Three takes on “Almost Famous” (Cameron Crowe, 2000)

By Jonathon Sadowski

“Almost Famous” is director/writer Cameron Crowe’s follow-up to his much-lauded 1996 Tom Cruise flick, “Jerry Maguire.” A fictitious retelling of Crowe’s own experiences as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, the film gives a largely humorous and surface-deep, yet valuable, look inside the world of music journalism.

While lacking any grandiose statement about, well, anything, “Almost Famous” is like a good bowl of popcorn: easily shared, delicious yet unfulfilling. The film falls into the Christopher Nolan syndrome where it tries too hard to make every scene memorable and profound. But a fair share of iconic moments crop up to stick in viewers’ minds: the live performances of the film’s fictitious band, Stillwater; a fake-out plane crash; Zooey Deschanel’s wonderfully innocent mispronunciation of “fuck” as “feck,” and Stillwater’s bus escape after guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) gets electrocuted by a faulty mic.

A shocking amount of the movie is dedicated to the stilted, morally questionable relationship between the main character William Miller (Patrick Fugit of “Gone Girl”) and Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Penny is the original “Band-Aid,” or a groupie who doesn’t have sex with bandmates – “just blowjobs.” She takes William under her wing when the fledgling writer is assigned a 3,000-word profile of Stillwater for Rolling Stone as his first big writing assignment.

William ends up falling for Penny for dubious reasons, finally professing his love to her while she overdoses on Quaaludes. Maybe Crowe had a personal experience like this that made sense in his head, but in practice it’s poor writing. Penny and William’s relationship isn’t cute or desirable, but a sad display of a 15-year-old crushing on a young woman whose name, background and exact age are a mystery.

Fortunately, the awkward writing is carried by solid performances, especially from Crudup and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Crudup handles the role of an unstable, egotistic guitar god with a great degree of subtlety and grace, despite his drug-fueled antics.

Also impressive is the late Hoffman, whose under-utilized portrayal of legendary rock critic Lester Bangs reinforces the actor’s reputation as one of the great actors of the past several decades.

Hudson’s performance as a slutty-but-deep groupie sticks out like a sore thumb, never reaching the same heights of the other leads. Frances McDormand also gives a one-dimensional performance as William’s ever-concerned mother. Fugit manages to adequately portray William as a fish out of water as he progresses from scared kid to full-fledged journalist.

At its core, “Almost Famous” is about the rock ‘n’ roll spirit. According to the film, critics of the culture—or any culture, really—must be ingrained in it without cozying up to it. William’s assimilation is his downfall as he gets roped into rock ‘n’ roll tomfoolery such as losing his virginity to groupies, partying with Stillwater and being part of the pre-show huddle. Crowe failed to heed his own warning: “Almost Famous” is so wrapped up in celebrating the reckless rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that it forgets to display any potential bad sides. Evidently, the director never got over that wonder himself.

By Leah Luksetich

The human tendency to reflect on the past has yielded many a great film, and “Almost Famous” is a particularly compelling example. The movie tells the story of an aspiring rock critic named William Miller (Patrick Fugit of “Gone Girl”) and his experiences as he joins a band on tour.

The story sounds simple enough, and maybe it could have been. But as he did with “Say Anything,” writer/director Cameron Crowe reveals his talent for talking old concepts and breathing new life into them. Certainly the idea of a film about music set in the 1970s is nothing new. But “Almost Famous” surpasses a mere nostalgia trip to become a heartfelt character study by using its engaging cast of characters to show a very human side of the critic and to highlight the relationship between critic and artist.

Most of the major characters feel like complex, fleshed-out people. Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), Stillwater’s lead guitarist, is fascinating in many ways. His behavior causes his bandmates to resent him, but there’s a genuine kindness underneath the rock-star exterior. Russell reveals his softer side at the end of the film, as we see him try to correct the mistakes he’s made. His friendship with William, whose passion for music and writing is at the heart of the film, inspires him to become a better person.

Perhaps the most fascinating character is Penny Lane (a very good Kate Hudson), part of a group of girls known as Band-Aids. Unlike groupies, Band-Aids hang around with rock stars out of love for the music as opposed to just being in it for the sex. The vulnerable Penny is hurt when she learns that Russell traded her away to another band, which goes to show that she didn’t follow her own rule of not taking any of these relationships too seriously.

The movie does stumble a few times with its characters. Though his big speech to Russell, with whom he is conflicted, is effective, Stillwater front man Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is a fairly one-note figure. William’s family also suffers from some flat characterization, albeit to amusing effect in the case of his mother (Frances McDormand).

One of the most important aspects of “Almost Famous” is what it has to say about criticism. The biggest takeaway is that being a critic is no more glamorous than any other profession. Like most jobs, the life of a critic has its own challenges and rewards. The critic will always have a rocky relationship with their subjects: The members of Stillwater often refer to William as “the enemy.” When Stillwater’s drummer, Ed (John Fedevich),finds out what William wrote in his article, he declares, “He was never a person. He was a journalist.”

By that point, William has demonstrated through his passion and humanity that if anything, a good critic is someone who cares too much. Much like Penny, he seeks out bands because of a love of music as opposed to wanting to feel important. The clearest thesis statement the film offers about criticism comes from none other than real-life rock critic Lester Bangs, as portrayed by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He tells William to be “honest and unmerciful.” A critic must be willing to give a truthful account of their reaction to a piece, even if it means giving a scathingly negative review.

“Almost Famous” is a fun movie, but it’s also a very thoughtful one that does a great job capturing the atmosphere of the ’70s – a time when rock and rock criticism were in a very different place.

By Kristen Nichols

Set in the 1970’s, “Almost Famous” follows a 15-year-old boy, William Miller (Patrick Fugit of “Gone Girl”), as he tours with the fictitious band Stillwater to write a piece about them for Rolling Stone. William’s character is loosely based on writer and director Cameron Crowe. The movie succeeds because of the authenticity of its portrayals of rock ‘n’ roll critics and the conflict of interests  they face.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays renowned rock critic Lester Bangs. William and Bangs meet in the beginning of the film, in a diner scene that re-enacts the personal experience Crowe had as a teenager meeting Bangs. “True music, not just rock ‘n’ roll, it chooses you,” Bangs says in a radio interview, spewing philosophies about music as he paces in front of the stacks of records. “It lives in your car, or alone, listening in your headphones with the cast of scenic of bridges and angelic choirs in your brain.”

“It’s all happening,” William and tagalong Stillwater “Band-Aid” Penny Lang (Kate Hudson) say back and forth, conveying the excitement the wide-smiling William feels about the prospect of going on tour with the band and being published in Rolling Stone. 

But plenty of emotional distress and frustration await him as well. Exasperated by being put off by Stillwater guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who keeps rescheduling their interview time, William breaks down in tears in a hotel hallway. Some of this frustration stems from his feelings for Penny, made obvious through the sad, yet starry-eyed way he looks at her while she is with Russell.

This love triangle is just the starting point in the film’s realistic depiction of the tangled lines between the critic and the artist. In the few moments when William manages to get Russell alone for an interview, Russell tells him things he doesn’t want printed, saying, “I’m telling secrets to the one guy you don’t tell secrets to” and getting William to agree to disregard the stupid stuff that goes on behind the scenes with the band.

In allowing himself to be so manipulated, William violates the basic rules of conduct laid down by Lester Bangs, who before the tour advises the young writer not to make friends with rock stars, saying he had to “make a reputation being honest and unmerciful.”

William gets so caught up in touring with Stillwater, riding on the bus, going with them to parties, hanging out in hotels, even loving the same girl as one of the band members, he inevitably does become friends with them. Fearful of hurting Stillwater’s reputation, he holds so much back in his reporting, such as Russell’s deliriously drunken rant from the roof at a teenager’s party and subsequent flop into the pool, Rolling Stone calls his piece “fluff” and decides not to run it as their cover story.

The lesson of impartiality is the film’s most poignant message because it rings true for critics now just as much as it did in the ’70s. As Roger Ebert warns us all in Roger’s Little Rule Book, critics can’t accept the perks that may be presented on the job without compromising their ethics. This lesson hits home in “Almost Famous,” albeit in a cheesy, crowd-pleasing way: ending with Rolling Stone printing William’s story after all – this version with all the unflattering details.