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"ALMOST FAMOUS"
(2000) (Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A teenage rock journalist finds his goals compromised while covering an early 1970s rock and roll band.
PLOT:
It's San Diego, 1973, and 15-year-old William Miller (PATRICK FUGIT) is a huge music fan, thanks to the collection of albums his older sister, Anita (ZOOEY DESCHANEL), left him when she suddenly left home several years earlier to be a stewardess. A budding music journalist, William eventually meets Lester Bangs (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), a legendary critic who warns William about the death of rock and roll and the lengths to which bands and promoters will go to in making sure that critics and reporters are happy so that they'll write positive stories about them and their music.

Although reluctant, Lester likes William's enthusiasm and thus assigns him to do a story on Black Sabbath. William's mother, Elaine (FRANCES McDORMAND), a college professor and restrictive parent, isn't crazy about the idea, but drops him off at the concert, making him promise that he won't do drugs.

Once there, William meets several groupies, including Sapphire (FAIRUZA BALK), Polexia (ANNA PAQUIN) and Penny Lane (KATE HUDSON), the latter of whom he's instantly smitten with. He also meets the up and coming band, Stillwater, consisting of lead guitarist Russell Hammond (BILLY CRUDUP), lead singer Jeff Bebe (JASON LEE), bass player Larry Fellows (MARK KOZELEK), drummer Ed Vallencourt (JOHN FEDEVICH) and their manager Dick Roswell (NOAH TAYLOR). As they're opening for Sabbath, they manage to get him backstage for their performance.

Although they consider him the enemy since they play for the fans and not the critics, the members of Stillwater like William's style and thus invite him along on their tour. With his mother reluctantly letting him go, and then getting a freelance assignment to write a story for Rolling Stone magazine, William travels across America with the band and witnesses the varied dynamics and dramatic conflict of the rock and roll lifestyle while on the road.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Although it's doubtful that Peter Benchley ever battled a great white shark on the open seas, Arthur C. Clarke ever encountered an extraterrestrial monolith or Mary Shelley stitched together her perfect man, the one thing that's always repeated in nearly every writing class is, "Write what you know."

The reasons for that are obvious. If you write about some completely fictitious story and/or characters, the emotion and credibility have to be created right alongside the plot. Conversely, if one writes from firsthand experience, they can repeatedly tap into the reality and pre-existing events of the situation. Subsequently, the reader or viewer will usually sense that realistic quality. Of course, doing so exposes the writer to the effects of dredging up and relieving such old memories and emotions - for good or bad - as well as the need to recreate the past as truthfully as possible, with such perfective quests often then becoming paralyzing in nature.

While writer/director Cameron Crowe admits that recreating his unique teenage past was a perplexing and worrisome task, it certainly doesn't show in his latest film, "Almost Famous." Based on Crowe's real-life experience of being a freelance, adolescent journalist for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s and interviewing and touring with the likes of The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin, the film is an engaging and well-made character ensemble about finding one's place in the world.

Although Crowe ("Jerry Maguire," "Say Anything") uses the world of rock and roll music as its backdrop, the film's major focus isn't on that tumultuous era or the music, although the latter obviously plays a crucial part in supporting and structuring the overall story. In fact, those expecting a sociological look at the times or an in-depth examination of rock bands might come away a bit disappointed.

Since such examinations of the dynamics and life in rock and roll bands has been done so many times before - such as in the equally brilliant "This Is Spinal Tap" and "The Commitments" - Crowe wisely chose to focus on the human elements instead. In fact, the story could have been altered to be about a teen covering professional wrestling in the '90s and the core element - which makes the film so good - probably wouldn't have changed to any drastic extent.

The result is a picture that may not blow you away from any individual or collective scene standpoint and might not immediately sink its hooks into you. At the same time, however, the likelihood that it will grow on you while watching, and then later recollecting it is quite strong.

What makes the film work so well are the performances from the cast, the dialogue Crowe gives them to speak, and the easygoing yet intelligent way in which the director allows the story to unfold. All of the major characters come off as real and fleshed out, with the result being that the audience comes to care about them and their various personal "crises" that develop.

While Crowe doesn't show us anything particularly new about the era, its music or the dramatic dynamics of being in a band, the interpersonal relationships among those involved are what drive the film and make it accessible to audiences whether they're fans of rock and roll or not.

By employing newcomer Patrick Fugit (who has some TV work to his credit) as the protagonist and teenage version of himself, the filmmaker not only puts a fresh spin on the standard "small band on tour" plot, but also lets us experience the story and this world through his na´ve eyes. As such, we easily see how an outgoing but otherwise sheltered 15-year-old would be enamored with and/or seduced by both the wild antics of a rock and roll tour and a seemingly unattainable young woman.

Since there's a young teen in the central role, there's obviously going to be parental figure who serves as the adult, morality character for both their child and the band. While that might sound like it calls for the stereotypical, bible-thumping matriarch who condemns rock and roll as both evil and the root of everything else that's evil, Crowe wisely avoids heading down that path.

Instead, he and actress Frances McDormand ("Fargo," "A Simple Plan") create one of the more memorable, enjoyable and perfectly played characters to hit the big screen in years. As William's (and thus Crowe's) mother, McDormand delivers a grand performance, credibly playing a woman who's torn between wanting to protect her son and allowing him to see the world and be his own person. It's a wonderfully written role and performance and it should earn McDormand an Oscar nomination.

The next major relationship is that between Fugit's character and the object of his hidden affection, a rock and roll groupie played by Kate Hudson ("Dr. T & The Women," "200 Cigarettes"). While William has his eyes finally opened by life on the tour, the appropriately named Penny Lane has a worldly, confident demeanor that at first entices, but then later saddens him. His is ultimately a rescue mission to retrieve her from the same forces that are trying to lure him into their depraved world.

The key relationship, however, is that between William and Russell, the lead guitarist and most charismatic member of the film's fictitious rock and roll band, Stillwater. Russell, perfectly played by Billy Crudup ("The Hi-Lo Country," "Inventing the Abbotts"), is a classic rock and roll figure, torn between art and commerce and acting like an adult versus letting his childlike, hedonistic nature run rampant. It's not until he comes into contact with William -- the true child, yet the most mature of the bunch -- that he starts to see the right and true way.

The rest of the characters, while obviously appearing in supportive roles, aren't as developed or as enjoyable to behold, although that varies among them. While Jason Lee ("Mumford," "Chasing Amy") can't do much with his sketchily drawn lead singer character, Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Magnolia") gets a lot of mileage, and some of the best and most insightful dialogue, albeit limited in screen time, playing real-life music critic Lester Bangs.

The rest of the performers playing the remaining band members - Mark Kozelek and John Fedevich - might as well have been cardboard cutouts since they barely get any screen time or dialogue (other than one humorous midair confession), while those playing the other groupies - including Anna Paquin ("X-Men," "The Piano") and Fairuza Balk ("The Waterboy," "American History X") fair a bit better, with Balk at least getting a few funny moments.

If there's one major complaint about the film, it's that the fictitious songs simply aren't that good. While the soundtrack sounds great and includes a good collection of period songs, we rarely see the fictitious band performing. When we do, their songs - written by Crowe, wife Nancy Wilson (of "Heart"), and former '70s superstar Peter Frampton - might sound appropriate for the era, but they aren't very impressive and certainly not as much fun to watch as the covers that occurred in "The Commitments."

Of course, writing and performing fictitious period songs isn't as easy as covering old hits, but for a film where music is nearly present everywhere, the moments where it's played live are oddly inert. In fact, the film's signature - and somewhat forced - musical moment comes when William, the band and the groupies all participate not in one of their songs, but in an impromptu sing-along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer."

Even so, the film manages to overcome that, as well as a basic, underlying rock and roll tour plot where nothing spectacular or particularly novel ever occurs. And that's simply due to its smart writing, strong performances and a deft directorial touch. While it's not perfect and isn't as showy or inherently enjoyable as Crowe's "Jerry Maguire," it's certainly one of the better films to be released this year. As such, "Almost Famous" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 16, 2000 / Posted September 22, 2000


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