Review by Jack Foley
INSPIRED by his time as a young, truant playing Rolling Stone reporter in
the early 70s, Almost Famous is writer/director Cameron Crowe's eagerly anticipated,
heartfelt follow-up to the hugely successful Jerry Maguire. It tells the simple
story of a rock 'n' roll obsessed teenager who lands a freelance assignment
from Rolling Stone magazine to follow an up and coming band on the road to
stardom and possible self destruction. Guiding him is a legendary rock critic,
while watching over him is a doting, but oh-so-strict mother, whose overbearing
nature threatens to destroy any credibility he gains along the way.
The band in question is called Stillwater and comprises a bunch of egotistical, emotionally unstable musicians whose path to greatness is constantly undermined by the disputes and petty jealousies which are threatening to destroy them from within.
As the young journalist at the centre of the story, the relatively unknown Patrick Fugit is fantastic as 15-year-old William Miller, effortlessly turning in a performance which combines the fresh faced innocence you would expect from someone in his situation with an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.
If Fugit failed to convince, then so would the movie; yet much of its enjoyment comes from watching him navigate his way through the pitfalls that look almost certain to befall him. Crowe, though, is a past master at drawing great performances from his leads, as turns from Tom Cruise (in the aforementioned Maguire) and John Cusack (Say Anything) have proven. And he is equally adept at paying attention to his support players, a skill that elevates Almost Famous above most other movies.
Every character leaves an impression, from the band's promotion manager to a hotel concierge who confesses to being "freaked out" by Miller's mother. So while the film is essentially about Miller and his experiences, the lives of those around him are no less important and time spent in their company makes for great viewing - even if some of what goes on seems a little tame given the well documented excesses of the era. The band itself is a talented, yet squabbling bunch - complete with a doting army of roadies - who are divided between Jason Lee's jealous lead singer and Billy Crudup's hugely talented, glamour boy guitarist, Russell Hammond.
It is Russell who first takes a shine to Miller, inviting the boy on tour with them, yet his selfish womanising, fondness for binging and emotional insecurity make for a heady cocktail which threatens to consume all around him, including his relationship with Miller.
Crudup is mesmerising whenever on screen, effortlessly capturing the essence of the rock 'n' roll era, and in one drug induced moment, holds the key to the movie's best moment ("I am a golden God"). Whether playing off the increasingly frustrated Miller (who wants nothing more than an interview with the talent behind the band), or teasing his colleagues, Crudup seems completely at home in the role, manipulating audience emotions with his ability to annoy and delight with equal measure.
And then there's Penny Lane, the Russell-obsessed roadie whose infatuation with the wild child guitarist eventually threatens her own sanity. Played with raunchy relish by Kate Hudson (daughter of Goldie Hawn), Penny Lane is one of the most tragic characters in the picture - a young, sexually confused and emotionally manipulated teenager whose naivety and blind devotion to Russell causes as much heartache for Miller (with whom she bonds) as it does for herself. Hudson's is a career-defining turn and Penny Lane is one of the most memorable female characters of the year!
And if that wasn't enough to recommend it, then there are also scene stealing turns from Frances McDormand (as Miller's adoringly strict mother) and, as ever, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs, who is all too aware of the death of the era's untamed spirit. His reluctant friendship with Miller's junior reporter is beautifully played, while his own observations provide plenty of food for thought.
Crowe also uses the movie as an opportunity to build on that other great ability of his - turning something so simple into something so riveting. Rock 'n' roll movies have been done before, but they've seldom been as appealing as this - the project was clearly a labour of love from the beginning.
As funny as it is, at times, tragic, this is a joyride of a movie, punctuated by terrific Crowe moments - be it a heartbroken Penny Lane lazily dancing across a stage bathed in a spotlight, or the band's moment of reckoning as their plane experiences mid-air difficulties. It's just a shame that the ending could not have been a little more daring, for Crowe allows proceedings to become a little too sentimental (even Hollywood) - but, with so much going for it, as a great night out at the movies, Almost Famous is almost perfect.