While his prowess as a writer and director may have dimmed in recent times thanks to works like Aloha there was a time when Cameron Crowe was as important to screenwriting as Tarantino. In the late eighties and nineties he was the genius behind Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.
Almost Famous draws from Crowe’s experience as a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, the film follows the innocent William (Patrick Fugit) as he follows the rising band Stillwater and becomes a part of their tour of the US.
While there have been many films about the music industry and the bid to make it, few appear to have such affection for the world as Crowe’s bittersweet tale. It’s clear from every frame that he loves music and that his film is a loving ode to the world that made his name. As we follow William and his attempts to cover the rise of Stillwater he see that it isn’t just the music that Crowe is in love with but the culture.
The cult-like status of music is changed somewhat here into a band of misfits and oddballs trying to find their place in the world. Headed by Billy Crudup’s guitarist Russell, the relationships that make up Stillwater’s bid for musical relevance feel authentic. His difficult friendship with front man Jeff (Jason Lee in Jesus mode), and his possible romance with not-a-groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
Crowe is not above moments of slapstick comedy including Fairuza Balk running into a wall, but where the film really excels is the poignancy. William’s belief in the world of music is brought into reality, especially when a trip in a plane hits major turbulence and the issues within the band come to the fore. It’s also in the smaller details that the film rises – Lee’s Jeff wearing a t-shirt of himself is a particularly great detail.
It’s true that not all the elements of the film work – the bonding of the people in the band is frequently interrupted by Frances McDormand’s fairly one note role as William’s mother, but even so, there is a power in the world of people trying to be a part of something they believe is greater than themselves.
It helps that the cast are all entirely game, not least of all an extended cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman as legendary rock writer Lester Bangs who threatens to steal the film whenever he returns to offer sage advice and a cutting remark about the state of rock journalism.
Twenty one years on and there’s still much to love in Crowe’s last great work, and it’s hard not to well up when the whole bus sing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. It’s a film that might not work entirely for everyone – there is a strong sense of the indie film about it, but by the end if you’re not at least a little moved by the plight of a so-so rock band trying to make it, then… that’s just rock n roll.
Almost Famous is available on 4K UHD on July 12.