September 23, 2000 -- With most of the movies coming out these days it seems like you are seeing a freak show. The characters on the screen seem a lot more like Hollywood actors than real people I know. "Almost Famous" is a film in which many characters ring true.
This autobiographical work by writer-director Cameron Crowe ("Jerry McGuire") is very funny and touching. I usually don't like coming-of-age stories, but this one won me over. It stars Patrick Fugit as young William Miller, a rock fan and precocious writer who gets an opportunity to follow a rock band called Stillwater on a tour for Rolling Stone magazine.
The fifteen-year-old Miller, of course, is overwhelmed by the fast pace of such a tour and he falls head over heels for a young groupie (she calls herself and her friends "band aids") named Penny Lane (played to perfection by Kate Hudson of "200 Cigarettes"). Despite all the pressure, he never loses his moral compass and he grows up to see his heroes for who they really are.
One guy who stays in Miller's corner is another rock and roll writer, Lester Bangs (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman of "The Talented Mr. Ripley"). Bangs helps Miller through the tough times on his assignment, reminding him, "We're not cool," even though the band members and others try to convince Miller he is. He reminds Miller the best thing he can do for the band is to tell the truth.
The leader of the band, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup of "Jesus' Son") is ambivalent about Miller. He likes the kid, but he, and the other band members know, that he is the enemy, a journalist, who might tell the truth about them instead of the positive spin they want Miller to write. Hammond wants to talk to Miller, but doesn't know if he can trust him. Hammond also loves Penny Lane, but can't commit to her. He also wants to leave the band, but at the same time doesn't want to break the band up. Crudup does an excellent job with this conflicted character.
Frances McDormand plays Miller's mother, Elaine. She is perfect as the protective, intelligent, unconventional mother. One scene where she scolds the cocky Hammond into submission during a phone conversation is priceless. It is handled perfectly by both actors. In one scene Hammond and Miller go to a party so Hammond can find some "real" people not connected with the music scene.
After I saw this movie I felt I had seen some "real" people, very unlike those in the Hollywood scene. It sure seemed like a slice of life, as opposed to movies like "Hurlyburly" and "American Beauty," which are a slice of pure Hollywood, not life as we know it on this planet. The people in "Almost Famous" are passionate, desperate people trying to hold onto what they love in a world that is trying to take it all away from them. These people want to remain loyal, but there are forces at work trying to tear them apart by inflating their egos. It is a scary world, and Miller just wants to go home so he can get back to the roots of his own reality.
The movie is also smoothly directed, edited and photographed. It is very much character-driven, a wonderful piece of writing by Crowe. "Almost Famous" rates an A. It will definitely make my top 10 list for this year.
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