The unobtrusive opening sequence of director Cameron Crowe’s wistful new Almost Famous contains images as courageous and original as in any movie I’ve seen this year: hurried close-ups of a pencil scratching down and erasing various movie credits on yellow college-ruled paper. Like a catchy ramp to a popular rock song, this minimalist prelude seizes and shakes its audience, and forecasts systematic debauchery. The film does not disappoint: Almost Famous is an unapologetic homage to pimple-faced angst, puffy-white dreams, leopard-skin pants and, of course, rock and roll.
While its plot is not as sexy as those in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, the formerly top-secret movie did incubate for most of its post-production under the pseudonym Untitled Cameron Crowe Project. DreamWorks Pictures finally unveiled the film’s storyline in August, when trailers started appearing in theaters. Why all the fanfare for a modest, semi-autobiographical recount of Crowe’s experience as a young writer at Rolling Stone magazine? Well, the director’s previous work happens to be the touchdown known as Jerry Maguire.
With all the expectations surrounding the movie, it is amazing that Almost Famous does not drown in its own self-aware humbleness. On the contrary, the film bubbles with imaginative characters and vivacious energy. Set against the backdrop of 1970s suburban ennui, this movie is a panoramic portrait of middle-class America disguised as a road-trip movie. Especially in the film’s engaging first hour, the script deftly balances its main coming-of-age plot with reflections on single-mother family life, risk-taking and stardom.
The movie begins in 1969, as Elaine (Frances McDormand), a stringent but compassionate single-mother, sermonizes to her carefree daughter, Anita (Zooey Deschenal) about drugs, curfews, sex and more drugs. Fed up with her mother’s authoritarian inclinations, 18-year-old Anita leaves home to become a stewardess. On the day of her departure, she assures her awkward little brother William (Patrick Fugit) that “someday, you will be cool.” To point him in the right direction, she gives him a Coolness Starter Kit: her record album collection.
The movie cuts to 1973. William is now 15. Because his mother enrolled him a year early in preschool and he skipped fifth grade, William is already a senior in high school. Both socially unpolished and strangely self-reliant, William lives and breathes his sister’s music. He reviews albums in his school newspaper and aspires to have a career in journalism as a music critic.
William’s breakthrough comes when he contacts Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), editor of Cream magazine, and receives encouragement and lessons about his writing. Recognizing William’s talent, Bangs gives him a pass to a Black Sabbath concert and assigns him a small music review. Unfortunately, William encounters trouble when the tries to enter the backstage area to conduct his interview. His persistence pays off as William finagles his way, not only into the restricted area of the stadium, but also into the social universe of the night’s opening act, an up-and-coming band called Stillwater.
The vast majority of the rest of the film takes place inside gaudy hotel rooms, lava lamp-enhanced backstage spaces and Stillwater’s claustrophobic touring bus, where the characters’ lives become faster-paced and more discombobulated. As the story expands, so do the concert venues, and the location of the film’s denouement is, of course, New York City. With the exception of a silly, prolonged sequence inside Stillwater’s touring plane, the movie manages to tie together many of its diverse subplots without shortchanging the viewer.
Crowe’s alter-ego, Fugit, injects refreshing candor and natural charisma into the movie’s main role. In a way, Fugit’s William is Wes Bentley’s Ricky Fitts from American Beauty minus the eerie confidence and self-righteous edification. Frances McDormand dazzles and unnerves in her paradoxical turn as a dictator mom with admirable intentions, but Kate Hudson’s muddled performance as “Band-Aid” wild child Penny Lane lacks focus and integrity. Yes, we get that she is a free spirit and thus capable of many non-sequitirs, but do we needed to be reminded of her eccentricity with constant body twirling and gratuitous close-ups of her “wild” eyes?
The film’s cinematography effectively captures the kinetic exuberance of the early 1970s rock milieu. With disorientating concert spotlights zig-zagging here and a bunch of scantily-clad groupies flailing about there, the movie offers more than enough eye-candy to justify its two-hour length. Fortunately, Crowe tempers this on-screen chaos with frequent shots of wide-eyed and grounded Fugit. Without Fugit’s calming screen presence, Almost Famous runs the risk of glamorizing drug use and exploiting impressionable young females.
There is a touching moment near the end of Almost Famous when William has to reveal some heartbreaking information to the girl that he loves. In this scene, the director respects the characters enough to provide them with genuine words and quiet revelations rather than sterilizing them melodramatic, plastic tripe. In a lesser film, this sequence would serve as the tear-inducing payoff to a series of romantic subplots and contrivances. Instead, Crowe approaches this scene with compassion and then allows the story to move in its natural trajectory.
This is a movie that seeks to aim its spotlight on the quiet, more interesting corners of the stage. Even in its most raucous moments of rock star decadence and hedonism, Almost Famous never flinches in its transcendent honesty and its commitment to gently depict a young man coming into his own.