Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous starring Kate HudsonIn the year 1973, I was about two years away from the same rock and roll epiphany that William Miller has at the beginning of Cameron Crowe's almost perfect look at rock and roll. (It's actually Crowe's second look at music, with 1992's SINGLES taking a romantic-comic peek at the Seattle alternative scene.)

Miller's cosmic rebirth comes at the hands of his sister Anita who leaves home but bestows her vinyl collection on the rock-critic-to-be. And what a collection! 'Pet Sounds' and 'Tommy,' as well as some Stones, Dylan, Jimi, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few. My musical education came, not at the hands of my sister, but an older brother who turned me on over the years to Bowie, Zappa, T. Rex, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Tom Waits, and many more in a continuing, ever-evolving musical education. Watching those opening scenes was as close as I've ever come to going back in time, and I admittedly got choked up when Anita (Zooey Deschanel) looks into her brother's eyes and tells him, "You'll be cool one day." JT and I have said goodbye so many times through the years you'd think it would be easy to do, but I still get misty...he's had a similarly profound effect on my life.

But enough of my yakkin'!

Crowe uses this short, opening sequence to show us how powerful music is, and what a large part it can play in our lives. Especially when we find a band we can put in our back pocket and call "mine." (For me, that band was The Replacements, but that's another story.) 15-year-old William (Patrick Fugit, who seems to grow, mature, shrink, and grow as the film goes on) has found that band in Stillwater, mid-America rockers with medium popularity but extra-large egos at its core. After submitting pieces to and chatting with legendary 'Creem' editor Lester Bangs (in a performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman that's so real you can almost smell the cough syrup), William finds himself tagging along with the band, their crew, and the lovely 'band aids' while he writes a piece for 'Rolling Stone.' The Band Aids (featuring Kate Hudson as Penny Lane and the delicious Anna Pacquin, grrrr!) may sleep and take drugs with the members, but they're not groupies, a PC nod that rings false and is one of the film's few flaws.

And William couldn't be faced with a more dysfunctional band; one hesitates to call them a "group." Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee in another great performance) is the kind of guy who talks about "connecting" with the audience, but isn't above wearing a shirt with his own likeness on it. Billy Crudup plays Russell Hammond, the mysterious guitarist who knows that he's holding himself back by playing with these guys, but who can't walk away due to a fear of...? Who knows, with Crudup's anti-hero it may be a fear of success and failure rolled up into one insecure ball. It sure doesn't help that the record label is pushing the band toward bigger things while pushing Hammond as the frontman.

Penny and William are our eyes and ears into this world, a world teetering on the edge of glam and punk, commercialization and MTV. Bangs may think it's time for the death rattle of rock and roll, but it might actually be the last moments of purity.

Almost Famous starring Kate HudsonOnce again, Crowe has written a screenplay that hits with remarkable realism and sincerity. His characters talk the way real people talk, and face the same insecurities. Luckily, he resists the urge to have Penny and William get together at the end, though I think every critic out there was hoping to have the lanky, uncool scribe land the winsome Penny. (Right? Right?) And, with a cast of people you might know, but probably couldn't name, the flick achieves a believability that wouldn't be possible with names in the leads.

Bravo to Crowe, as well as Hudson, Crudup, Lee, Hoffman, and Frances McDormand as William's anti-drug, anti-rock, college prof mom. It's a wonderfully comic, but heartfelt, turn as the pesty mom who freaks out band members, groupies, and hotel clerks with her phone calls.

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