The immense charm of Cameron Crowe’s best films (Say Anything … , Singles ) is impossible to resist. The heartfelt qualities in his work are abundantly on display in Almost Famous: a belief in family, the importance of loyalty, the need for trust and honesty.
This story comes with an especially appealing extra element: it is a loose amalgamation of many incidents that happened to Crowe when he was a very young rock journalist on the payroll of Rolling Stone.
William (Patrick Fugit) is fifteen years old in 1973, and somewhat sheltered from life by his earnest mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand). William’s mentor, the celebrated rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells him curtly that “music is dead”, but this won’t stop a boy eager to soak up (and write down) what awaits him in the wide world.
So William gets on a bus with Stillwater, a band on the verge of fame. (Australian actor Noah Taylor is part of this troupe.) William has a ball, but soon begins to feel compromised, wondering whether these musos are showing him a good time only in order to receive favourable press.
And he also feels torn as he observes the cat-and-mouse love game between the band’s charismatic but not always likeable leader, Russell (Billy Crudup), and his on-the-road companion, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
Much of the praise for Crowe’s work stresses its intimate, observational nature, with its roots in journalism and love of quiet, throwaway moments. Film Comment magazine went so far as to describe Crowe's films as “handmade”, as if he were an experimental artist or documentarian hand-holding his own digital camera.
But the feeling of immediacy in Crowe’s films is, naturally, a grand illusion. The maker of Jerry Maguire (1996) is, in fact, a modern master of Hollywood slickness, in the tradition of his mentor James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983) or, further back, Howard Hawks. Everything in Crowe’s films is carefully abstracted from reality, stylised and filtered through entertainment formulae.
For instance, Crowe’s portrayal of rock groupies – “band aids”, as they prefer to call themselves – partakes of the Pretty Woman (1990) syndrome: rarely has a potentially degrading lifestyle seemed so whimsical and ethereal.
The hard times on the road for a touring band are also glossed over: this is live music without roadies, sound checks or clashes between headlining and supporting acts. William’s pristine innocence is perhaps overplayed – and the rock culture of sex and drugs underplayed. An entire post ‘60s counter-culture is, effectively, nowhere to be seen.
Crowe’s preferred mode of movie fantasy always includes one or two seemingly raw, dramatic moments – such as when Russell is electrocuted on stage, or Penny is unceremoniously sold to another band. But, more often than not, his filmmaking method is to (as Raymond Durgnat once described Hawks) “bat it and run” – a sly form of storytelling sleight-of-hand that betrays its haste to arrive at happy endings for everybody.
Almost Famous is a tremendously enjoyable and colourful film, moving deftly through a variety of moods, locations and subplots. Crowe’s direction is occasionally a little mechanical – all those scenes of people looking wordlessly at each other – and he has a weakness for gratuitous, audience-pleasing, facile gags.
At times the potentially harder, more ambiguous edges of the story become blurred: what are we to make of the enigmatic Russell, after all? What is the balance of celebration and critique in the film’s view of the unreal rock lifestyle? Crowe is as yet unable or unwilling to spin a tale as black as those of his Old Hollywood mentor, Billy Wilder.
For all its appeals to the wisdom that “the music is what matters”, Almost Famous is a strangely unmusical film. A supremely character-driven piece, what ends up being driven out is the music itself. On the soundtrack, Crowe makes conventional, sometimes frustratingly brief use of many ‘70s grabs. On stage, we never hear a complete Stillwater song performed.
In every respect, Almost Famous is the flip side of another film about ‘70s music, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) – a movie that, by the way, improves with age. Haynes’ testament to the glam era is a militantly queer reading of pop history, overflowing with music and acutely aware of the bitter schisms that define the cultural tastes of fans.
Crowe, by contrast, summons a happy, bland ecumenism: Lou Reed, Elton John (a big touring bus group singalong to “Tiny Dancer” dissolves all interpersonal tensions, as in a Frank Capra movie), Rod Stewart and Iggy Pop are all in the same soup. And where did all the black Americans go?
If I am being a little hard on this often delightful film, that may be because I am trying to resist its particular flattery of arts critics. Not only does Almost Famous tell critics that their vocation is to be “honest and unmerciful” – which is, of course, what every critic thinks he or she already is; it also argues that to be only a fraction as wealthy or good-looking as the people one normally writes about is a deep and glorious thing.
This is the film’s philosophy of uncool versus cool, and it is sure to win the hearts of not only critics, but most other dags in the filmgoing audience. This philosophy is placed in the mouth of Bangs, in the course of a homely soliloquy that is a highlight of Almost Famous. William ends their helpful conversation by thanking his crazed mentor: “Glad you were home”. Bangs shoots back: “I’m always home! I’m uncool!”
Postscript 2019: With the woeful Vanilla Sky (2001), Crowe’s directorial career began a swan-dive from which it has yet to pull out; only Elizabethtown (2005) shows some (increasingly mangled) signs of his talent. In recent years, he has moved between feeble romantic/family comedies (We Bought a Zoo  and Aloha ), music documentaries on the recording of the album “The Union” and on Pearl Jam, and one season of a music-world TV series, Roadies (2016).
© Adrian Martin February 2001