Cameron Crowe’s first film since his Oscar-nominated Jerry Maguire is another sort of Cinderella story. Set in 1973, it chronicles the coming-of-age of 15-year-old William (Salt Laker Patrick Fugit in his feature film debut), a music fan who realizes his dream of becoming a rock & roll journalist.
William is a levelheaded kid who lives with his protective schoolteacher mother (Frances McDormand) in San Diego. When his sister moves out, she leaves her little brother something that will change his life. “One day you’ll be cool,” she says in a note. “Look under your bed. You’ll be free.” Under her bed is her record collection. William loves the music he inherits.
He hooks up with the disenchanted Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a top critic and editor of Creem magazine, who buys him coffee and laments the fact the big promoters and big business are “strangling everything good about rock & roll and turning it to swill.” Lester advises the 15-year-old budding high school journalist to have enough courage to be honest, and gives him an assignment—interview Black Sabbath. William’s mother drives him to the concert arena, reminding him to use the family whistle if he gets lost and admonishing, “Don’t do drugs.”
Young William misses out on Black Sabbath, but finds the up-and-coming band Stillwater, fronted by lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). They humor the kid and agree to be interviewed. Exceeding his wildest dreams, they invite him to tag along on their road tour for an up-close look. Over the objections of his mother, the wide-eyed William embarks on an eye-opening journey.
When Rolling Stone sees his article in Creem, they call to assign him a story, not realizing they’re dealing with a teenager. With Lester Bangs’ advice, he sells them on the idea of profiling Stillwater, a “mid-level band struggling with its own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”
With the help of a groupie, the lovely “band-aid” Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William is drawn into the band’s inner circle, becoming less an observer and more a participant in their dynamics. The advice of Lester seems to have fallen on deaf ears as William loses objectivity, though the lead singer remains suspect of the kid who “takes notes with his eyes.”
A 15-year-old fledgling reporter landing an assignment from Rolling Stone and going on the road with a band may seem like a far-fetched concept, but writer-director Crowe makes it all seem believable. Fugit, who was a student at East High School before landing the plumb role of William, is a natural on-screen, holding his own with a heavy-hitting cast that includes Oscar winners McDormand and Seymour Hoffman. He’s an average good-hearted teen whose shyly expressive face serves him well. His character emerges as the most level-headed.
Kate Hudson, the daughter of Goldie Hawn, is unforgettable as Penny Lane, who pretends she takes nothing seriously and therefore can’t be hurt. At heart she’s a vulnerable young woman who is seriously in love with the lead guitarist. Hudson captures that vulnerability and sexiness.
Crudup, whose performances I always enjoy, gives a poignant performance as the lead guitarist who is better stuff personally and musically than his band members. He’s the only one with potential for greatness. He feels the constraints of the band’s mediocrity, and knows deep down that he could be more. But his loyalties and love of music keep him where he is. He also knows that he loves Penny Lane, but he can’t take the next step. Crudup perfectly captures his angst and frustration, making him a very sympathetic character.
Francis McDormand, who is a stand-out no matter how small the role, makes William’s mother a believable and sympathetic character as well. She could have played it as the stereotypical protective mother, but McDormand is far too smart for that, and her intelligence shines through. She’s a concerned and savvy mom who loves her son and doesn’t want him used. A scene in which she talks to Crudup’s character on the phone, telling him she knows just what’s going on and urging him to become a person of substance, is perfectly played by both of them. It’s also one of the film’s most effective scenes.
Crowe not only manages to give the film an authentic flavor of band life on the road and on-stage, he also avoids a pat ending. His resolution is as ambivalent as it is hopeful. He shows that the characters become better people for having met each other, and that’s happy ending enough.
Almost Famous (R) HHH Directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup and Kate Hudson.