Big Screen Streaming: Almost Famous

Big Screen Streaming: Almost Famous

-A Look Back At Films Past by Roger Market-

When Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous came out in September 2000, the film’s journey began with a limited release. One can only imagine the resentment that this engendered in the fervent music and film aficionados of small-town USA, most of whom didn’t have access to the large cities where this rock and roll movie was showing. They had to wait a full week for the wide release. In those early days, no one could have predicted just how meta the film was going to be. Almost Famous commanded a high budget of $60 million, but it grossed only $47.4 million worldwide. Hence, much like William, its central character, Almost Famous was a bit of a loser—albeit one with a devoted following.

It all begins in 1969. William Miller is a special kid, or at least his overbearing mother Elaine likes to think so. He did skip the fifth grade, after all. Elaine is a college professor who is hell-bent on educating her children, but she also places unfair restrictions on them and shields them from the world. Anita, William’s college-aged sister, is so sanitized that in her first scene, she can’t even curse her mother properly. “Feck you!” she says before storming off to her room. Indeed, Anita’s constant rebellion, combined with her love for her brother, prompts an amusing revelation early in the film. “Tell him the truth,” she says. “Tell him how old he is.” Elaine is then forced to admit to William that in addition to skipping him a grade in school, she started him a year early. He’s eleven, not twelve, stranded in a class full of budding teenagers. William is understandably upset. The lynchpin in all the craziness, however, is Elaine’s refusal to allow her children to listen to rock music. Naturally, Anita rebels and has a secret stash of rock records. When she decides to leave home to become a flight attendant, she forces her mother to listen to the one song that can explain why she’s leaving: Simon & Garfunkel’s “America.” Minutes later, Anita is gone, leaving William her collection of records.

Her departure changes everything, revealing the thrust of the movie. Following Anita’s suggestion, William begins with the epic two-album rock opera Tommy, by The Who. A montage quickly transports the viewer to 1973. William is now a fifteen-year-old high school senior who writes music reviews for the school paper. Music is his life. He befriends Lester Bangs, editor of the music magazine Creem, and receives a trial assignment to interview Black Sabbath. Failing to gain the access he needs, he shifts his attention to the up-and-coming band, Stillwater. Soon, he receives an assignment to cover the group in an article for Rolling Stone. The centerpiece of the article is a one-on-one interview with lead guitarist Russell Hammond.

Despite Elaine’s better judgment, she allows him to take the gig, but with stipulations (one being that he must come home in time for his high school graduation). While she never really vocalizes her reasons for letting him go, the viewer can surmise that she’s afraid; if she doesn’t give in, she’ll lose her son just like she lost her daughter. Screen legend Frances McDormand is a force to be reckoned with in her portrayal of Elaine. Her performance mirrors her stunning achievement in Fargo a few years prior. Specifically, her phone conversations with William are a joy to watch. Her carefully wrought expressions, accompanied by subtle shifts in tone, lay her emotions bare before her son and the viewer.

Kate Hudson’s performance in Almost Famous, however, is the most noteworthy, earning her a Golden Globe. Hudson plays a young woman who goes by the name Penny Lane. Penny is a “Band-Aid,” or a groupie who doesn’t sleep with the band, but she makes an exception for Russell. Penny and Russell are in love, and their destructive semi-secret relationship is the main subplot of the movie. She follows the band around the country and becomes a close friend of William’s. Meanwhile, Russell keeps dodging interviews with William because he realizes that he’s made friends with a music reviewer, a.k.a. “The Enemy.” By the midpoint, William is prepared to cut his losses and return home to his frantic mother. During a rousing sing-along to “Tiny Dancer,” he tells Penny his plan to leave. She changes his mind.

“You are home,” she says with a “magical” flick of her wrist. And that’s the end of it . . . for now. Here, Hudson perfectly channels the carefree hippie that is Penny Lane. Patrick Fugit (who plays William) responds with one of his numerous grins. Deftly portraying a teenage boy’s crush on an older woman, Fugit also drives home the unsurprising revelation that his character does, in fact, belong in the music world.

As Almost Famous progresses toward its climax, Penny becomes increasingly more important to William as well as the plot. Indeed, her storyline unfolds in spectacular fashion in the movie’s last act, when William is finally forced to go home with or without the interview. The culmination of Penny’s story is dark and imperfect, just like real life, and Hudson’s performance here is well deserving of that Golden Globe. William’s development, and in turn, Russell’s, is inextricably linked with Penny’s. Nothing works out quite like anyone thought it would, but there is plenty to smile about in the end.

If there’s one aspect that feels a little underdeveloped in Almost Famous, it would have to be Elaine’s transition from overprotective, rule-enforcing hard-ass to a regular worried mother who nonetheless allows her fifteen-year-old boy to travel the country with a rock band. McDormand is wonderful, but the script’s pacing proves a little uneven here. That said, the movie hovers right around two hours in length, so it’s understandable that something had to give. The film’s real focus is on William, Russell, and Penny—an impossible trio who deliver an emotional climax and resolution that pleases audiences.

Like its underdog central character, Almost Famous is a fun-loving friend to anyone who gives the film a chance. It’s a shame the box office takings didn’t reflect the movie’s greatness, but maybe that’s the secret recipe. Almost Famous received dozens of awards in 2001, including the Oscar for Best Writing, the aforementioned Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Kate Hudson), and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical. Today, Almost Famous is a cult classic, and it’s available for immediate streaming on Netflix.


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