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Almost Famous

by Jason Comerford

Yes, this is a movie review, not a movie soundtrack review. More of those later. Thanks for your patience. -LK

Cameron Crowe's new film, Almost Famous, opens with a credit sequence that sets up its rules with admirable cheekiness: a disembodied hand scribbling the film's credits on pieces of scrap paper. It's a visual motif that Crowe returns to throughout the film, and one that serves him well when his narrative wanders. Like the scribblings of its errant central figure, William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit), Almost Famous works in fits and starts, but those fits and starts contain more heart and soul than any other film released this year so far. In this particularly barren cinematic year, it looks a whole lot better than it really should, but that shouldn't take away from its numerous good aspects.

Crowe has always been a writer and director of taste and intelligence, but with a fine-tuned cultural ear: John Sayles via MTV. Like Sayles, he has an admirable willingness to accept life's more unsentimental aspects, and it's this penchant for emotional realism that makes so much of his work so appealingly honest, even when it does wander. If there's a central flaw to Almost Famous, it's that it lacks the narrative drive that his previous films, in particular the much-lauded Jerry Maguire and the equally superb ...Say Anything, had in spades. The film is based on Crowe's own road-trip experiences as a roving reporter for Rolling Stone during the tail end of what was arguably rock music's greatest era, a sentiment echoed by his mentor, the music critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). "Rock is dead," grouses Bangs, but Crowe's wide-eyed vision of his youthful self decides to find out for sure.

As a combination of road movie and coming-of-age story, Almost Famous has a patchy, somewhat slapdash feel that may or may not be intentional. There's not much plot to speak of, but plot is hardly Crowe's concern; he's more interested in documenting the rock era of the 70s through his own idealistic viewpoint. It's a daring conceit, considering the breadth of material he attempts to cover between the two. William, as played by Fugit, comes to the music scene as an idealistic ingenue -- a fan, rather than a journalist. It's this schism that Crowe is most interested in, the dichotomy between journalistic integrity and personal friendship, and this is where his screenplay is most focused and effective. William's relationship with Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the lead singer of a fictional band called Stillwater (kind of a faux-Led Zeppelin) is where much of the film's emotional complexity comes from. Their highwire dance throughout the film, with Russell resisting an interview with the increasingly frantic William, provides the film a slim narrative device but also gives us a good window into the characters. As we see William become hardened and skillful with his handling of the band's errant members, we also see Russell humanize before our eyes, going from an egotistical dreamer to a humbled realist. Fugit, in his first film role, doesn't quite convince when he's called on to yell and scream passionate diatribes about music and art and whatnot, but he has a fundamental likability that infuses the role with just enough conviction. Crudup, on the other hand, puts in a good performance despite the sketchiness of his role. Hammond, like many of the film's rock-star characters, has an outside-looking-in feel that made me wonder if Crowe had ever really figured out all those rock stars, or just pretended to understand.

But Almost Famous never once takes the easy way out, and Crowe deserves ample credit for that, especially in his handling of the romantic triangle between William, Russell, and Russell's groupie girlfriend Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Romance has always been the most emotionally satisfying element of all of Crowe's films, and while Almost Famous doesn't have the starry-eyed happy ending of his previous films, it has the most emotional truth to it, which makes it all the more richer. But, paradoxically, the most problematic element of the film is its love story, however well-handled. Crowe has developed a tendency to create female characters that are romantic ideals rather than living-and-breathing people. This makes logical sense in the case of Almost Famous, where Hudson plays Crowe's version of The One That Got Away. But at the same time, his vision of Penny Lane is so locked down into idealism, with the endlessly photogenic Hudson continually bathed in golden hues by the great cinematographer John Toll, that even when she's getting her stomach pumped I couldn't quite shake the feeling that Crowe never really understood the character or, truth be told, the woman that inspired it. (Then again, that might be the point.)

Indeed, the feeling that Crowe has glossed over important elements permeates the film, despite all its good intentions and sharply observed moments. Every dip into unpleasantness is fleeting: the sex, the drug use, the nudity all flash by so quickly that they don't leave an impression. We get the sense of a journalist telling a story instead of a personal story unspooling, which is a central conflict that Crowe seems to be unable to overcome in his writing. Its dramatic focus is, at times, vague; I was never quite sure whose story it was that was being told, William's or Russell's. But thankfully, all of Almost Famous' good parts -- and there are plenty of good parts -- add up to a respectable whole.

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