Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Ten

#10 — Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)
It’s all about those records under the bed, a treasure trove of rock ‘n’ roll left by a departing sibling with the promise that there are life-changing notes contained within the collection. When young William Miller finds them, he flips through the strange squares carefully, lightly passing his hands over the surfaces of the worn cardboard covers as if they’re something mystical. The reverence that Cameron Crowe instills in this moment can almost make you believe that listening to The Who’s Tommy by candlelight is the surest path to enlightenment. That, above all else, is what Crowe accomplishes with Almost Famous. He captures the allure of great rock ‘n’ roll music perfectly, in a way that I don’t think any other film ever has. It is a secret club where outsiderness is the main criterion for entry, where naked revelry, literally and figuratively, is the purest expression of its essence. It’s where a guitar chord, played just the right way, at just the right volume, is inexplicably a mirror held up to the soul.

It’s important to note that Crowe had a vitally pertinent personal history to draw upon to achieve this goal. By the age of fifteen, Crowe was contributing articles to Rolling Stone, jetting around with the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band at a time when earning ink in Jann Wenner’s publication was tantamount to true rock legitimacy. It’s that autobiography that Crowe uses to shape his film, redrawing himself as the previously mentioned William Miller, a youth with smarts and passion, but somewhat lacking in wiles. He enters the realm of rock journalism as a true believing fan, but a bit of a neophyte at the trickier aspects of life, like wooing women or generally navigating through interpersonal relationships fraught with dangerous trapdoors. As he tags along on tour with up-and-coming rock band Stillwater, struggling to pull together enough material for a coherent story, he builds fragile bonds with the individuals band members and stronger but more perilous connections with the collection of groupies that cluster around them, a gregarious pack that have proudly dubbed themselves “Band Aides.” Patrick Fugit plays the role with the appropriate level of unveiled delight, further amplifying the sense that the character has stumbled into a music fan’s golden palace.

Crowe’s screenplay is a winning combination of nicely observed character moments and ceaselessly clever humor. James L. Brooks was one of Crowe’s most devoted mentors as he moved from screenwriter to writer-director, and the film bears the welcome mark of that influence. Crowe doesn’t pass up the chance for a funny line, but also endeavors to make every word spoken somehow revelatory. From the members of Miller’s immediate family to the entire entourage around the band, we know everyone well by the end of the film. Even a collection of Topeka teens at a suburban party crashed by one of the band members feel real and thought out. It’s as if Crowe believes in the wide-ranging power of rock ‘n’ roll to such a degree that he wants to be sure he honors every person who hears the beat, closes their eyes and nods along.

The actors match this devotion with performances that still stand, nearly ten years later, as career pinnacles. As Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Billy Crudup churns together bright charisma with a creeping narcissism that is potentially an inevitable byproduct of having thousands of people scream their delight at you for the act of nicely manipulating a sextet of metal strings. Jason Lee plays the flip side as a lead singer, a growing star in his own right who is nonetheless threatened by the creeping fear that his sideman is starting to eclipse him. Kate Hudson is positively luminous as Penny Lane, the leader of the Band Aides, a young woman who is smarter than she cares to let on, but also helpless to resist the choices she knows are suspect. She nicely realizes both the inner vulnerability that draws her heart in to music in the first place, and the thin veneer of impervious confidence she uses to cover it up. It would take willful amnesia to declare Frances McDormand’s performance as William Miller’s intensely cerebral mother her career peak, but she does deserve accolades for playing the character as a person of uncompromising strength instead of the sort of domineering shrew that usually emerges in such roles. Crowe devotes a lot of screen-time to establishing that mother Miller is such a fearsome presence that even a phone conversation will leave the other party shaken and freaked out, so much so that it seems an insurmountable task to portray that experience in a way that matches the legend. Then McDormand gets the chance to actually play that scene, and delivers marvelously, demonstrating that forcefulness doesn’t require histrionics, just certainty and the intelligence to back it up.

Penny Lane notes that she tells her fellow Band Aides “if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends,” which is a splendid summation of the appeal of music fandom, the sense that the great songs and the heightened emotions that they inspire are always available, a needle drop away. Cameron Crowe’s entire film is a testimony to that, an extended tribute to the music he’s loved so much over the years and the era in which he discovered it, when the musicians were still wild and free enough to take over entire hotels like conquering armies, and yet it was somehow still innocent enough that whole communities could crop up that felt safe and oddly nurturing. Vital information could be relayed by an exuberant fan in an autograph-adorned t-shirt, and the surest sign that culture was starting to curdle involved the newest citizens taking a less egalitarian view about saving some catered steak for some of the people who arrive backstage a little later. One more fantastic performance in the film belongs to Philip Seymour Hoffman, amused and weary as legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. He speaks perhaps the most profound words in the film when he says “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” There’s no doubt that the film includes some confession from Crowe that, no matter what sort of rock star existence he got to jog along parallel to, holding out a microphone in hope of a pithy, telling comment, he himself is uncool. And Almost Famous is indeed valuable currency.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)