“Almost Famous” long sat on the shelf preparing for release with no studio-approved title. Prospects included “The Uncool,” “The Untitled Cameron Crowe Project” and, simply, “Untitled.” The latter title would have been most appropriate as the genuinely brilliant ensemble piece, created under the deft guidance of autobiographer Cameron Crowe, is a work of such a broad nature that no simple title seems to do the entire movie justice.
“Almost Famous” is based on the real life ventures of auteur Cameron Crowe who, at the age of 15, landed a gig with “Rolling Stone,” one of the music industry’s most widely read and recognized publications. The production follows child prodigy William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he joins up-and-coming rock group “Stillwater” on the road with a notepad in hand ” first for the local underground magazine “Creem” and then for the same popular publication which Crowe placed his own by-line in some many years ago. As the band members play on the stage to screaming crowds and fight amongst themselves behind-the-scenes, they struggle with the fleeting qualities of fame; numerous serpents hand them luscious fruits and, yet, the word “no” seems to be the one lyric they simply cannot write.
One such temptation is the beautiful Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who prefers to not view herself as a “groupie,” but rather a “Band Aid” alongside her other attractive friends who travel with the partially married group but insist that sex isn’t their motivation. As the teenage flirt obsesses over band member Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), she is seemingly ignorant to her own attraction to the film’s virgin protagonist and thus a multi-tier romance minus all the mawkish sentimentality normally present in such Hollywood love-triangles develops.
Music has been an integral part of cinema dating back to the days when a classical orchestra would accompany silent films with a live score and continuing “in a manner which would make Darwin proud ” up through the recent re-release of Rob Reiner’s classic “This is Spinal Tap.” And while documentaries like “The Buena Vista Social Club,” “Instrument: 10 Years with the Band Fugazi” and the current “The Ballad of Ramblin” Jack” have all made noteworthy and admirable attempts at showing audiences a genuine behind-the-scenes view of a life dominated by performance, not just that which is visible on stage, the lack of a quality hardcore rock “n” roll documentary has been visible. In many ways “Almost Famous” offers forth the most truthful and complete look at such a life thus far even though “Stillwater,” the group at the center of the film, is fictional. Tom Hanks” “The Thing You Do!” along with several other films have made worthy attempts at properly portraying this, but “Almost Famous” just feels too real to dismiss as a product of Tinseltown’s other multi-billion-dollar industry.
Of course, this is because much of what is on screen is based heavily on the truth. Not only does the young reporter first seek an interview with the very-real “Black Sabbath” before pursuing “Stillwater” and write for the still-existent “Rolling Stone,” but his inspirational editor, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), was a genuine rock “n” roll icon. Despite passing away at age 33, Bangs coined the phrase “heavy metal” and left a significant impression on the worlds of music and music journalism. And, yes, Bangs worked with the underground “Creem” before surfacing with the much more notable “Time Out New York” a few years before his death.
Yet, “Almost Famous” is not entirely about a rock “n” roll group. As mentioned previously, the film has an enjoyable and believable set of romantic plots that are never neglected even when it might have been a much sexier choice for Crowe to move in the direction of abandonment in favor of pure-musical drama. The film also marks Cameron Crowe’s return to writing high school characters. It has been nearly two decades since Amy Heckerling made his book, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” into a movie that became a cult-classic and, thus, more than two decades since he returned to high school to do his undercover research on the behavior of teenagers. Crowe is smart in scribing this film to stick with that generation rather than attempting to pen the slang dialogue of today’s rebels, something he surely wouldn’t be as good at. But, then again, “Almost Famous” glistening almost-perfection can only be the product of a helmer who is good at just about everything.