**** Stars
(US 2000)
Rated R

Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit, Jason Lee

Directed by Clayton Hartley, Cameron Crowe, John Toll

Writing Credits: Cameron Crowe

Dreamworks * 122 minutes

Screened at: The Pascack Theatre, Westwood, NJ


As a music enthusiast from childhood and former Rolling Stone writer, Cameron Crowe knows the effect that great popular music can have on the human soul; It can make you sing, it can make you cry. It is the punctuation of life that can make your heart soar and make you glad to be alive. What luck for moviegoers that this man, who cut his teeth as essentially a music industry hanger-on, has been able to capture the magically joyous effect of great popular music and translate it into magically joyous films. And his latest effort, ALMOST FAMOUS, leaves the viewer as breathlessly, happily sated as really great sex with someone you love.

Crowe has been behind some of the most entertaining films of the last fifteen years. His scripts are characterized by themes of change -- coming-of-age or life metamorphosis; vivid, realistic characters, and crisp, tight storylines. His films are characterized by an extraordinary ability to scope out star quality in nearly unknown actors. The list of breakthrough performances in films scripted or directed by Crowe is impressive: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn in FAST TIMES IN RIDGEMONT HIGH. John Cusack's metamorphosis from geek to leading man in SAY ANYTHING. Renee Zellweger bursting out of nowhere and Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Academy Award-winning star turn in JERRY MAGUIRE. Now we can add to this list Billy Crudup and Kate Hudson, who make ALMOST FAMOUS shine even more brightly

ALMOST FAMOUS is a thinly fictionalized remembrance of Crowe's own roots as a teenaged writer for Rolling Stone. His alter ego here is William Miller (portrayed as an adolescent by newcomer Patrick Fugit), a bright, if geeky kid, younger than his schoolmates, who hides his loneliness by writing about music for his school newspaper. He lives with his rebellious sister and his mother, one of those quasi-hip parents we all knew (well, I knew one anyway) who were vegetarian before anyone else but still had the obligatory morbid fear of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll; a mom very much like, from all accounts, Tipper Gore. William is encouraged by the great music critic Lester Bangs (portrayed to perfection in yet another brilliant turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who advises him, "If you're a rock journalist, you won't make a lot of money, but you will get free records from the record companies." Not that much different from being a film critic.

With the help of a spritely young woman who goes by the name of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a girl who understands the need to follow a band around, William pursues his dream, writing first for the gonzo mag Creem,where he encounters the fictional band Stillwater (an amalgam of the Allman Bros. Band, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, and Yes) and then for Rolling Stone, which contracts with him to write about the band. In a small but hilarious role, Terry Chen, as editor Ben Fong-Torres, captures the utter idiocy of trying to meld the anarchy of rock 'n' roll to the realities of running a business (and has a great bit about an early fax machine).

William experiences a rather unusual coming of age as he is exposed to all the pleasures and pain of life on the road, and somehow manages to make the decisions that are not self-destructive. Along the way, he makes the cardinal mistake of forgetting Bangs' warning not to befriend the band, in parallel with Penny's mistake of forgetting her own warning not to take relationships with musicians too seriously, because "When they're gone, you can always go to the record store and visit your friends." The object of both of their affections is Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the talented and sensitive lead guitarist for Stillwater, who is just bright enough, and has just enough humanity left, to understand the toll that life on the road as a star takes on one's soul. However, Penny quickly becomes the object of William's affections, thus creating a rather interesting and surprisingly affecting triangle.

It's impossible for any review to encapsulate the story in a Cameron Crowe screenplay, for he packs his works with so much story and such rich characterizations that the only way to explain the plot is to novelize the script. The wonder of ALMOST FAMOUS is the way the interwoven human relationships, the power of popular music, the poignancy of a boy's coming of age — and a man's as well, combine into a sweet, funny, wonderfully crafted film.

Crowe has a knack for placing just-under-the-radar actors in his films and turning them into stars, and ALMOST FAMOUS is no exception. The breakout performances in this film are Billy Crudup, he of the trailer park name, the killer cheekbones and the reluctant demeanor, and the luminous Kate Hudson, she of the union of Goldie Hawn and forgotten 1970's musician Bill Hudson. Crudup's Russell Hammond, a thinly-veiled Jimmy Page clone, is a perfect embodiment of a profoundly conflicted man, torn between his own emotions and the lures of life on the road.

Crudup, another chameleon who looks different in every film, has thus far managed to avoid megastardom while turning in one dead-on, thoughtful performance after another. Possessed of a quiet inscrutability, his portrayals of complex and full-blooded characters seem effortless — Tobey Maguire with a strong chin. Crudup handles the dark and brooding aspects of Russell Hammond without giving into the temptation to overact. An extended segment in which Russell attends a teenage party in a Topeka, Kansas tract house "because it's real, man" climaxing with him standing on the roof of a barn, tripping and screaming "I am a golden god!" before jumping into a pool is both chilling and heartbreaking. And yet, Crudup also shows a gift for wry comedy. While speaking to William's mother, the rock 'n' roll star reverts back into a respectful, even frightened country boy, eyes panicked, voice practically a whimper, saying "Yes, ma'am," into the phone to a woman he doesn't even know, afterwards observing to William, "Your mom freaked me out, man."

But as wonderful as Crudup is in this film, even he is blown completely out of the water by the breakout actress of the year, Kate Hudson. Hudson perfectly embodies the kind of spritely groupie that Pamela Des Barres wrote about in I'M WITH THE BAND -- a kind of combination muse/mother/courtesan. True to her legacy as Goldie Hawn's daughter, she's as cute as a button, shiny as a new penny, and just lights up the screen at every turn. She's dizzy and freaky; a Pre-Raphaelite dervish, nearly fatally unable to cope with her failure to heed her own advice to "never take it seriously." When told that Russell, in a drunken poker game, has gambled away not just her, but also her "band-aid" friends to the band Humble Pie for fifty dollars and a case of beer, she sighs, wipes away a tear, then attempts to set her jaw, turns to William, and asks "What kind of beer?" It's a devastating moment in a consistently brilliant performance.

Gwyneth Paltrow, watch your butt. There's a new cupcake in town.

The supporting performances are a perfect backdrop. Frances McDormand, who is rapidly evolving into one of my favorite actresses, is just hilarious as the quasi-hippie mom who's paranoid about drugs. Jason Lee, who has failed to impress me so far, finally comes into his own as the egotistical Jeff Bebe, the Robert Plant clone who fronts the band, and seems only dimly aware that he's a jerk. As for young Mr. Patrick Fugit, plucked out of nowhere, he is more than up to the task of playing a guy with little to do but stand around grinning through his chipmunk cheeks, looking amazed. At times he almost seems like a better-looking Mason Reese, clearly a kid whose intellect far outweighs his life experience.

Cameron Crowe is one of the few directors who actually uses popular songs in the service of the film, not just as gratuitous noise for the purpose of selling soundtrack CDs. This year has been characterized by some interesting use of rock music as plot backdrop, most notably in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and HIGH FIDELITY, but ALMOST FAMOUS takes rock nostalgia to a new level. From Todd Rundgren's gorgeous Something, Anything album, to Joni Mitchell's Blue, to the Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East (and this film shows what a kickass song One Way Out really is), Crowe wends his way through my entire record collection, which William's sister (Zooey Deschanel) leaves under his bed. Only a segment in which the members of Stillwater sing along with Elton John's Tiny Dancer rings false, as if the rights to the REALLY good music weren't available.

Still, ALMOST FAMOUS is such a wonderfully-crafted story, so full of life and hope and optimism that this critic actually sat through the ending credits, so as not to break the spell. From its opening scenes of sun-drenched California Craftsman bungalows to its bittersweet end, ALMOST FAMOUS is a joy.

ALMOST FAMOUS official site

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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