Cameron Crowe | 2hr 2min
Almost Famous rolls along with all the thrust and exhilaration of a rock concert, as steeped in 70s pop culture as Cameron Crowe himself. Fifteen-year-old William Miller is his surrogate, and in his naïve, coming-of-age ventures following famous band Stillwater as a wannabe music journalist, we see traces of the director’s own origins. With such an autobiographical approach to the subject matter, a loosely structured flow between nostalgic hangouts, and hints of an existential, ever-encroaching adulthood, there is a great deal of Richard Linklater’s influence milling around this screenplay. In the examinations of fame and celebrity ridden through Almost Famous though there is a star power that Linklater has always rejected, and which Crowe fully embraces in drawing lines between past and present representations of pop culture.
Patrick Fugit as William may be the biggest unknown here, and even as the lead there is little he can do to stand up against the big names listed alongside his in the opening credits. Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman steal scenes in their supporting roles, and in smaller parts Zooey Deschanel, Anna Paquin, Jimmy Fallon, Jay Baruchel, and Fairuza Balk also make memorable appearances, each putting a charismatic shine on the glamourous lifestyle that lies far beyond William’s home. Carrying him through on a swell of sincere compassion and love though is a radiant Kate Hudson, playing a fictional take on socialite Pennie Lane – a self-proclaimed “band aid” who follows bands for the music, thus differentiating herself from groupies who are there for the sex.
About as prolific as Crowe’s cast is his boisterous rock soundtrack featuring virtually every 70s pop icon under the sun from The Who to Simon & Garfunkel, and additionally becoming the cornerstone of scenes that let the cast become part of the playlist. One joyous bus ride takes off with a singalong to Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, and even beyond those instantly recognisable classics, Nancy Wilson contributes original tracks ‘Fever Dog’ and ‘Lucky Trumble’ to further carve out this fictional corner of the culture inhabited by Stillwater and their fans. Crowe’s pacing surfs along on these songs like waves, only ever pausing long enough to contemplate the disappointment, heartbreak, and danger of the industry before wholeheartedly leaping back in.
This seems to be the cycle experienced by musicians and fans alike, and despite the warnings from older journalists not to consider these people friends, William still finds himself by Stillwater’s side, riding their highs and lows. The way this lifestyle is depicted almost seems like a drug addiction at times – right from the moment he first drops the needle on a record his sister gave him when he was 11, Crowe fades the scene into a series of long dissolves of the vinyl, the cover, and his ecstatic face, looking as if he has been transported into an entirely new world.
With such potency in Crowe’s characterisations and soundtrack, it is not hard to understand the concerns of Elaine, William’s mother, played by McDormand as a sympathetic hard-ass. This is the time of her son’s life that he is most impressionable, and the worry lines that crease her brow appear permanently etched into her face. When she overhears a girl on the other end of the phone talking about hydroponic pot and later asking if William wants to see her feed a mouse to her snake, we can easily forgive those times that she comes off as unreasonable. The comedy lands brilliantly in this screenplay, but beneath it all Crowe maintains a layer of drama, rooting his adolescent protagonist to his unshakable core relationships.
At times, this light brush of comedy only barely conceals the industry’s deeply entrenched misogyny and objectification of women, consistently drawing out the tragic undercurrent to Pennie’s character in scenes that see her gambled off or overdosing on quaaludes. Elsewhere, the repressed darkness of these characters is played for laughs when a cascade of grim secrets and confessions tumble out into the open on a plane that briefly appears to be crashing, before stabilising and forcing its passengers to sit in a painfully awkward silence. For Crowe, it is a skilful tonal balance that he conducts all through Almost Famous, propelling this narrative through its tensions, trials, and trans-American travels, and tying each set piece together into a nostalgic reflection on a musical era as joyfully uninhibited as it was potentially soul-destroying.
Almost Famous is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.