Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Almost Famous is Absolutely Fabulous

Written by Cameron Crowe
Directed by Cameron Crowe

I missed out on the grand old days of rock & roll. As I started developing an interest in my own music, disco was king. I soon got past that and found the early 80’s new wave and punk, along with true rock music from before the disco era.

So maybe what I like so much about this movie is the way it romanticizes an era that I missed out on. A time before AIDS; a time before people realized just how harmful drugs really are; a time before record companies started churning out carbon-copy ready-made bands; a time when the music really did matter.

Almost Famous takes place in the mid-seventies, just prior to the disco era. It is based on a true story: Cameron Crowe’s (the writer, producer, and director of the movie) life as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine writing about the bands of that era. William Miller is Crowe’s alter-ego in the film. At the tender age of fifteen, he is mature beyond his years in many ways, but emotionally he is still fifteen.

Miller gets handed a plumb writing assignment for Rolling Stone magazine to follow the band Stillwater on tour and write about them. As the movie goes on, we can see he is in a situation over his head and have to wonder how he will manage in the end.

Patrick Fugit portrays William Miller and is superb. He captures the heart of the boy who seems to fit in nowhere. William is uncool and yearns to be cool as his sister promised he would be many years before. Fugit was perfect for the part, capturing William’s naivete and innocence as he associates the world surrounding this rock band with being cool, then learns just how horrible of an existence it really is. Fugit deserved an Oscar nomination.

So did Frances McDormand as Elaine, his straight-laced mother who has a hard time seeing her son’s predicament in the world. After having her daughter move out at 18 and not keeping in touch, Elaine is a little looser with her son. That doesn’t stop McDormand from getting some of the best lines in this movie. When she tells a class full of students that her son was kidnapped by a rock band, it is hysterical but poignant – she sees them as a cult that is bent on destroying the son she has been raising alone and to the best of her ability. Another actress could have made Elaine into a mere caricature, but McDormand’s work here is perfect.

The most recognition has been given to Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, a neo-groupie who thinks a lot more of Russell Hammond, Stillwater‘s lead guitarist than he does of her. Hudson plays this part perfectly, her eyes are filled with the optimism of youth, and of total faith in the man she loves. We see how much she cares for Hammond without her saying a word. Her actions also convey just how deeply she cares for William as a friend as well, though his feeling for her are much deeper.

Having read Pamela DesBarres’ book many years ago, I could see a lot of what DesBarres talked about in Penny Lane, so I have to wonder was this indicative of that time in rock & roll, or did Crowe base the part on her? I think this movie does more justice to this era of rock & roll than a film based on DesBarres’ book ever would have.

Finally, there is Billy Crudup as the elusive Russell Hammond. For a long time through this movie, I didn’t know what to make of him. At times, I thought he was a typical rock star whose ego would eventually lead him to self-destruct. I’d then think of him as a hamster caught up in a wheel he couldn’t get off. In the end, I decided that all he wanted to do was play music and everything else was just extra. He didn’t know how to be true to himself. His conversation on the phone with Elaine (and later in person) shows what a basically decent guy he is – he is just caught up in the pandemonium surrounding the up-and-coming band.

These four are the main reason this movie is so good, although there is not one person at fault in the supporting cast either. I have to say I haven’t seen a movie that made such a wonderful and lasting impression on me in a very long time.

On DVD, there are the usual extras: a behind-the-scenes/making-of documentary, production notes, complete cast listing, and theatrical trailer. Two items that really stood out to me, though, were the Fever Dog music video (probably because no one had even really thought about making music videos in the mid ’70s), and the complete Rolling Stone articles by Cameron Crowe.

I really enjoyed reading through the Rolling Stone articles and saw little hints of what Crowe drew on to form Stillwater:
The Allman Brothers December 6, 1973
Led Zeppelin March 13, 1975
Neil Young August 14, 1975
Peter Frampton February 10, 1977
Fleetwood Mac March 24, 1977
Van Morrison May 13, 1977
Joni Mitchell July 26, 1979

The DVDs are worth having if for no other reason than to have copies of these stories. They represent an era of rock & roll that we’ll never return to.

3 replies »

  1. I lived in Miami, which like NYC in the 1970s, went gaga for disco. Most of my peers in junior high liked the stuff, and many of them still do. True, they weren’t old enough to be part of the discotheque scene, but many of them had older siblings that were. I was immune to disco’s charms. I’ve always been drawn to more mellow music. Classical, mostly, especially after I heard the “Star Wars” score at age 14. But I liked easy listening, soft rock, standards, Broadway tunes…certainly not the “cool” music a lot of people liked back then. (It wasn’t till I got to high school that I got “into” The Beatles, and I started liking Billy Joel’s songs by the time I was in 12th grade.

    Mercifully for me, my older half-sister didn’t live with us in the early years of the genre, and by the time Mom got a case of temporary insanity and suggested that she move in with us to the (then) new townhouse she had just bought in Fontainebleau Park, she was too busy studying for her nursing degree to play her few disco records on our communal stereo.

    Even more mercifully for me: her flirtation with disco was short-lived. Turns out that she liked Latin and adult contemporary (Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, John Denver) more than she did the Bee Gees, Meco, KC & the Sunshine Band, and Gloria Gaynor.

    I owned two – just two – disco records. One was a gift from one of my cousins in Colombia; I don’t remember the name. but it was a European classical music-set-to-disco album. (No, it wasn’t Hooked on Classics.) The other was “Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk.”

  2. The early disco I liked – Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Village People. Of course, I was like 10 or 11 then. I went from that into Springsteen and rock. I liked the hard stuff with a good guitar line. Even now, the new wave synth bands are okay, but the ones I really liked always had a lot of guitar in them.

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