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Kevin Fullam writesReflections on “Almost Famous” (Screening This Saturday at the CHIRP Music Film Festival)

by Kevin Fullam

"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." -- Lester Bangs

"Famous people are just more interesting." -- Lady Goodman, aka Penny Lane

Hmm. Is Penny right? Famous people might be fascinating for what they do -- but that doesn't mean they'll be able to wax philosophical about it afterwards.

At the conclusion of Almost Famous, journalist/teenage wunderkind William Miller (Patrick Fugit) finally gets his sit-down interview with Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) for Rolling Stone and leads with, "What do you love about music?" 

Er... how does one begin to tackle a question that broad? And are musicians themselves going to be the ones to offer up the most eloquent treatises on the medium?

The best description of Roger Federer's on-court wizardry didn't come from Rog himself, but from David Foster Wallace. And I'm betting that Mr. Uncool, legendary critic Lester Bangs, was far more articulate about his preferred artform than the vast majority of the musicians he covered.

Almost Famous is one big cinematic love letter -- to music journalism, to rock n' roll ('70s rock in particular), and to the idealism of youth. Director Cameron Crowe is basically at the center of the action, with William as his proxy; Crowe himself became a regular scribe for Rolling Stone at age 16, embarking on a four-year stretch during which he wrote about a slew of the decade's biggest acts.

In short: young William escapes the yoke of his mom (Frances McDormand) and learns about life and love after hitting the road to cover fictional band Stillwater and its collection of not-quite-groupie "Band Aids" (led by Kate Hudson) for Rolling Stone, while being guided via telephone by Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

I'm not going to recap the plot here -- instead, I'll provide random thoughts on a film that was widely acclaimed (four Oscar nominations, including a win for Crowe for Best Original Screenplay) yet never found a large box-office audience:

1) In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Almost Famous would be a critical darling. If we're assuming a median age of 45 for movie critics when AF was released in 2000, that would mean that a huge swath of these folks would be in high school and college in 1973, the year of our hero's journey. The film romanticizes an era that many of those writers probably remember fondly, and to top it off, it does a pretty good job of making writers look Mighty Cool*.

[*Despite what Lester says, if you're writing for Rolling Stone, you're almost cool by definition. And while it's not a surprise that Cameron Crowe's personal website is, I think one would have to work mighty hard as a big-time film director to be uncool. Maybe Michael Bay? And Tyler Perry. Both are wildly rich, but no way can those blokes be cool.]

1a) Has there ever been a film that spotlighted movie critics? In any capacity?

2) I'm not familiar with Frances McDormand's complete oeuvre, but she's pretty much playing the exact same role that she later reprised in Olive Kitteridge, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Nomadland. Tough, humorless, and perpetually wary -- the ideal foil for rock-and-roll hedonism. We do get a satisfying showdown between the two forces... which ends in a McDormand TKO.

3) Patrick Fugit's debut predates the arrival of Michael Cera by a few years, and both are now inextricably linked in my head. The two project similar bland, oh-shucks personas that kinda work in the right settings, but start to crumble whenever real emotion/gravitas is required. Not a surprise that neither's film career really got off the ground.

4) In contrast, I'm a little surprised that Kate Hudson didn't become a bigger star? Hudson's Penny Lane is the emotional center of the tale. Her joy and love -- for music, for the touring life, and for Russell -- is unadulterated, and I almost feel like Crowe should've used her as the nexus instead of Fugit's William. (A conversation about music between Penny Lane and Lester Bangs would've been priceless, no doubt.)

Penny and Crudup's Russell were by far the most interesting characters in the film, and while the pair were romantically linked in the narrative, it's a little surprising that they hardly have any one-on-one interactions. (One of their only scenes together was deleted from the final cut of the film -- but used in a Broadway adaptation of the movie.)

5) Philip Seymour Hoffman obviously did become a Hollywood fixture, and certainly was one of the greatest character actors of his generation. He probably doesn't have more than 10 minutes of screen time here, but nearly steals the film with his Obi-Wan mentoring of William from afar... just eight years removed from playing a high-school student (!) in Scent of a Woman.

6) The scene where Penny's Band-Aids (but not Penny herself) proceed to strip off William's clothes before "deflowering" him -- how creepy would this have been if the genders had been reversed? He protests mildly, but -- like the vast majority of teenage boys in his situation -- is perfectly happy to be seduced by a trio of vixens. Very curious as to how this plays with audiences, 23 years later. 

7) We got just a big enough taste of drugs and sexism so that we can't say the era was entirely whitewashed, but imagine the same characters put through the ringer by, say, Darren Aronofsky? (Russell's LSD trip alone would be worth the price of admission.) There was a rather "de-glamorized" cinematic take on rock music back in 2018 with Her Smell, directed by Alex Ross Perry and starring Elisabeth Moss as a quasi-Courtney Love figure.

8) It should be noted that soundtracks often figure heavily in Cameron Crowe productions, and especially so in Almost Famous. We hear much more of the landmark hits of that era (including a cast singalong of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer") than Stillwater's tunes, and the music rights allegedly cost $3.5 million, over 5% of the entire budget. A parting question to readers about music-related narratives -- how germane is the genre of the music to one's enjoyment of said movie?

Almost Famous (2000)
Saturday, September 16th 8:00pm

The CHIRP Music Film Festival takes place at the historic Davis Theater in Chicago September 14th-17th. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.

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Categorized: Movies

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