The year is 1973. Rock ’n’ roll is changing, drugs seem to be everywhere, and sex isn’t a big deal. “Almost Famous” covers it all. Directed by Cameron Crowe (“Vanilla Sky”), this is a film based on Crowe’s teenage life. 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit, “Gone Girl”), ends up landing a gig writing an article for Rolling Stone magazine about the fictitious band Stillwater. The plot follows William through his adventure on the road with the band and their Band Aids — who “are there for the music.” If you enjoy story-heavy films as well as good music, “Almost Famous” fits the bill, and you can thank Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, “Bride Wars”), the soundtrack, and the character of William Miller for that.
“She was the one who changed everything. She was the one who said ‘No more sex. No more exploiting our bodies and our hearts. Just blowjobs, and that’s it!’” This how Penny Lane is described by one of her fellow Band-Aids when we first meet her. She’s wearing an obnoxious fur coat, a lacy white crop-top, “Lennon” glasses, and she’s got crimped blonde hair. Don’t judge this book based on the cover, because Hudson gave an incredible performance as Penny Lane. Not only did she win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, and was nominated for the corresponding Oscar, but she almost makes you forget that Penny Lane isn’t even a main character — just the girl that the guy wants. And don’t forget the scene where she is left heartbroken from the rockstar, (after finding out she was traded for 50 bucks and a case of beer), and instead of throwing a fit, wipes the single tear from her cheek and asks “What kind of beer?” As much as Penny Lane is there for the music in the film, stick with the film for Penny Lane.
Since “Almost Famous” is so heavily rooted in rock ’n’ roll, it was imperative for Crowe to not only have accurate representation of the musical time period the film is set in, but for the soundtrack to be just as memorable. Scattered throughout, you’ll hear Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, The Allman Brothers, and Elton John (just to name a few), but you’ll also see a handful of homages to the history of rock ’n’ roll. Just one of these instances is the crowd at the first Stillwater concert, which purposefully looks like a recreation of Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away” album cover. Between the music and the subtle references, this movie works for both the hardcore rock ’n’ roll fan, and those who may be relatively new to the “lifestyle.”
Another major aspect of “Almost Famous” is the point of view the film focuses on. 15-year-old William Miller is just a kid with a dream who lands a huge gig with a major publication. Based on Crowe at 15, when he also deepened his voice over the phone to write for Rolling Stone, “Almost Famous” draws a lot from his time spent traveling with Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, and Yes, we’re able to see what this experience is like through the eyes of a 15-year-old in 1973. Innocent as Bambi (if Bambi had the music taste for rock ’n’ roll), we watch Miller grow up as the tour progresses. His voice cracks, he gets deflowered by Band-Aids, he spends too much time lying to his mother, and he’s forced to try and take care of the drugged-up Stillwater guitarist, Russell Crowe (Billy Crudup, “Watchmen”). Aside from that, the film exhibits one of the rules of criticism Roger Ebert set in “Rogers Little Rule Book” (Sun Times, 2008), “Be wary of freebies,” which Miller was not, having Rolling Stone pay for all of his hotel bills and room service. Lester Bangs’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Moneyball”) speech in a diner is also brought to the forefront: “These people are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rockstars, and they will ruin rock ’n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it!” Stillwater was wary with William Miller on board, and it never really seemed like a true friendship, even when Russell Crowe finally sits down for an interview, it wasn’t completely on his own terms, but Penny Lane’s.
“Almost Famous” reflects a lot about the year of 1973. Records are what’s on the radio, cell phones don’t clutter the screen, and celebrities weren’t born on the internet. But it’s more than just a trip down memory lane: it’s the platform where a star was born, a tribute to rock ’n’ roll, and offers an interesting look into the early life of Crowe.