Putting aside the fact that he was a tall, thin, gangly kid, Cameron Crowe craftily casts the charming, cuddly Patrick Fugit to play himself (as William Miller) in this autobiographical recount of his years as a teenager breaking into music writing authorship. It was a feat even for its time and kudos go to an obviously talented Mr. Crowe. "Almost Famous" might not rise to be called a "feat", but it's a good piece of filmmaking. As I write that, I'm sensing there'll be plenty of fans who'll put me down for not being adequately enamored of it.
As enjoyable and entertaining as it is, I'm not inclined to gush over it as much as some have. It does what it does well but it's not more than what it is, which is a good history lesson with built-in entertainment values dealing, as it does, with the rise of a rock group and a rock writer. To some, this is the stuff of legend and fable, arousing memories and emotions tied to the music of an era.
Leading us through the memory is a child prodigy (Fugit), whose seriousness and avocational energy, at 12, is on an adult level. And it was no fluke. He wrote hundreds of pieces before he talked his way into being paid $30 for his first assignment by Lestor Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), editor of a small rock magazine and the man who becomes his guru confessor down the line. This gives the term "pre-pubescent high achiever" new meaning.
This race into maturity he wins hands down as he gets a shot with no less than Rolling Stone magazine and the rest of the movie is pretty much taken up with his assignment for them. He is to write about the rising (fictional) rock group, Stillwater and its lead singer, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). As Hammond holds off on giving young William a straighforward interview for most of the movie, this becomes a picaresque tale of following him and his group around the country, with experiences and adventures along the way.
Not the least of which is to meet and develop a friendship (and a crush) on Hammond's main squeeze, the fabled queen leader of groupies, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in a smash, endearing, wistful performance. Her little coterie of followers, each taking her dibs on one of the Stillwater men, includes Polexia Aphrodisia (Anna Paquin) and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk), two little actresses with more distinct career paths than anything shown here as dressing room dressing. My impression about their presence in these relatively minor roles had a lot to do with their jumping at the chance to be in this movie.
"Almost Famous" isn't just a sentimental rock rehash (though it's that); nor a "Top 10" (though it recreates the time with some of that) but is a chronicle of the details of touring and the leading characters who drive it. Along the way we are shown what appears to be a rather well and truthfully observed set of behaviors that smack of real life. This is its principle contribution to music lovers and historians, in case they didn't already know. But, even to those to whom the scene is familiar turf, the story credibility is unparalleled... told, as it is, by a direct witness.
It's fondly told, toning down depravities and ugly behavior that other storytellers might have emphasized for a more commercial zing. One senses Crowe doesn't share everything he experienced but there's enough to provide a cross-section of rock and roll behind the scenes. He also shares with us his very fond relationship with his protective, loving mother (Frances McDormand) who seems to have recognized his singular gifts at such an early age. It's a fine achievement and one that the writers of the Academy might well consider next March. We'll see.
It should also further the career of the always interesting Billy Crudup, an actor whose star awaits wider recognition. For more by him, see the noir-western, "Hi-Lo Country" and the modest but intense "Jesus' Son". He was also one of Barry Levinson's "Sleepers" of 1996.
Estimated cost: $60,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $35,000,000.
Rated E, for Evocative.