Joel's Review of Almost Famous
My favourite scenes in "Almost Famous" are those shared between Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and 15-year-old burgeoning rock journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit). William is based on director Cameron Crowe, while Bangs is based on Bangs, the rock critic best know for putting Creem magazine on the map. He died at 33 of a drug overdose. In "Almost Famous", Bangs is just enough of a legend in his own mind to mentor young William, who looks looks up to Bangs' writing but not his lifestyle. Both are uncool characters, separated by years of trying to be cool.
The images of "Almost Famous" that jump immediately to mind, other than the hopeful eyes of Zooey Deschanel encouraging her little brother to find his own path, are the shots of the bands performing, of the groupies dancing in hotel rooms, of hangers-on clad in glam and hippie clothing, of Russell (Billy Crudup) high on acid, perched on a rooftop above a suburban Topeka swimming pool. But the film surprises me each time with its well written drama and comedic moments apart from the zany band adventures. The egos of the men, the destruction of a stadium gate, the knowing glances and smirks of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) are all grounded by William and his life, his innocence, his uncool, his mother (Frances McDormand). He is the character people in the real world relate to.
That's important, because so many moments in "Almost Famous" would be insufferable if William weren't around to watch them happen. Russell has a ridiculous argument with Jeff (Jason Lee) about a t-shirt before storming off, determined to find something "real." He and William end up at a party, where William tries his best to protect him, only for his rock star hero to yell in his face in a drug-induced rage. None of these guys are worth caring about, busy as they are caring about themselves, trading women for beer and offering insincere, hackneyed philosophies into the microphone about music that every fan wants to hear.
"Friendship is the booze they feed you," Bangs tells William over the phone one lonely night. "They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong." Stillwater have long ago accepted their status as music gods down to the detail of which member carries the mystique and which has the presence. Jeff and Russell are the type of rock stars who have never not belonged a day in their life, a dying breed of mid-70's up-and-comers who can play instruments and mimic their heroes from the 60's, but don't yet know that in a matter of a few years America will be hungry for punk rock, songs written by pissed off kids fed up with flower children and slickly produced arena rock.
Crowe indeed wrote for Rolling Stone as a teenager, experienced the touring lifestyle of Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band and interviewed many others, some mentioned with fanatic gusto by the groupies, who never seem to stop moving until they're on the road. One kid played by Jay Baruchel looks as though he's so into Zeppelin that he could keel over momentarily. Hudson is luminous in the film, mysterious and wild, intelligent, treating her own vulnerability like a Vaudeville joke. There is a beautiful moment when William loses his virginity to three aggressive women. Hudson beams at him from across the room as though she were an onlooking ethereal presence, waving goodbye with a smile moments before the certain look in William's innocent eyes goes away, never to return.
There is the music, scenes in which actors sing "Tiny Dancer" en masse, artist names identified as though their mythology is being written before the eyes. Little bits of Bowie and Simon and Garfunkel play in the background, providing a language to things unsaid. Band-aid Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) draws a well spoken line between fans and those who simply cling to celebrities: "They don't even know what it is to be a fan, to truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts."
Though I don't own an Elton John record, I recognize the sentiment. I have an extensive music collection, but it's been a while since music has meant a lot to me. When "Almost Famous" was released in 2000, I was making a new mix tape every month, packed with songs from CDs I'd recently purchased. And older stuff, too - songs I already knew by heart that I'd mix in just to hear them in a brand new context. I didn't grow up in circumstances where putting on a vinyl of "Tommy" by the Who would give me a look at my future. But I do remember my first few albums well, cherishing them like extensions of myself, hearing songs and forgetting to breathe.
It felt like I belonged to something greater. Music affords that to the uncool. "If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends." Sage advice, that. But the record stores are disappearing. Where are the lonely going to turn? What will a film like "Almost Famous" look like 100 years from now? Hopelessly dated, perhaps, after those who remember what rock n' roll really felt like have all passed on. The rock star won't be cool forever. Stillwater, a band that never was in the first place, will appear a relic. But that desire to connect with a song is universal. Crowe puts his passion for that connection more poignantly here than he has anywhere else in his work, and he does it by uniting the song with the moment a kid realizes that nothing stays the same.