Originally Written on 9/10/2011
Rock and roll doesn’t die. It just grows older and hopefully, grows up.
Of the many messages in Cameron Crowe’s near epic loss of innocence story we know as the great Almost Famous, the above rings the truest. The first I heard of this film was its amazing soundtrack, a CD on everyday rotation in my ex-girlfriend’s Honda Civic. With classic tunes like Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and the quintessential “Every Picture Tells A Story” from Rod Stewart, the arc of the film is mirrored closely in the music that surrounds it. Largely a coming of age story, not only for aspiring rock journalist, William Miller but for everybody involved in this tale, Almost Famous is a breezy yet poignant film full of excellent performances, glib laughter and heartfelt fun.
The center of this movie revolves around the aforementioned Mr. Miller, a 15 year old music fan who, thanks to some handy plot contrivances, is tasked by Rolling Stone to write an expose on the rock band Stillwater. Fronted by the egotistical yet insecure Jeff (Jason Lee in a role he was born to play) and backed by the guitar virtuoso, Russell (Billy Crudup), Stillwater is a band on the rise and while they’re mistrustful of the young writer at first, they quickly warm to his sweet down home mannerisms, taking the boy on the road to experience the rock and roll life first hand. The ensemble cast that fills the wild, weird and sometimes sad world Will finds himself in is unilaterally fantastic. From Kate Hudson as Penny, a groupie and on / off lover of Russell to the scene stealing Frances McDormand as Will’s doting mother to Phillip Seymour Hoffman as famed rock critic Lester Bangs, the cast works seamlessly together, creating a vibe that’s fun, inviting and emotionally involving, despite the leaps of faith the film takes to make it all work.
That’s not say writer / director Cameron Crowe did a poor job. Quite the opposite, Crowe makes some smart decisions in making sure everybody in the film learns a thing or two by the time the final frame flickers. Rock flicks can sometimes be over-glamorous or under-honest but Almost Famous manages to highlight both the reckless fun and emotional strain that comes with spending months on end with an entourage of band members, musical and otherwise. The result is a film that’s enlightening while staying entertaining, the obvious product of Crowe’s own experience writing rock columns and hanging with people who on stage seem larger than life but in the real world, have the same fears and worries as the rest of us. Sure, Crowe uses a fair amount of plot devices, script feints and a third act deus ex machina that’s fairly ridiculous yet critical to the final bend in the story arc, but those manipulations are forgivable thanks to a well written script and the fantastic cast performing it.
Almost Famous is one of those films that, like the burgeoning rock stars of its focus, is easy to deride as pure escapist entertainment, simply because it’s fun and it knows it. However, if you peel back the curtain and spend a few minutes looking at the journey these fascinating characters undergo in the space of two hours, the film takes on a new shape, one of personal discovery, understanding and revelation. Sure, these characters smoke, screw, drink and rage but in the end, when all is said and done, these people and this movie are there for the love of the music. Cameron Crowe captures this emotional power and delivers a well balanced, smartly written and completely enjoyable film. A movie that, when all is said and done, celebrates the passion required to make this type of music, Almost Famous deserves a spot among some the finest films made in the early twenty-first century and is an absolute must see not only for the music but for an examination of the turning points that define these unique characters. Remember, rock and roll may never die but thanks to Cameron Crowe and Almost Famous, it can age rather gracefully.
***NOTE: The version I watched was the newly released “Bootleg Edition” Blue Ray which adds a whopping 30 minutes of footage to an already two hour movie. While the extra footage doesn’t detract from the film in any way, in my opinion it doesn’t add anything either. While I can’t in good faith knock points off of the score for the decision of the filmmakers to include this footage, I wish there was a way to skip this material as this version definitely feels over-long compared to original I remember. Just a quick note to those who see this extended version and wonder why I don’t mention its bloated length in the main review.***
Score – 90%