“Almost Famous” is a charmingly comedic depiction of early ‘70s rock with thought-provoking insight about rock criticism, but it is not void of eye-roll worthy moments and poorly aged plotlines.
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire”), the film follows 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit, “Wristcutters: A Love Story”) on his turbulent mission to write a story for Rolling Stone magazine about the band Stillwater. Famed rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”) acts as William’s mentor and encourages him to make his reputation on being “honest and unmerciful,” which sets William up for everything that follows.
Centering on teenage William makes for an amusing telling of the story, and provides a stark contrast against the sleazy rock ‘n’ roll world he’s immersed in. This juxtaposition between innocent teen and strung-out rockers adds an appealing touch to William’s character that can’t help but root for him. His overbearing mother (Frances McDormand, “Fargo”) calls him on the road frequently, urging him to steer clear of drugs and winds up lecturing Stillwater lead singer Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, “The Morning Show”) in a heartfelt and amusing sequence. Comedic moments like this separate the movie from simply being an obsessive rock fantasy, and end up adding an endearing layer to the story. Many of the groupies following Stillwater on the road are similar in age to William (Kate Hudson’s performance is particularly brilliant), and their youth makes lines like “If you ever get lonely, you just go to the record store and visit your friends,” a little cheesy, but more wholesome than anything.
A movie about rock ‘n’ roll criticism obviously requires a great soundtrack to underscore it.Thankfully, the filmmakers spared no expense to include quintessential ‘70s music by Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the film and on the soundtrack.
Despite the triumphs of light-hearted storytelling, “Almost Famous” doesn’t escape the pitfalls of nostalgia trips. After a squabble between Hammond and the rest of Stillwater, the band “makes up” in the form of a suffocatingly tacky sing-along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on their tour bus. The idea that a band so riddled with resentment toward one another could shrug off their differences over a sappy track about love is pretty ludicrous. Though in the grand scheme of things, this cheesy sing-along is far from the most problematic aspect of the film.
Interest in underaged girls is prevalent, and paints the Stillwater band members as hugely predatory. Lines such as “look at all these fucking tasty-looking high school girls,” remain unnecessary and regrettable at best. We find out that 16-year-old Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, “How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days”) is having an affair with the much older (and married) Hammond. While the relationship is an unsettling plotline by today’s standards, it’s no secret that occurrences like this happen in all corners of the entertainment industry. If that wasn’t already bad enough, things get more appalling when Lane is “auctioned off” unbeknownst to herself for a case of beer and $50. The plotline is unnecessary to the larger focus of the film and appears more like an attempt to degrade and humiliate the character further. The objectification of women is a harsh reality in the music industry, and while one could argue “Almost Famous” only aimed to be realistic, it comes off as audacious.
Despite its very real issues, “Almost Famous” is a fun comedic display of rowdy teens (and adults) making the most of their environment. Even in its grittiest and sleaziest moments, its nostalgia factor and comedic breaks hook you in and keep you entranced. The film especially succeeds in its depiction and commentary of rock criticism. For any young and ambitious writer hoping to work for one of the great music magazines, the film is informative on the delicate balancing act between critic and fan. To be a critic doesn’t mean you can’t be a fan (and vice versa), but to be a successful one you must tell the truth–no matter what cost.