One of the guiding principles imparted to all aspiring writers is “write what you know” –advice Cameron Crowe clearly took to heart when he wrote and directed Almost Famous. Release this month 15 years ago, Almost Famous is a fictionalised account of Crowe’s formative experiences in the 1970s, and to this day, it remains one of the greatest coming of age movies ever made.
Almost Famous follows the exploits of 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) after he bluffs his way onto an assignment for Rolling Stone that finds him on the road with the up-and-coming band Stillwater. William soon develops a complex relationship with the band members, who enjoy having the kid along, even as they grow paranoid about how his feature will affect their nascent public image.
Along the way, William establishes a strong correction with career groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Inevitably, William falls hopelessly head over heels for Penny, who is herself in love with Stillwater’s charismatic – and already attached – lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup). As the tour rolls on, William comes face-to-face with several hard truths about the grown-up world, all while the fate of the band – not to mention William’s article – grows increasingly uncertain.
When Almost Famous came out in 2000, it won a bunch of awards – including an Academy Award for Crowe and a Golden Globe for Hudson – but, unfortunately, it failed to light the box office on fire. It wasn’t until much later that word of mouth (and the home video market) brought the film to a wider audience and it achieved cult status. That’s a good thing, too, because Almost Famous isn’t just one of the best coming-of-age films of all time, it’s proof that a so-called “Hollywood” film can be just as intimate and full of integrity as a low budget, indie flick.
A large part of this is due to Crowe’s Oscar-winning screenplay, which is equal parts funny, heart-breaking, poetic, and honest. Crowe really was a teenage journalist who covered bands for Rolling Stone, so his script also contains a degree of verisimilitude other writers couldn’t hope to achieve, and he evokes the 1970s in a way that seems effortless.
Then there’s the music. A killer licensed soundtrack is always a draw with Cameron Crowe’s output, and unsurprisingly, this is an area where Almost Famous best exemplifies its period setting. What’s even more impressive is that the fake tunes – written by Crowe, Nancy Wilson, and Peter Frampton, and with Mike McCready on lead guitar – blend in seamlessly with the actual tracks from the era.
But what really makes Almost Famous sing is its characters.
More than any other film by Crowe, Almost Famous is populated by people who seem truly alive, multi-faceted and unrehearsed, and who behave in an easily relatable, human manner. Heck, even Almost Famous‘ biggest “studio film” moments – like the bus ride sing-along – ring true in a way uncommon in mainstream cinema, thanks to the natural and spontaneous quality of the writing and performances.
It’s a quality ensemble, however, there are a few stand-outs that deserve mentioning.
Hudson delivers a career-best performance as the vivacious, vulnerable Penny; Crudup embodies equal parts swagger and insecurity as Russell; Frances McDormand finds much-needed depth to the role of William’s suffocating mother, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is a pure delight as real-life music critic Lester Bangs.
And then there’s Fugit, who does well in the unshowy lead role, slowly evolving his character from a shy kid to an assertive young man and anchoring the whole film amid the melodrama.
In the end, that’s why Almost Famous succeeds: because it tells a story we can all associate with, set in a time period that’s unfailingly alluring to modern audiences. Whether you’re stumbling your way through adolescence or yearning to reconnect with it, there are few films out there that will speak to you better than this one, even 15 years on.
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