By James Brundage
And then it happens.
Eventually, you have to choose between telling the truth and being nice. You have to choose between playing the PR game and making a friend. And if you're like just about anyone else out there, this probably is the first moral stance that you've ever really had to take.
Of course it doesn't help that you're functioning in an adult world, and this is your experience of growing up. It doesn't help if you lived your life smarter than those that surrounded you only to find out that when you come into your new world you are still an outcast.
And it doesn't help when you are presented with a true journalistic challenge like Almost Famous, a movie that throws down the gauntlet at press and asks it not necessarily to review it badly but to be honest. To try to have that ideal that we all remember with fondness and longing... to be objective.
In Almost Famous, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is just a kid who wants to be cool. He's been skipped ahead two grades and entered first grade a year early. His mother is an eccentric college professor that celebrates Christmas in September so it won't be commercialized. And his sister ran away to a tune of Simon and Garfunkel when he was 11.
In 1973, he meets up with the infamous rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who both warns him about going into the profession of entertainment journalism and also assigns him to cover a Black Sabbath concert for $35. This quickly leads backstage with the (fictitious) band Stillwater, because Miller is fan enough to be admitted into their world. The Black Sabbath article leads to a Rolling Stone assignment: cover Stillwater's tour, where William must learn to enjoy life, make the right moral choices, keep on the goods with his mom, save a girl from a drug overdose here and there, and still try to be back in time for graduation.
It's such a positivist message that if the movie weren't so damn good I'd puke.
As a director, Crowe has done his job perfectly. He has crafted a film that is mutually entertaining to outsiders of the industry and insiders, nostalgic without being patronizing, humorous, slick looking, and well acted. He has directed newcomer Patrick Fugit to an incredible debut while providing solid material for Fugit to build upon.
As a writer, Crowe falters slightly. Although Almost Famous works incredibly well as a drama, its comic attempts tend to be more contrived. Certain scenes, such as one where the Stillwater is about to crash in a plane, end up completely contrived to the point where my rating dropped half a star because of it. Yet the most curious part of the film is not that Crowe has made minor flaws, but that he openly says that he is ready to take flack for his flaws.
You see, towards the end of the movie Crowe makes a point of saying to William (and, indirectly, to the press watching the movie), "Write what you want." He is effectively letting us off the hook, and placing himself in the position to be criticized. For that I both respect him and Almost Famous all the more.
But as previously stated, Almost Famous does have its flaws. Biopic or spin pic, Almost Famous comes off as oftentimes a contrived comedy injected like bad heroin into an otherwise thoughtful drama, and it almost overdoses on this clichéd comedy more than a few times. It's as if Crowe challenges us to think, and then tells our brains to shut the hell up as we watch Fairuza Balk slam headfirst into a concrete barrier (and then ironically turn up on the bus the next day without a scratch). And while this blend of brain candy and food for thought might be fine for most people, I'd rather Crowe had chosen one path or the other, instead of having one that ends up striking the audience as useless and unfunny.
It would have been great if Crowe focused more on the dynamic among Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and William, instead of wasting time listening to Jason Lee do his best Chasing Amy impression (ironically, there is a sort of homoerotic suggestion towards the end a la the infamous scene in Chasing Amy), instead of giving us more images about the funny stories of Rock 'n' Roll. We've seen rockumentaries before, gotten the scoop anecdotes, and heard all of the stories about The Who time and again. Almost Famous's pulling rock stories out of its hat (or some other orifice) is akin to that kid spoutning the annoying weight-of-the-human-brain statistic in Crowe's last movie, Jerry Maguire. Save us.
Still, Almost Famous is worth a watch. You will either find it as drama with comedic detritus or comedy with dramatic detritus, but will probably come away smiling whichever way you look at it, and you will probably gloss over the flaws in a matter of weeks, days, or even hours.
There you go, Cameron. Objectivity.
Not quite Famous.
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: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 144 Rotten: 20
IMDB: 8.0 / 10
Director: Cameron Crowe
Screenwriter: 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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