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Feb 8, 2014

Review: ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)

            Patrick Fugit, Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor, Terry Chen, Jay Baruchel, Jimmy Fallon, Rainn Wilson, Mark Kozelek, Liz Stauber, John Fedevich and Eric Stonestreet

                    Cameron Crowe

"They don't even know what it is to be a fan. Y'know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts."

                  Almost Famous is one of those handful of films that have quite a profound affect on a person. I recently revisited it as part of my Philip Seymour Hoffman appreciation marathon and was taken by its endless charm and endearing quality. I ended up loving it way more and discovered where its greatness lies. It is one of those films that can immerse you in its world in a way that you'll forget all about the bad day that you've had and make you feel good without relying on the cheap means that usual 'entertaining' fares does. What Mr. Roger Ebert said about the film and how he felt watching it is exactly how my experience with it was. That particular feeling in your stomach when everything about the film moves you when you understand where its heart lies. When you feel giddy and glee as much as you get the characters and their miseries as well as their happiness. Almost Famous is written and directed by Cameron Crowe and is arguably his best film. He won an Oscar for original screenplay and the film got 4 nominations overall. There were other accolades that it won, did relatively disappointing business on the box office and was deemed as best film of the year by many critics. It's a film with Kate Hudson's best turn as an actress. It's a film which is an earlier example of how good and underrated Billy Crudup has been. It's a film that proves once again how gracefully and wonderfully, Philip Seymour Hoffman used to play his characters (RIP). It's a film with colorful cast, colorful characters, colorful music, yet it doesn't blind you with all that. I have come a long way as a cinema lover and can easily differentiate between what the film is trying to do and what it actually is. Almost Famous is unabashed about its love for the music. It is not trying to show any 'realistic account' of what Rock was in the 70's as much as the effect it had on generations of followers. The misfits, the uncools and the proud folks. It runs on the spirit of something and usually films that effectively use that quality are something I love a lot. It doesn't masquerades around as anything other than what Crowe is really trying to do. Rock - 70's - music - life!

                  So this film is a semi-autobiographical account of Cameron Crowe himself. The character of William is based on Crowe, this is his coming-of-age story around the time when Rock music was becoming more of a phenomenon and a way of living for many. Crowe was a journalist as a teenager, he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine as the character of William does. He toured with many bands, had fun, was inspired by his heroes and did many things. More than anything, Almost Famous is Crowe's love-letter to his past, the music that he loved, the people who were behind the music and how it changed his life and touched upon millions of people. It's the early 70's and we are introduced with Elaine Miller (McDormand), mother of William, a college professor with her own strange sets of conservative beliefs. Her daughter Anita (Deschanel) leaves her home (which she refers to as the 'house of lies') due to her mother's overbearing nature. William fascinated by the rock albums that her sister leaves behind for him, grows up to be an aspiring rock journalist. He writes for underground papers and shares his love of the music. On the other hand, his mother wants him to be a lawyer. William meets a rock critic Lester Bangs (Hoffman) who is aware of his writing and he gives him an assignment to review the Black Sabbath concert. First big assignment, full of hope and excitement but William isn't allowed backstage. There he meets a group of girls who refers to themselves as 'Band-Aids' since they love the bands and their music and aren't actually interested in sleeping with them. We meet the ever-charming personality, Penny Lane (Hudson) there as well. William disappointed, meets the opening band called Stillwater and somehow, the group and specially guitarist Russell Hammond (Crudup) takes an interest in him. And from there on begins William's journey with Stillwater and Penny Lane, a long tour, Rolling Stone magazine, music and ups and downs. In short, a memorable experience.

                  Almost Famous benefits from a wonderful ensemble of actors who at first, seems not really cut out for portraying the characters they are supposed to but somehow proves us wrong. Every character is given their distinct and engaging arc, they are identifiable, clearly drawn out and you end up loving them. First of all, there is Lester Bangs. Sure, he isn't really an important character or important enough to talk about first but he was somebody I found to be quite a personality. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a wonderful performance and provides such an edge, charm and persona to a character who would've otherwise been reduced to that boring know-it-all mentor. His words so beautifully fit into the film and beyond, whatever he says really sticks out because you know its true. Whether it's the scene at the diner or the one where he talks over the phone with William... the 'uncool' speech. His advises, his philosophies, his perception, his way of looking at what exactly defines music and the artists just wins you over. A stellar, scene-stealing turn by Mr. Hoffman and perhaps the best performance of the film. Then there is Billy Crudup who always gives such sensitive and heartening performances, yet never truly gets the recognition he deserves. His turn as the guitarist of the band Stillwater, with dashes of delusions, pride and ego that comes with being in that place as well as some moments where the character's humanity and his real self emerges are endlessly affecting. He isn't self-destructive so to say but in the long run, he makes mistakes. There is perhaps the most famous character of the film, Penny Lane played by Kate Hudson. A beautiful and charming girl with an understanding of what it is that she have got herself into, yet never refrains from living inside the bubble she has built for herself. She knows her heart is being broken, that she is treated badly but cannot control her self-destructive desires to be a part of the rock-phenomenon with her looks, sexuality and wilfulness. Hudson seduces your senses, she has never looked so beautiful and her performance is effortless and the most complex (even if it doesn't look like one) thanks to the character that she plays. There is also Frances McDormand, always funny, always so odd. Her turn as the mother who wants to protect her children from all things 'evil' yet desires to have her children do what they really want to do is lovely. Patrick Fugit as William I found nice but the role could have benefited from perhaps a better actor.

                  Lester Bangs have an understanding of the rock world. He advises William to be honest with what he writes, never let himself be fooled by the fake charms and the desirable factors of the rock stars because they can never be his friends. He knows where the music is heading and how it is mostly treated as a source of income over actual poetry and art that it is. William's experience with Stillwater shows him that. He is young and inexperienced but he loves the music. He learns the difference between real and make-believe friends. His fascination with both Russell and Penny is due to the obvious reasons. They are both somewhat similar personalities with different reasons to be what they are or what they come across like. The band itself, the relationship and the usual strains are portrayed in a nice way. We see them through the eyes of William and see them exactly like William does. The band has a good chemistry and they play good music but there are some things that threaten their equation with each other. William sees them as cool, larger than life people. They seem quite the stars at first but as we get to know them, they have the same petty issues that we all have. It's touching how William looks up to Russell at the same time how he feels in the presence of Penny. His bafflement later on with her blindness to what is in front of her and what is happening behind is where he learns the difference between the world one lives in and the life one builds for themselves. The entire angle of William being a journalist and covering the band for Rolling Stone is funny because he finds it difficult to put down in words, the experience that he has. He lives those days as if he is a part of it and everything that happens affects him as if its personal and directed towards him. Almost Famous feature the undeniable love for the music, wherever it takes a person. Rock or otherwise, the film is soaked wet in the spirit of how music is what brings out the best in person. In the most depressing moments, when you find yourself lost or when the world around you seems as pointless as you feel, it's the music that pulls you out. Music is transcending, its evocative and it's basically a way of expression.

                  Almost Famous has a great soundtrack and Crowe has used some very good selected music in parts with such an ease that it comes across as a part of the experience. The most outstanding use of an Elton John song, "Tiny Dancer", which I found as highly touching and beautiful. That entire sequence is an example of how Crowe identifies with music himself. How he shot it, how he slowly raises, changes and flips the atmosphere inside the bus is just amazing. Characters slowly joining together, singing to the tune and forgetting or getting over the nerves. Also how can you forget that intense but hilarious sequence when the plane gets caught up in an electrical storm? The screenplay is beautifully written as well with endless charms and so many stories to tell. The film is very witty with catchy dialogues but with good timing and aren't stretched out or anything for laughs. The characters as I mentioned have their own particular arc, everybody has something to say and speak and Crowe gives them a full room to speak out. All the characters are desperate to find their way, to identify with something. They are all fictional but slowly, they grow on you. Compelling, funny and quite lively characters. With good and fluid photography, a sense of time and place and an aura to give you the rock experience, Almost Famous succeeds in many ways. It feels personal both in terms of how its Crowe basically telling his story but how much you identify with it as well. The film is about the love one has for music (or anything where your passion lies) and the film drives on that spirit. Its savory, its sweeping, endlessly charming with enough dramatic conflicts and funny moments to entertain you and tell a story. I never wanted this film to end, such an amazing experience.

Grade: A

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