from the heart, an homage to a time when music was about the passion and not the money or the “art” that it has become today. Based on writer/director Crowe’s true life adventures as a young (read: teenager) journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, this film reads more like pages from a diary than a screenplay. The actual diaries that Crowe kept during these years were tapes he would make once a month of the music he was listening to at the time. He would label and date each tape and file them away. While making Almost Famous, he went back and dug out those audio memories and put most of them on the soundtrack. How much more genuine can you get than that?
Rumors are that Stillwater, the fictional band that is the focus of Almost Famous, is a combination of Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers Band, two of the many bands that Crowe toured with and wrote about. How can an audience not but be thrilled with the back-stage glimpses into the lives of our idols? Not only does Crowe have this background, but he is also married to a legit seventies rock star, Nancy Wilson of Heart, who is credited with the soundtrack. Just sit back and observe…not only is it tremendous fun, but it’s probably as accurate as you’re going to get.
I have to be honest and say that there were moments during Almost Famous that I nearly broke out into laughter because it reminded me so much of the rock-umentary spoof This Is Spinal Tap, which either is a compliment to the spoof’s accuracy or to Crowe’s perhaps-intentional mocking of the “heroes” that he himself had placed up on pedestals. Either way, it makes for tremendous viewing.
And then there’s the acting. Patrick Fugit, an unknown from Utah who was cast from a nation-wide talent search as William, the film’s lead, is a true pleasure to watch. His innocence barely covers the wisdom that shines through his youth, and you root for him every inch of the way. Billy Crudup, who is best known for playing Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits, finally breaks through here, playing Russell, the “mysterious” guitar man who is the heart and soul of Stillwater. But while Crudup is incredibly good-looking and is a wonderful actor, the character lacks the “mystery” that is credited to him throughout much of the film and plays the role with far too much blandness. I’m sure Jimmy Page is quite disappointed.
The women nearly steal the film as Frances McDormand is brilliant as William’s protective and strong mother, and Kate Hudson is warm and eminently watchable as Penny Lane, the band’s #1 un-groupie. I especially enjoyed Jason Lee’s portrayal of the spoiled and selfish lead singer who, deep down, lacks self-confidence and is jealous of Russell’s popularity.
Overall, Almost Famous is a thoroughly wonderful joyride. We are all fans at heart, yet maybe we have never stopped to realize and appreciate how those old dust-collected records have shaped and influenced who we are today. Or at least how they have influenced how we may live, love, and feel. Cameron Crowe knows what he owes to the heroes who inspired him and this is his gift. Maybe now he can put those boxes of tapes away. His love letter has been delivered.
My rating: ***: Worth paying full price