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ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Director: Cameron Crowe
Nominated for four Academy Awards:
Best Supporting Actress, Kate Hudson
Best Supporting Actress, Frances McDormand
Best Original Screenplay, Cameron Crowe
Best Film Editing
Cameron Croweís semi-autobiographical story of a young fifteen-year-old writer by the name of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), and his journey of self-discovery and his attempts to find his place in the world in which writing about the greatness of rock music embraces his life. Crowe, better known for such films as writing the 1982 hit FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMENT HIGH, penning and directing the John Cusack 1989 classic SAY ANYTHING, and more recently the Tom Cruise weepy story of a sports agent with a heart of gold, JERRY MAGUIRE. Though RIDGEMENT HIGH and SAY ANYTHING are tremendously memorable teen films, Crowe has really left his mark on the world of cinema with this wonderfully written, light hearted comedy in which he directs some fine performances by everyone involved (especially newcomer Fugit).
The film starts off with eleven-year-old William living life attempting to fit into the mold of the era (his lame attempts at sticking man at the end of a sentence is just sad to watch). He lives with his rebellious eighteen-year-old sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), and his overbearing, overprotective but loving mother Elaine (McDormand). When Anita, tired of her mothers unwillingness to accept the music she listens to and the life she leads, leaves home to fulfill her dream of becoming a stewardess. But before she goes, she tells young William that there is a gift waiting for him underneath his bed, and there she has left him her entire record collection. He begins to listen to one of the records and instantly becomes hooked to the world of rock and roll. He becomes consumed by it, and soon enough (the story skips fours years at this point), William writes articles for his high school newspaper, but hits it semi-big when he meets hardcore music lover and critic, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose personal life is nothing much to write home about but still becomes a mentor to young William, though cynicism certainly has taken its toll on the aged hippie, he still loves music and being surrounded by his records. William then gets the opportunity of a lifetime, as Rolling Stone magazine hires William (under the impression he is an older, professionally writer), to do a think piece on an up and coming band named Stillwater, who will be the opening act for Black Sabbath in his hometown. He is dropped off at the concert by Elaine (who, believing everyone who listens to the devils music is a dope head, screams out to William not to use drugs in a hilarious scene). After being refused to enter backstage, he meets a group of girls who refers to themselves as Band-Aids (another term for groupies, except they donít exploit their bodies but use themselves as muses, to inspire the music of bands). The group is led by beautiful Penny Lane (real name Lady Goodman), who takes a liking to fish-out-water William and sees that has a genuine good heart.
William finally meets the band Stillwater, which is led by lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Miller), and Russell Hammond (Crudup). They play their music for the fans and not the critics, so they arenít necessarily kind towards William at first, who is pegged with the nickname The Enemy. Lester had warned William that rock stars will do everything in their power to glamorize the world of music with drugs and booze, but they are not his friends, and he shouldnít get to attached to them. But William canít resist being taken by the charismatic Russell, who is also having a fling with naive Penny, who believes that she is important to the group.
William is invited to tour with the group for four before heading to San Francisco with his interview. But every time he attempts to interview Russell, something always comes up and it is held off with the promise that itíll be done soon. Though on the road in the tour bus (nicknamed Almost Famous), Elaine, who was very reluctant to allow her son to go, is going through an emotional crisis (Rock stars have kidnapped my son, she suddenly blurts out to a class she is teaching). Everywhere William goes, his mother is either on the phone waiting for him or has left a message with the hotel heíll be staying at (even a hotel work admits that Elaine has frightened him).
As the tour goes on, Williamsís eyes are eventually opened to the world he has loved for so long, and that it is not always about the music or the method of writing the music. Within the band there is bitterness (between Jess and Russell, who Jeff sees a selfish, self-absorbed self-proclaimed leader of the group), and when it comes to human decency, the band isnít always at its peak (one scene has Russell sell Penny off to another band for a case of beer, which William resents since he sees Penny as a person and not an object). In the end though, these people plow through their own self-dilemmas and reach an emotional core within themselves that reflects onto those around them.
The movie cannot be categorized into any particular genre. There are moments of comedy, drama, nostalgia, conflict and so on. We see this wild circus of sex, drugs, and rock and roll through the eyes of an amateur who is attempting to discover his own meaning within this world in which he loves. William is the heart and soul of the movie, as he is the only one who doesnít allow his own morals to be corrupted by those around him who take advantage of their image. He is out in the real world for the first time, and is now inside the box instead of looking in from the outside. He doesnít have the presence of overprotecting mom to shelter him from the reality that has been absent from his admiration for music. William is the best representation of us, the audience, as we recognize his decisions as being the right ones.
Though the film is primarily about him, there is moments dedicated to the fictionalized band Stillwater, in which creative art and commercialized reasoning conflict as the band believes in their independence, but is eventually won over by a music management company. The conflict presented is handled excellently, as the band must decide whether or not being commercially accepted would obliterate what they are trying to do with their music, and cause the message in their songs to be obsolete. I like how the story juggles various parts of the story but never sacrifices one for the other. The story always remains about William, but we also must learn about those who are influencing his life more so now then ever.
The performances by everyone involved are stupendous, as Crowe has ensemble one hell of a cast. Newcomer Fugit anchors the movie down with his wide-eyed innocence and creativity, and soaks in more knowledge about the world by merely observing and instead of asking questions. Crudupís performance is also superb, and gives his character a moral dilemma that he doesnít even know exists within himself. His final scene with Fugit is a touching one, as he comes to terms with himself and the admiration that Fugit has reined upon him. And then there is of course the two actresses who do electrifying performances, but unfortunately never share a scene together. Hudson is the perfect in the role of Penny Lane, with her sweet and angelic eyes piercing into our minds and heart. She is charismatic and charming, and extremely endearing as her intentions towards others, though at times childlike and naive, are always truthful and honest. The only person she is lying to is herself; as she sacrifices her own desires to just belong in the world. She is also the center of a love triangle with Fugit and Crudup, as one loves her for her free spirit and honesty, why the other one never bothers to look at her. Crudupís character isnít a horrible one, just a misguided one.
Frances McDormand, of course a revered actress, gives perhaps her most humorous performances as the mother who is close minded to her childrenís lives and doesnít respect or even acknowledge the ear they live in. She believes she is resented because of her love, and is trapped within her own confliction of protecting her children and allowing them to find themselves and obtain their own personal freedom. Though she has many funny moments (one being a confrontation with Crudup over the phone, in which she doesnít take lightly to his attempts at assuring her that everything is fine, Youíll meet the voice at the other end of this phone and it wonít be pretty she threatens), there are moments where her pain and unwillingness to let go of her son shine through with an astonishing amount of emotion. It is truly a wonderful performance.
The movie has a great soundtrack, and music buffs will no doubt marvel on delight over it. I believe that the story has something for everyone, and highly recommend it. Not for itís Oscar nominations or the critical praise. But because it is a gift to experience such a film with this amount of life and joy. Itís sappy and the outcome is inevitable, but it earns that right when all is said and done. Crowe has created something unique and special with this film, and hope that it endures the test of time in the many years to come.
Also, the supporting performances by Lee, Paquin, Balk, and especially Hoffman give the films its small touches of greatness.
My Grade: A