Almost Famous falls under the category of a film that leaves you feeling a bit wiser following its conclusion, evocative of an era and evocative of the human inevitability of growing older. Stationed in the early 1970s, where rock ’n’ roll is sweeping the nation, where Zeppelin rocks, and where folksiness is dead in the water, it travels alongside the life of William Miller (a fervid Patrick Fugit), a fifteen-year-old as observant and astute as he is sweetly naïve. His college professor mother, played by a hilarious yet warmly maternal Frances McDormand, believes in the wonders of vegetarianism and staying away from the druggy overtones of heavy metal music, promoting creativity but liking to keep home life under control. His older sister, the defiant Anita (Zooey Deschanel), religiously listens to the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel and The Who, sneakily giving her record collection to her brother at a pivotal time in his childhood.
Keen perception and an obsessive dedication to music turns William into something of a writer, a talent who yearns to explore the magic of this strange thing called rock ’n’ roll. He’s the leading “journalist” at his school newspaper — he wants nothing more than to be another Christgau, be anyone who can make a name immersing themselves in the music scene. With ferocious ambition, William begins consistently sending his work to Creem head honcho Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aware that he’s talented and not in the mood to waste another minute of his youthful glow. Seeing his potential, Bangs takes a liking to the boy and assigns him with the task of reviewing a local Black Sabbath concert, which turns into something more after running into Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a luminous groupie with strong ties to rising group Stillwater, who is opening for the band.
Soon, attention is directed to the latter grouping, with William, secretive in revealing his age, fortunately getting hired by Rolling Stone magazine to follow the band on their tour for an insightful profile on what it’s really like to be rising rock stars. Mom is skeptical, but aware that her son is a good boy; and so begins a journey into a land of make believe, where growing up is sped up to the speed of light and where thought-to-be true love is made of flimsy material, heartbreak subtle in a pretend world where everything looks, feels, and tastes great.
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous is a coming-of-age film of funny saccharine that eventually becomes something more, shrewd and palpably touching. I first saw it four years ago, perhaps too young to understand just what a heartfelt work it was, and how, despite its incredible story, it rings as universal, rock ’n’ roll as the foreground. Now wiser and introduced to the director’s cut of the film, which runs forty minutes longer than the theatrical release, I am certain that it is among the finest boy-to-man accounts in film, acutely sensitive but also very much in love with the era in which it rests.
Humanistically written and directed, it is staggering how much emotion it pours out — by its end, its characters are as everyday, worn-out, and intrinsically vulnerable as anyone. Idols are killed (metaphorically, that is), dream women are metamorphosed into plain and simple women (Hudson’s Penny Lane, who is one of the best female characters of the 2000s, is not the confident free-spirit we think she is), and home is a place better than any location in the world. It is epic, but affectionately so. Life is grand, isn’t it? A-