Mantra of Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-RollBy Devdoot Majumdar
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Written by Cameron Crowe
Starring Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Zooey DesChanel, Anna Paquin
It takes a certain amount of unbridled self-infatuation to make a movie about oneself and then get paid $60 million for it. Regardless, writer and director Cameron Crowe has shaped an enchanting film in Almost Famous, his latest film since 1996’s Jerry Maguire.
Almost Famous, for all intents and purposes, is an indirect story of Crowe’s phenomenal youth. Writing cover stories for Rolling Stone before he even graduated from high school, Crowe, arguably enough, has a story to tell.
Thus, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is created: a fictionalized version of Crowe himself in 1973 -- an un-cool, scrawny 15-year old rock-and-roll die-hard. As he interviews the band Stillwater on their “Almost Famous” tour for Rolling Stone, he has many encounters with the sex and drugs that come with the rock-and-roll.
Dabbling with rock journalism, William convinces his ever-admonishing mother (Frances McDormand) to let him leave his provincial, high-school life for a four-day trip to join the tour with Stillwater, the “almost famous” band.
Every minute of the trip is hilarious. He meets the “band-aids” (groupies) who don’t allow themselves sexual intercourse with members of the band, “just blow jobs.” He witnesses the encompassing drug use and its effects, to the extent that people were jumping off of roofs yelling, “I am a golden god.”
Hijinks aside, the movie is as damn near serious as Jerry Maguire -- the band (like every 70s rock band) faces its own internal dissension, the blowing band-aids have their own issues dealing with the surreal world of sex and drugs, and the prolific young William, though shocked by the roaring dissipation, struggles with being a reporter and not a fan.
Through all this, the plot follows William as he meets several interesting characters. First is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a mighty good-looking band-aid who emanates an inviting mystique to William. Ostensibly jaded by the rock world, she remains fixated on her own “almost famous” status as a band “resource.”
Her importance is only underscored by Russel Hammond (Billy Crudup), the lead guitarist of Stillwater, who rendezvouses nightly with Penny. He is William’s focus -- his actions, his motivations, his personality -- and yet he never really grants William an interview (Rolling Stone was notorious for smashing bands). Calling William “the enemy,” Russel is gradually unraveled by William, who is left bewildered by Russel’s every exploit.
All in all, the movie is about an immature, un-cool child who somehow gets to interview a rising band. He follows them around -- through their fights, through their LSD sessions -- and in the end comes up with an article.
It isn’t so much the plot that is so incredible about the movie as the experience -- Crowe truly captures the feeling of the 70s rock band. Crowe himself says, “I wanted to show that time in the past when you sort of had a glorious but passionate naÏvetÉ.” But beyond that, he captivates the viewer with William’s innocent perspective on everything; everything gains a little more credibility as the viewer entirely understands and subscribes to William’s awe.
Fugit’s portrayal of William is superb, as is most of the acting in the movie. Fugit precisely nails the guileless-inspired-bewildered-intimidated role that he was chalked out for. He gets the audience to fall under his spell, picturing life as Crowe lived it thirty years ago.
It’s a sad commentary that the relatively unknown actors cast in Almost Famous make it seem like a low-budget movie. In reality, the odd quirkiness of every single character is perfectly delineated by the casting of the movie.
The acting was impressive from all fronts, and though the cheesy drug sentimentality is always a bit of a stretch of the imagination, it was uproariously funny. For instance, there is a scene where William tells Penny, “I need to go home,” to which the Penny responds in the high-and-tripped-out voice suitable for only movies set in the 70s, “You are home.”
McDormand, as William’s mother, leaves the most lasting impression on the viewer. Crowe very astutely decided to leave his mother’s role -- as a role model and as a confidant -- dominant and pervasive. McDormand glows with an aura of conservative, maternal omniscience, perfectly fitting the role of this mother who bans Simon and Garfunkel in the house because, after inspecting their eyes on the album cover, “they’re on pot.”
That is Crowe’s greatest asset -- he is able to meld the serious autobiography dramatics with some of the funniest lines. In a conversation with Russel, the guitarist, William’s mother begins lecturing about how “it’s not too late for you to become a person of substance.” Even if you don’t like the rock genre, the movie is so loaded with so much humor that it makes for a good time nonetheless.
And finally, to complete Almost Famous -- to make it a “real” rock movie -- Crowe uses some absolutely mesmerizing music -- from Elton John to Led Zeppelin. Both the music selection and placement were memorable, harnessing the greatest music of the century to accompany some of the most desperate moments in the film. After a nasty quarrel over band leadership, the bus trudged through an empty landscape, all members solemn and silent as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” played on the radio, making for one of many memorable moments in the film.
But, all in all, the greatest shortcoming of the story is that it’s entirely improbable. A 16-year-old, writing a cover story for Rolling Stone, treated like God by a rock band, and deflowered by a group of promiscuous groupies? The one thing that gives it all so much credence is the fact that it all did happen to Crowe himself. This is a screenplay that took over twelve years of writing for Crowe (trying to avoid the Spinal Tap genre), filled with humor and depth (granted, an odd combination).
Whether or not you like classic rock, whether or not you enjoy finding “motifs of escapism” in movies, whether or not you’re looking for humor or drama, you should watch Almost Famous. Granted, the movie posters are repulsive, but the movie is not. Enjoyable from several planes, Almost Famous is cleverly written, artfully directed, and splendidly acted.