Rock and roll was on a roll,
Exciting body, heart, and soul.
They played it loud to please the crowd,
Sublimely out of all control.

These kings of cool were glad to rule,
And much too groovy to be cruel.
Their fame would rise amid the highs
And make it wise to play the fool.

Each touring band that spanned the land
Had rabid fans at their command.
The highs and lies were some disguise
From what they did not understand:
The value of what’s close at hand.

MPAA rating: R (for much language and brief nudity)

This review is a last-minute addition to Rocktober, hosted by Carly Hearts Movies, celebrating the best (or worst) in rock-and-roll cinema. Being a big fan of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, I thought it was about time to explore one of his earlier films, and Rocktober helped decide which one it would be.

Rock and roll is a hard thing to quantify. Some love any reason to bang their heads and party; some are excessively picky about how they discern good music from populist trash; and some turn their noses up at its very nature of sex and drugs. Almost Famous captures all three viewpoints and so much else that makes rock both diverting and dangerous, all through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old fan based on Crowe himself.

Young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) loves rock music to the dread of his high-strung mother, whose overprotective opinions already drove away his rebellious older sister. Though teased for being the youngest in his grade, he listens and writes and eventually gets noticed, first by Creem Magazine (thanks to music critic Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), then by Rolling Stone, and William is whisked into the radical world of the backstage rock scene. His ticket in is the up-and-coming quartet Stillwater, led by Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), whom he accompanies on a cross-country tour.

Though William knows and admires the music, he is still an outsider and a journalist, “the enemy” as the band nicknames him, and he is able to objectively watch the world of rock music unfold before him, much like an uninitiated viewer. In addition to his trusty notepad, he is always “taking notes with his eyes,” as Russell says, observing the inner squabbling among the bandmates, the wild lives they lead while on tour, the frequent drug-induced stupidity, and the inner workings of these “swill merchants,” who talk frankly about the chicks and then wax philosophical about the brain vs. instinct.

Yet for all the talk of the music and the fans being everything, he also experiences firsthand the dark, false side of this world, in which not even William can remain clean. Everyone seems to be pretending they’re something better than they are. Stillwater grows to enjoy William’s tagging along, but they trust that he’ll clean up their messy shenanigans when it comes time to actually write the article about them. An entourage of dedicated fangirls called the Band Aids accompany the band everywhere they go, and despite their focus on sex and drugs rather than the music, they insist they’re not just ordinary groupies. One in particular known as Penny Lane (Oscar nominee Kate Hudson) puts much effort into her enigmatic persona, sure to be the life of the party. While William sees through most of these facades, even he pretends in order to be taken seriously by Rolling Stone. As much as everyone wants to be loved, too often people are used for the sake of “lifestyle maintenance.”

All this may make Almost Famous sound overly heavy, and while its dramatic moments are perceptive, there is just as much appealing comedy, from the eccentricities of William’s backstage acquaintances to the seriocomic emergency that prompts some unexpected honesty. I especially got a kick out of William’s mother (Frances McDormand), whose increasingly worried phone calls to check up on him are priceless.

Cameron Crowe obviously knows the ins and outs of the rock scene, and despite its dark side, he found the right balance of honesty and feel-good drama, along with a classic rock soundtrack that includes five original songs by Crowe, then-wife Nancy Wilson, and Peter Frampton. With his insightful, Oscar-winning screenplay, Crowe brings to life a world of “drunken buffoons” and making something “poetic” out of it. I still prefer Elizabethtown, but Almost Famous is an entertaining inside look at “the industry of cool.”

Best line: (Russell and a hotel clerk, to William) “Your mom kind of freaked me out.”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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