Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Almost Famous



US 2000
dir, scr Cameron Crowe
cin John Toll
stars Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup
124 minutes

Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe’s pet project, a heavily autobiographical tale based on his mid-70s stint as a fresh-faced teenage journalist on tour with the Allman Brothers, which produced a Rolling Stone cover story that kick-started his career as a rock writer. In the Crowe role we have newcomer Fugit – Roman Polanski in Dance of the Vampires with a hint of Bjork – as William Miller, whose stint on tour with ‘Stillwater’ produces a Rolling Stone cover story that kick starts his career as a rock writer. The movie mixes real-life figures (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a sensational cameo as William’s mentor, much-missed gonzo scribe Lester Bangs) with fictional creations (Hudson as dreamy groupie Penny Lane, Crudup as Stillwater’s narcissistic guitarist) to create a gallery of larger-than-life characters revolving around the unflappable William as he makes his way across the country, maintaining phone contact with his over-protective mother (McDormand).

It’s an old-fashioned, kind-hearted sort of picture, blending easy-going laughs with more sentimental moments, very hard to dislike and much easier to enjoy – it spins such an attractively affectionate atmosphere that it’s only in retrospect that you’re nagged by its shortcomings. Though it barrels along nicely for most of its running time, it peters out at the end. There’s an unconvincing, tacked-on ‘dramatic’ climax aboard an aeroplane, then an equally unconvincing ‘artistic’ climax at Rolling Stone offices, where William’s fortunes fluctuate in a ham-fistedly arbitrary manner before everything eventually works out. Not that we actually get much of an idea about William’s ability, or lack of – the whole movie is about the formation of this rock journalist, and this article he’s written, but we’re never allowed to make our minds up about either.

And it’s not even as if Cameron Crowe ended up being such a great rock journo anyway – he’s become a film director – Singles, Jerry Maguire – aiming for the fuzzily inoffensive edges of a lucrative demographic. Not a crime in itself, but this is a movie which, inspired by Lester Bangs’ example, venerates the power of rock and roll, in which characters are always going on about the amazing buzz the music provides. But where’s the buzz in Almost Famous? Where’s the danger, the edge, in Crowe’s script or direction? Where are the risks? Nobody’s expecting in-your-face punk rock techniques from Crowe, but does everything have to be quite so middle-of-the-road, so very Radio 2 – perhaps it’s the influence of Crowe’s wife Nancy Wilson from soft-rock favourites Heart, who provides much of the soundtrack music.

There are elements of buzz in the performances of Hoffman and Jason Lee, as Stillwater’s stroppy lead singer, casually hitting a wall with his fist as he strides out of the movie – many of the performances seem to get the material much more strongly than their director. But Crowe is much more interested in William, an idealised version of himself, his mother, and Penny – a warm, star-making showcase for the soon-to-be-very-famous Hudson. McDormand, who nails the script’s biggest laughs, is always fretting about her boy, counselling him about the perils of drugs and sex and rock and roll. While she’s not exactly mocked or patronised, she is something of a figure of fun. But Mrs Miller, like many people, would surely love this movie, finding nothing to upset or disturb her in the slightest – and it’s just as well for Crowe there’s no Lester Bangs around to rip it apart.

by Neil Young