Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rocktober: 'Almost Famous' (2000)

Hey, remember when we all thought that Kate Hudson was a promising actress? Watching her performance in Almost Famous knowing how poorly she squandered her subsequent career helped me focus on all the other great performances in the movie, which remains one of my absolute favorites. I put it near the top of my list of the best movies of the '00s a few years ago, but I actually hadn't seen it in quite some time and was a little worried that it wouldn't hold up. But it's still fantastic, a joyous celebration of rock n' roll and adolescence and self-expression, just one of the most heartfelt and uplifting movies I've ever seen. It's certainly the definitive statement of Cameron Crowe's career, and his personal attachment shines through in every moment without ever overshadowing the storytelling or the performances.

As someone who writes about entertainment for a living and who's interviewed a decent number of moderately famous people (although not on the level of the people that Crowe wrote about, and not for as prominent a publication as Rolling Stone), I can say that nothing even remotely resembling what happens to William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Almost Famous has ever happened to me. Maybe stuff like that does still happen to people who write about big stars for big publications, but it seems like it's a relic of a more decadent era, and the movie captures that excitement and excess of rock n' roll as something to be cherished, even when it shows the dark side of it. Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells William that rock is dead or dying, and as much as Lester loves rock, he's clearly also very cynical about it. William (and by extension, Crowe and the movie itself), however, is completely in love with everything about rock, and finds the beauty in even its ugliest and darkest moments.

I think that's one of the great things about the movie, that it can show rock stars treating women like disposable toys, tragically sad "band aid" Penny Lane (Hudson) overdosing and nearly dying, musicians and managers and journalists all eager to sell out, and yet still come away as a paean to the transcendence of rock n' roll, to music's power to change people's lives and give them meaning. I don't think I've ever felt about a band (or any piece of art or entertainment) the way that William feels about Stillwater, but I can understand that feeling while watching Almost Famous, and there's a wistfulness to the movie for a sort of innocence that William doesn't even know that he's losing (and that Crowe, however, seems to have never lost).

However disastrous her career turned out to be, Hudson is still fantastic in this movie as the lonely, damaged girl who hides behind a facade of rock n' roll indifference, and the rest of the cast is phenomenal as well. Fugit's career has basically gone nowhere, and he was overshadowed by his co-stars when the movie came out, but he's excellent at conveying William's mix of intelligence and naivete, and the way that shy nerds can get easily caught up in attention from people who are cooler and/or more attractive than they are. Billy Crudup radiates charisma as rock star Russell Hammond, so that it's easy to see how William and Penny both become infatuated with him in their own ways, and how he commands the attention of everyone around him.

The performance that struck me most this time around was Frances McDormand as William's mother, who is overprotective and never approves of his rock n' roll career path but also loves him unconditionally, respects his ability to take responsibility for himself and stands up for him when he's mistreated. Although based on Crowe's real-life mother, the character could certainly have turned into a stereotypical nag, but instead she sticks to her convictions while loving and supporting her children, and McDormand plays that balance beautifully.

Very few filmmakers are able to make unabashedly sentimental movies that avoid being manipulative or cloying, that tell positive, feel-good stories about real life without seeming false or contrived. Almost Famous is the best example of Crowe's ability to do just that, to take his real-life journalistic experiences and love for rock n' roll and passion for the people around him and transform that into a funny, touching, engrossing and wonderfully crafted piece of cinema.

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