The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool. -Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
It is not exactly news that movies work best when we relate to the characters; when they possess qualities through which we see some semblance of ourselves. William Miller, the 15-year-old amateur music journalist in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” is definitely one of those characters for me. I was about that age the first time I saw this movie, and I really responded to a lot of aspects of his character. He was smart, he was a writer, he loved books,and he sometimes felt that because of these traits, he didn’t quite fit in with his peers. But the relatability of William Miller is just one of many reasons why this is a great movie.
The film is loosely based on the life of its writer and director, Cameron Crowe, who started writing for Rolling Stone magazine when he was 15. We first meet William, his on-screen surrogate, in 1969, when he is 11. He has an overbearing college professor for a mother (Frances McDormand) who is obsessed with nurturing William’s intellectual gifts (she even lies to him about his age so she could move him up through middle school faster) and with protecting him from the evils of rock and roll. This creates a rift between William’s mother and his rebellious older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who plays “America” by Simon and Garfunkel to explain to her mother why she is running away from home to be a stewardess. But before she leaves, she gives William a gift that will change his life: her record collection.
We then flash-forward four years and William (Patrick Fugit) is obsessed with rock music and is about to graduate high school three years early. He writes for local underground magazines and comes under the tutelage of legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in absolutely awesome performance), who gives him sage advice: never become friends with rock stars, and when you write about them, be “honest and unmerciful.” He ends up covering a concert by the fictional rock group Stillwater, (who sound like a combination of the Allman Brothers and Bad Company), who are led by lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Also at this show he meets the Band-Aids, girls who follow bands on tour not just to have sex with them, but because of the music. The leader of the Band Aids is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who quickly steals William’s heart. Long story short, William gets a call from Rolling Stone, who want him to follow Stillwater on tour and write a story for them. A funny caviat with this development is that Rolling Stone doesn’t know William is only 15, so he has to pretend to be older when talking to them. Much to his mother’s horror, William departs on a road trip that will, unsurprisingly, change his perspective on life.
The core of this movie, as well as Cameron Crowe’s other films, are relationships. Relationships with people, music, etc. There is William’s relationship with Penny, a free-spirit who has her own problems underneath the carefree exterior. William, finally broken free from the duldrums of high school, sees a kindred spirit in Penny. She also loves music, and is only a couple of years older than William, which makes her the perfect person to open William up to the world his mother tried to keep from him.
There is the relationship within Stillwater. Jeff is the brash lead singer, who can’t accept the fact that the reason their band succeeds is that Russell is a virtuoso musician keeping the rest of them afloat. No other movie really captures the essence of being in a rock band and the trials that come with it, perfectly exemplified in a hilarious scene involving some new T-shirts.
The third relationship that develops in this film is the one we all have with our favorite music. The members of Stillwater put all of their differences aside on stage when they make music together. The reason William wants to become a journalist is his love of music. This movie shows the feeling of transcendence and unity music can inspire, typified in what is probably the most famous scene in the movie.
The best part of this movie is, of course, Crowe’s writing and direction. Since he is drawing from his own life, he makes every scene ring with the authenticity of what the world was like in 1973. In a movie that is in love with music, his soundtrack choices, with music by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who and many others, add to the experience. His Oscar-winning script is also key because when you look on this movie on paper, all of its characters are cliches: the earnest teen, the free-spirited love interest, the rock star, the overbearing mother, etc. But what this movie does is transcend all of the cliches attached to these character types. William’s mother may hate rock and roll and is over-protective, but she is a good person who just wants what is best for her son. Russell is a famous rock star, but underneath he’s just as much of a kid as William is, uneasy with the responsibilities that come with being in a popular rock band. Crowe breathes so much life into everyone in this movie, and that is the key to what makes it great.
The acting in this movie is pretty excellent across the board. Fugit is believably earnest as William, and he shows how this character absorbs the wisdom and experiences he encounters on this tour in a very natural manner. Hudson, back when she actually cared about acting and didn’t start appearing in some of the worst movies ever made, is also excellent, we see why someone like William or Russell would fall in love with her. But the two best performances here, other than Hoffman’s, are by Crudup and McDormand. Crudup nails every complicated nuance of a musician at a crossroads in his life, who feels like the rest of his band is keeping him from scaling new heights. McDormand as William’s mother turns a person who could’ve been the worst kind of overbearing shrew of a parent into a sympathetic character who doesn’t want her gifted son to be corrupted by the hedonism of rock and roll.
“Almost Famous” is an great movie even if you do not see explicit personal connections with these characters in your own life. It is a coming-of-age story that rings with the authenticity and honesty of someone who lived it, and that can be appreciated by anyone.