Almost Famous, a nostalgia factory of pop tunes past, is so star-struck it’s easy to see why it makes people like Roger Ebert want to hug themselves. This is less a movie than it is a vehicle for baby-boomer reminiscence, but how to explain the positive reaction from Gen Xers? Painting a cozy picture of William Miller (Patrick Fugit) and his posse of free-loving musicians painting America with their musically-informed charms, Cameron Crowe proves that self-absorption isn’t a generational thing. More dominantly, the film functions as an enshrinement of the writer-director’s memory and early career.
This self-infatuated drama begins with William’s mother (Frances McDormand), a stodgy ’60s liberal, treating her son’s LPs like forbidden fruit, and continues with the up-and-coming critic seeking guidance from the only adult in his life that doesn’t nag him: Cream editor Lester Bangs, played monotonously by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Somewhat of an anti-populist, Lester helps William to view music with a more critical eye, but he’s blind to the fact that his solitary existence is nowhere as exciting as the PG-ish adventures William experiences with a band called Stillwater. William and Lester’s conversations quickly become tiresome affairs, but their final conversation at least culminates in of epiphany, with Lester realizing his place on the coolness ladder. To bad for the scene’s casual condescension.
Stillwater lead singer Jeff (Jason Lee) sees the budding reporter, who is Crowe’s alter ego, as the enemy only to come to the conclusion that the kid could help the band. It’s unclear why, but we may assume that you can only resist someone’s doe-eyed, harmless disposition for so long. Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a “band aid” (not a groupie!), is equally smitten. Though she is oblivious to the ramifications of her relationship with Stillwater member Russell (Billy Crudup), Crowe still has her come across as some sort of sage—a fountain of ironic cool (which explains the appeal of the actress’s performance). She has a loser mentality, choosing to define her life by the people she’s slept with and where in the world she’s gone, and if William wasn’t successful at breaking down her façade by film’s end, one would be hard pressed to find a more dichotomous pillar of strength in any American movie of the past couple of years.
Is there something I’m missing here? I like classic rock as much as the next guy, but watching a bunch of Jesus-types singing along to expendable Elton John songs isn’t feel-good—it’s vanilla. Not unlike the Hallmark-card depictions of sex, as in the scene where three “band aids” try to have their way with the virginal William. (Seems unreal that the film is rated R.) Maybe the film’s appeal isn’t even a generational thing, just a matter of taste. A film of this nature always hinges on some sort of tragic and/or cathartic drug- or alcohol-related hysteria, but whenever it comes it feels like an Afterschool Special. Almost Famous doesn’t go down that road, choosing always to stay blissful, which feels almost equally wrong and just as much a show of denial.