|Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes|
There are some films I loved as a teen that I've 'grown out of' over the years, or at least have grown less fond of (Donnie Darko being one). But not Almost Famous: I still have a deep affection for the film. Now, it's not a perfect film by any stretch, but it is possibly the best film Cameron Crowe has or ever will make. Because it's his film: it's the director making a deeply personal project, and it just oozes with enthusiasm and genuineness as a result. Before that he'd made a series of charming crowd-pleasers and intelligent romantic comedies: from Say Anything to Jerry Maguire. These were good to great films, but Almost Famous has an authenticity far and above even in the best of his previous films. Since then, he's struggled to make anything memorable. The direct follow-up to AF - the stodgy Vanilla Sky - was a remake, his latest 'based on true events'. Someone else's true events. There was Elizabethtown too, but we don't talk about Elizabethtown (surely one of cinema's most bizarre misjudgements). Almost Famous is, however, his story: the film Cameron Crowe was almost destined to make. And it's wonderful because of it, although has perhaps doomed his chances of making anything quite so special.
Patrick Fugit as William is Crowe's semi-fictional recreation of himself, and his misadventures echo Crowe's own days as a youthful rock journalist. The character gives the film a crystal clear focus and perspective. There's a number of scenes where we see William observing things from a distance or partially opened doors: not fully ingrained in this world, an outsider, a fish out of water. This dynamic also creates some fantastic moments of character interaction. The way Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup's character use and abuse William - and, eventually, genuinely befriend him (or at least learn to accept his place in their world) - for personal gain are perfectly judged. William allows us and the director to fully invest in the story and situations. Even though the characters that surround him are 'larger than life', his presence is the most crucial of all. William gives the film a beating heart, and while most of the members & fans of Stillwater are compelling and likeable, innocent William is our crucial gateway into this semi-surreal world of rock music.
I've often heard the complaint that Almost Famous is 'too clean' for a film about seventies rock. And sure, it's hardly the most provocative or shocking film ever made about sex, drugs and rock n' roll. That, really, doesn't matter. If anything, the film's focus on characters as opposed to endless excess is to its ultimate credit. In a way his later films have been unable to recapture, Crowe's audience-friendly approach to the material pays massive dividends. Crudup getting drunk and (gasp!) taking acid at a house party isn't the most extreme breakdown ever committed to cinema, but it is very, very entertaining ("I'm a golden God!"). Similarly, Frances McDormand's Elaine may be a slightly absurd parody of the overprotective mother we've seen plenty of times (in cinema and real-life). But again, it's a colourful and persuasive performance, and the exaggerations allow Crowe to further explore the contradictions and contrasts of William's two conflicting realities. The excellent Untitled Director's Cut adds further memorable moments and characterisation to a film that's already full of them, even if Crowe still couldn't afford the rights to Stairway to Heaven (leading to one of the most memorable and creative deleted scenes in DVD history).
Then, of course, we come to the music. Cameron Crowe has undeniably shown a keen awareness of pop and rock music - even integrating album covers visually into Vanilla Sky. But Almost Famous integrates music into the film on a much deeper and more rewarding level. The only thing drawing these very, very different people together is their unshakeable love of music. They may fight, they may hate each others personality, they may be horribly self-destructive and egotistical: but on stage or on vinyl, nothing else matters. It's why that Tiny Dancer sequence is so powerful - a moment where a song explicitly transcends the petty quibbling, alcoholism, egoism, self-hatred and selfish affairs that almost drive everyone on that bus apart. It's the thematic core of the film, and summed up in one glorious moment. The later potential plane crash sequence acts as a fascinating contrast: in a life-or-death situation without the magical bonding powers of music, the characters find themselves unable to communicate effectively.
The relatively happy ending here is hard-earned by Crowe. His inevitable sentimental streak is, for once, perfectly judged: never crossing the line between mawkish and genuinely moving. The music is electrifying. The flawed but loveable characters have all gained some level of insight and acted upon it. An audience member would struggle to leave without a smile on their face.
So no: Almost Famous isn't subtle, provocative or particularly inventive. It's (shamelessly, one could say) manipulative. Don't hold that against it, because it's still an expertly crafted film, and one of mainstream American cinema's most enduring achievements. In the hands of a less passionate director, its defining traits would have been its undoing. But then again, no-one but Cameron Crowe could have made Almost Famous: a film of great passion that wears its heart on its sleeve for all to discover and appreciate. And it is all the better for it.