Almost Famous (2000)

D: Cameron Crowe
S: Billy Crudup, Patrick Fugit

A teenage amateur rock critic (Patrick Fugit) lucks into a choice assignment: a road trip with an up and coming band for Rolling Stone. His protective mother (Frances McDormand), having already lost one child to the freewheeling 70s, reluctantly agrees to let him go. Despite good advice from a small press editor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to never get friendly with musicians, the youngster finds himself falling under the spell of the backstage buzz. He is especially entranced by one of the self-proclaimed 'band aids' (NOT groupies) (Kate Hudson), and is about to enter a brave new world of amorality and self-indulgence as rock 'n' roll begins to lose its way.

Loosely inspired by the early journalistic experiences of writer/director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), Almost Famous is another in his series of generally well written ensemble pieces which give a good cast of fresh faces an opportunity to play interesting and sympathetic characters. Foremost among these are young Fugit and the enigmatic Billy Crudup (the band's most creative member who may or may not be on the brink of a solo career himself), but the camera is most in love with Hudson (daughter of Goldie Hawn, seen also recently in About Adam). Crowe gives her a character which combines savviness, innocence, sensuality, and vulnerability. She plays the part with all of the above, though one can not help but feel that on some level she represents merely so much wish-fulfillment for the audience (despite being based on a real person). There is a persistent air of nostalgia and fantasy throughout the film which Crowe gets away with largely because of irresistible in-jokey situations and solid performances all around. Yet though Hudson's is the most vivid character in the film and her story has its moments of drama and crisis, she leaves a mental image of sweetness and light which is the inevitable result of a subjective and excessively romantic authorial filter and a sparkling, star-making performance.

Almost Famous is essentially a coming-of-age tale which follows the familiar patterns of the genre. It follows Fugit's initiation into a world which presents itself from a distance as all fantasy, but up close proves to be more demanding than expected. He nonetheless comes through the experience and learns more than just a few facts about a rock group. Crowe is a capable writer and a solid director. He has always proved good with slightly off-beat but believable characters (Singles, Say Anything, Jerry Maguire) and has enough storytelling skills to keep the audience interested in them. He's not particularly disciplined though, and spends so much time presenting and developing these characters that the story itself tends to lapse into cliché too often for its own good. The film is not particularly insightful or revealing, and though the various backstage incidents are a lot of fun, it is still nostalgic to a point where it misses the mark when it goes for tragedy. It is difficult not to think of the film as a straight version of This is Spinal Tap, a mental image which doesn't serve it all that well. It is a backstage romp with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll which works best when it's being funny and has some memorable character vignettes and comic situations. The characters are interesting, the performances are good, and Crowe does a good job of drawing us into their world, but somewhere along the line it loses touch with reality. The film lacks the harder edge it needs to get beneath this story and bring out its human drama. Instead it dallies in the details in a way which will probably appeal best to those who see themselves in the place of its central character and are enjoying the ride. While the audience comes away with a pleasant feeling and fond memories of Hudson's radiant smile, there is less to be gained from the experience than the central character seems to (and he's still starry-eyed about the joy of music by the end in spite of the rejection, betrayal, and loss he's supposed to have felt).

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.