Fifteen years after its release, Hannah Dunleavy rewatches Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical love letter to rock music to see if it’s stood the test of time.
What and why: Part coming-of age-tale, part road movie, part love triangle rom-com: Crowe’s take on his own gloriously misspent youth as a music journalist on the road with bands – including Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd – won a tour bus full of awards and may be his finest hour (actually two and a bit hours).
Rated or dated: I’d never say Crowe was one of my favourite writers or directors, yet given a spare afternoon, I’d happily watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything or Singles. Maybe even Jerry McGuire, which is something I rarely say about a film with that much Tom Cruise in it.
Crowe’s films tread a narrow line. They’re funny, without trying too hard (although he does keep going to the historical ironies well here) and sentimental without becoming mawkish. I’m not sure who else could pull off an Elton John singalong with such genuine warmth and aplomb.
Above all, Crowe seems to get the best out of people.
Take Kate Hudson. Let’s all take a second to remember she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance here. Yep, the same Kate Hudson who’s since carved out a career in ten-a-penny rom-coms. (But who knows, maybe she’ll be in the next True Detective and it’ll all come right again.)
In fact, it’s been so long since I saw Almost Famous, I’d forgotten that she’s actually very good as Penny Lane, head groupie – sorry, band aid – and one point in the triangle made with 15-year-old wannabe journalist William Miller (great job for and by Patrick Fugit) and completely-dickish-but-dear-God-please-could-I lead guitarist of fictional four-piece Stillwater, Russell Hammond (played in the flesh by Billy Crudup and in the music by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready). Hudson’s only required to hit a few notes here, but she hits them well, especially the scene where she finds out she’s just been sold for a crate of beer.
But she’s just one part of a rather staggeringly wide-ranging cast. In truth, the first thing I noticed on rewatching was Jimmy Fallon’s name in the credits. It says a lot about the breadth of the line-up here that I have previously failed to notice one of the US’s most famous chatshow hosts hiding in there.
Though the words “almost famous” come from Stillwater’s 1973 tour name, it may as well refer to that cast, which had no big stars, but character actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, rising stars like Zooey Deschanel and cult names like Jason Lee, who has limited range but is pitch perfect (and wonderfully beshirted) here as Jeff, the lead singer increasingly frustrated by the lack of attention he gets. In fact, when Almost Famous was made, the biggest name in it was Frances McDormand, also the recipient of an Oscar nomination – for her role as William’s intense mother who, against her better judgment, lets him accompany Stillwater on tour when he cons his way into a job at Rolling Stone. McDormand’s unsurprisingly and consistently awesome, and the scene where she demolishes a cocky Hammond in one phone call remains one of my favourite things she’s ever done.
The film’s certainly as funny as it ever was, with some terrific set pieces, in particular the plane hitting an electrical storm, which prompts an increasingly eye-opening confession session. But it’s also got some real emotional punch, nowhere more so than that gorgeous scene when a tearful William makes a late-night phone call to his mentor Lester Bangs (a spectacular turn by Seymour Hoffman) for the older man to give him a speech starting with the priceless words: “Good-looking people have no spine. Their art never lasts.”
Like any re-viewing of what is, or at least you hope is, an old favourite, I find it’s the tiny moments where the film really shines, be it the funny pose Deschanel strikes when she realises there’s a rock god in her lounge, or when William takes the opportunity to retrieve a rare T-shirt discarded in a fight over whose face should be most prominent on it.
It remains, above all, a film about fandom and I remain very much a fan. RATED.1995 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.