Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous (1999) may just be one of Hollywood’s most enjoyable and rewarding films of the year. For those ever touched by the rawness and energy of rock music in its ’60s, early ’70s phase or merely pop music itself and its inherent ability to provide a fanciful escape from the banality and limitations of suburban existence, this film will definitely please. Almost Famous is vaguely based on the early life experiences of Crowe, a superbrain whiz kid who was not only a passionate music fan but also had a serious appreciation of rock music, and who by the age of 16 had toured America with bands such as Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac and published in legendary rock magazine, Rolling Stone. Writer-director, Crowe’s innate passion and respect for music – the way it can magically transform a moment or perfectly encapsulate a feeling – is fully evident in this film: not only in its soundtrack but also its intimate style that lingers on faces keyed to a certain expression and its general storytelling energy and exuberance that is at times comparable with the awesome feeling of being transformed or uplifted by a piece of music. Ultimately, Crowe marries this musical, lyrical feel with his exploration of relationships, discovery, and the pure disjuncture of being a young teenager amongst a crowd of rock musicians, sexually promiscuous women and consequence-free living. He explores all this with the vividness, poignancy and detail that was evident in his sublime and uplifting debut Say Anything… (1989), though here cloaked in a distinct feeling of nostalgia for an era, a series of moments and memories, that have passed away, forever. Despite its flaws, Almost Famous is passionate and heartfelt enough to be a highly memorable experience.
The story begins in 1969 with a young and intelligent kid, William Miller (played by Michael Angarano; his older character is played by Patrick Fugit), growing up in the suburbs with his loving though protective and needy mother, played exquisitely by Frances McDormand, and inherently rebellious sister Anita (played by Zooey Deschanel). Already, William is a notably passive character within his environment – a trait that marks his presence emphatically while amongst the touring rock band. It’s also an essential part of his character – William is quietly intelligent. He bypasses the hoopla and charades played by others by virtue of his perpetually good-natured, level-headed persona; he seems interested mainly in being serious about rock music, illustrated in the scene where his genuineness as a music fan earns him instant respect from the band members Stillwater and his first experience backstage. His sister is a feisty number, one who passionately believes in the poetry and euphoria of rock, and her own independence. On the day that she decides to leave the family ‘nest’ to become a stewardess, she plays her distraught mother a song that explains perfectly the reasons why. In fact, she gives the first expression in the film to the idea of letting go, driving toward an open expanse without constraints – a theme loosely tied to the energy and rebellion of rock music throughout the film. But Anita also makes a significant impact on the life of her younger, impressionable brother when she leaves him a collection of albums as a token of respite from ‘home life’, which include Blue by Joni Mitchell, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Tommy by The Who, Led Zeppelin 2 and others by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Cream, songs from which later feature on the soundtrack. At this point William has found his calling and Crowe gives the primal moment its symbolic due – a gorgeous, poetic montage of album covers, which William delicately thumbs, fading over each other, and shots of the needle over the vinyl as the record spins endlessly.
From here the film cuts to 1973 and William is a young teenager with an encyclopedic knowledge and appreciation of music. He comes across the voice of Lester Bangs, editor of alternative music magazine Creem, philosophising on the radio about the current state and future of rock music. A chord is instantly struck and William accosts the editor and so begins a mentor relationship that will first entail a writing “assignment” to valuable advice on how to deal with musicians and editors. Echoing their real-life relationship, Lester appears intermittently throughout the film to give William crucial advice in desperate situations. A quickly emerging writer, William is soon approached by Rolling Stone magazine to interview and write on the up and coming band Stillwater during their tour. And so begins the film’s journey – one that literally involves an uprooting from the staid, suburban home and a plunging into a ‘ life on the road’, a fantasy world of anonymity, freedom, fame, openness, expression and general feelings of excitement and recklessness.
Crowe vividly portrays the rush of playing live, the atmosphere of being back-stage or of being famous. But he focuses mainly on the intricate, complex reality of this fantasy world, with a keen eye on the personal stakes and inner feelings buried beneath the illusion of a supposedly carefree, alternate reality – a reality that is perhaps the flip side to the American Dream: the desire to escape social responsibility and convention in order to live a free careless existence of rootlessness, freely traversing wide, open spaces with the utopia of music leading the way. The first of the crevices in this alternate reality is in the band which is slowly revealed to be internally divided between lead guitarist/ band leader Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup) and lead singer Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe) in which egos seem always to be at stake (the other band members who are given barely any dialogue simply nod in the background). However, it is the presence of women in this environment, known as the ‘Band Aids’ (defined not as ‘groupies’ since they love the music first and not the men), and the tragic consequences of placing one’s heart and body on the line, that Crowe emphasises with nuance and poignancy. In this regard, the character Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who is unofficially affiliated with Russell, becomes the icon of so many young women caught in a spiral of fantasy, self-delusion and false hope. And so this becomes the moral of Almost Famous – that the supposedly consequence-free life of rock musicians, the rebellion of that era against conventional moral codes and the thrill of fame are ultimately traps, false lures. But, importantly, playing alongside this theme is William’s own unique relation to this licentious world, one that straddles observer and participant – the way he folds into it via the friendships he develops, mainly with Russell, and the rising difficulty of being both a friend and a journalist to the band; and his growing affection for Penny whom he must always watch from a distance. But what is made especially poignant out of all this is the way Crowe emphasises the resulting feeling of nostalgia – the way William’s extraordinary experience rapidly becomes a precious memory, a series of Polaroid photos that have captured the ‘moment’ of an embrace, a laughter, or a look that is by fate doomed to be fleeting and ephemeral.
The feeling of nostalgia runs throughout this film. On one level, Crowe’s lovingly detailed recreation of ’70s America – everything from the sun-filled homes and bedrooms to the clothes, hairstyles and general attitudes of what constitutes being ‘cool’ – is genuine and never caricatured, smug or patronising. And the film’s warm palette of colours, which reminded me intensely of Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), highlights further the innocence and naivety of this past era. On a personal note, it was a refreshing change to see a mainstream film that was without the digital, slick accessories that have come to define the feel of contemporary homes, offices and worlds (the film’s little joke of a machine called “mojo” that transmits pages of words over a phone line is delightful).
What was also refreshing about Almost Famous is Crowe’s intimate style and heartfelt attention to his characters. For example, after Russell boards the tour bus and returns to the band (after an argument), Crowe cuts to the faces of the young, ordinary kids that he has partied with the night before as they stand at the road waving good-bye. The way he hangs on their faces, marked by an expression of sadness at this passing character, and the accompanying evocative score gives this moment a strange feeling of pathos – it suddenly becomes a tender reflection on the future of these anonymous characters. It’s a moment that underscores the general feeling of nostalgia and pathos throughout this film – something that links up with Crowe’s specific focus on a moment in the history of rock music when it was not only on the brink of an encounter with mass commercialisation and consumerism that would change the face of popular music forever (symbolised in the film by the highfaluting, quick talking manager and the private plane he brings in that replaces their sentimental tour bus) but also its splinter into many different genres and styles and competition with electronica and disco. In a way, Almost Famous is partly Crowe paying homage to this era of rock music – and all its idealism and energy – that he grew up with and was personally attached to; and what will ensure this film’s resonance among viewers with similar sentiments.
This particular style of holding on to faces marked by an expression occurs throughout the film and, especially in the case of Penny Lane, it becomes a short-hand, lyrical way of cueing a character’s feeling or emotion, a way of reading the heart of his characters on their faces – the flowering of love, the play of desire and attraction. Interestingly, in a world defined by casual sex Crowe rarely ever films his characters in the act: it’s often the look just preceding that he’s most interested in, for example, the telling look Penny gives William before he is “deflowered” by the bored group of Band Aids. This intimate style is also an index of Crowe’s humanism and ties in with his overall quite emotive and poignant camera work – for example, the many tracking shots that follow a character from behind as they walk forward (the significance of this only becoming apparent later) or the precise and particular use of slow-motion (perhaps the scene where Penny’s stomach is being pumped is the most spectacular example of this). These very subtle stylistic flourishes press at the pathos of these characters – for example, the slow zoom into the sister Anita as she says goodbye to her family or the almost unbearable crosscutting that contrasts William’s class graduation with him holding the unconscious Penny in his arms in a New York hotel room, declaring his love for her. These moments bear a distinct poignancy and prescience in which they seem to be viewed tenderly in hindsight, glazed by the lens of knowing experience and wisdom. The theme of gazing into the past, in which it emerges as a series of lost fragments of time and experience, is one that frames the film via the epilogue and prologue. It is also perfectly evoked in the scene where William sits at his typewriter with photos of the tour sprawled around him facing a blank piece of paper: a moment that expresses forcefully not only the challenge for any writer but also the film’s implicit theme of the chasm between friendship, life and experience and distance, objectivity and writing (that is summed up perfectly in Lester’s insistent, emphatic epigram to William: “we are uncool”).
Perhaps the film’s nostalgic tone is a result of Crowe’s own personal investment in the story but it is also an example of the genuinely humanist and heartfelt quality of his work – evident in particular in his interest in the ‘teen’ experience and feelings of innocence and curiosity, social play acting and hard core inner yearning that was documented with such honest and precise detail in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982) based on Crowe’s best selling novel. It’s a kind of uplifting humanism that was evident in the best moments of Jerry Maguire (1996), in particular, Renee Zellweger’s performance as Dorothy but most forcefully evident in Say Anything… a fully engrossing and vivid account of two unlikely characters coming together. The strong parent-child relationship in that film continues in Almost Famous between Elaine and William. At every step along the tour, in each new city, Elaine is present in her constant phone calls and although she is needy and protective, Crowe never regards her in a mocking or distant way. He gives her character enough depth, compassion and humour – and in a beautiful and hilarious scene he even privileges her with the ability to “freak” Russell with her wise rapping on life and responsibility – to make her one of the most sympathetic and endearing characters of the film.
So if the first part of Almost Famous begins with the birth of a passion and its consequent possibilities followed by the wonder and awe of entering a dazzling world of rootlessness, music, freedom, and endless hotel rooms, then the second half sketches the coming apart of this world and is marked by a resulting sombre, low-key tone. In this turn, however, Almost Famous makes a few moves that appear contrived and reductive. Suddenly the band’s self-awareness or more precisely particular band members’ learning of each other’s betrayal and of what is really important to them has the superficial ring of preachy Hollywood. The band’s arrival in New York – the last stop along their tour – is marked as the return to ‘reality’, symbolised by Russell’s girlfriend, a rather tokenistic portrayal of ‘the domineering girlfriend’. Suddenly the band members, previously so full of life and energy, are sullen and wimpish before Russell’s girlfriend. Russell himself who in an earlier scene was giving away his ‘woman’, Penny, is now a quiet helpless victim before his vampiric girlfriend. The scene in which the band members confess their most hidden secrets while seemingly plunging toward death in their private airplane struck by a lightning storm smacks of the same kind of inconsistency and contrivedness – Russell learns that Jeff has for quite a long time now been having a deep and passionate affair with his girlfriend. There is a feeling that the ambitions and energy of the film earlier are suddenly spiralling down a series of mechanistic and contrived plot discoveries that seem equally implausible, the depth of the film suddenly threatening to collapse in a pack of disappointing and superficial American musos. Similarly, it’s only through a conversation with Sapphire (Fairuza Balk), part of the band’s entourage, that Russell sees the light. Even what Sapphire recounts here is spurious: her contrasting of the present ‘Band Aids’ with the previous ones who were genuinely interested in the music contradicts starkly with Penny’s direct and persistent emphasis in her explanation to William about why she lives this life – that being with people that are ‘famous’ are just “more interesting”. Crowe seems to lose grip of the film at the point where the ‘fantasy’ world confronts the ‘real’ world, but he picks it up again right at the end, at moments where he revisits his characters and their personal fates (Penny leaving for Morocco; William sprawled on his bed covered by albums; and Russell beginning to talk finally about his love of music).
But Almost Famous never loses its charm because of the character William. The genuineness and sensitivity of this character is perfectly capped in the scene when he returns home – after an extraordinary experience for a 15-year old he is marked not by a smug change in identity or attitude toward suburbia but a world-weariness and a real appreciation of home and comfort. Through the character of William, Almost Famous makes a moving gesture – that being a ‘fan’ and having a true passion for music is as important as ‘fame’ and ‘celebrity’. And so it takes the entire film for it to catch up with William – for what he was ready for all along – a truthful and honest rap about the music.