If there’s one guiding principle that virtually every screenwriter, novelist or comic book scribe can agree on, it’s “write what you know”.
It appears this advice was taken very much to heart by Cameron Crowe when he wrote and directed Almost Famous, a fictionalised account of his own coming of age experiences in the 1970s, which turns 15 this month.
Almost Famous (both the theatrical version and the superior director’s cut) follows the story of 15-year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) after he bluffs his way onto an assignment for Rolling Stone that involves going on the road with up-and-coming band Stillwater.
Along the way, he develops a complex relationship with the band members, including lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who enjoy having the kid along even as they grow paranoid of how his feature will affect their nascent public image.
William also forms a strong bond with career groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), for whom he harbours the type of passionate and misguided crush known only to teenagers.
As the tour rolls on, William finds himself learning plenty of hard truths about the grown up world, and the fate of the band – not to mention William’s article – begins to seem uncertain…
Almost Famous is a great film; in fact, it’s one of my personal all time favourites. When it first came out in 2000, it won a bunch of awards (including an Academy Award for Crowe and a Golden Globe for Hudson), but unfortunately failed to light the box office on fire.
It wasn’t until awhile later that word of mouth (and the home video market) brought the film to a wider audience and it achieved cult status. It’s a good thing too, because Almost Famous is one of the best coming of age films of all time, and proof that so-called “Hollywood” films can be just as intimate and full of integrity as low budget, indie flicks.
Obviously, a large part of this has to do with Crowe’s Oscar-winning screenplay, which manages to be funny, heartbreaking, poetic and honest.
Crowe was himself a teenage journalist who covered bands for Rolling Stone, so his script contains a degree of verisimilitude other writers would struggle to achieve, and he evokes the 1970s in a way that seems effortless.
He’s given considerable help in this department by John Toll’s vivid cinematography, and the top-notch costume design by Betsy Heimann.
Yet this is a Cameron Crowe film, and that means that the big draw is the music, and crucially, this is an area where Almost Famous best exemplifies its period setting.
Impressively, 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, all of which remain as good today as they did back then.
But what really makes Almost Famous work is its characters. More than any of Crowe’s other movies, Almost Famous is populated by people who seem truly alive and multi-faceted, and who actually think and feel in understandably human manner.
Even the biggest “studio film” moments – like the bus ride sing-along or the conversation between William and Russell near the finale – ring true in a way uncommon in mainstream cinema.
The reason for this is that characters involved all behave in a way that seems plausible, natural and spontaneous, especially when compared with the rehearsed and artificial quality of similar scenes in Jerry Maguire.
Indeed, if Crowe’s other film’s can be likened to the glamorous persona of a rock star, then Almost Famous would be the raw, naked human being that exists underneath.
It takes a talented cast to make this happen, and fortunately, Crowe has assembled a very capable bunch and draws strong turns from all of them.
Hudson delivers a career-best performance as Penny, Crudup embodies equal parts charisma and insecurity as Russell, Jason Lee is utterly believable as bitter lead singer Jeff, Frances McDormand brings 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 amidst the melodrama.
In the end, Almost Famous succeeds because it tells a story we can all associate with, set in a time period that’s endlessly fascinating to modern audiences.
Whether you’re stumbling your way through adolescence at this very moment, or you’ve long since past that point and are yearning to reconnect with it, there are few films out there that will speak to you better than this one, even 15 years on.