Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
Where all the films covered in Music in the Movies so far have been about the lives of musicians and songwriters, both fictional and based on real-life personalities, Almost Famous subverts that trend by focusing on what it is to be a fan of music and to become someone who writes about musicians as opposed to being one.
It goes without saying that the film is a labour of love, and is very much inspired by the life of its writer and director, but in comparison to so many films covered here so far, Almost Famous takes as its cue not so much what it means to be a musician but more what it is to be in the vicinity of such talent and to be on the outside looking in. The film frequently captures the look of love and rapture on main protagonist William Miller’s face, expressed with genuine emotion by Patrick Fugit’s performance, while Cameron Crowe imbues his direction and script with a genuine sense of awe when it comes to the effects that rock music can have, in a manner that very few have done managed to convey as potently.
The gift of his sister’s vinyl collection, a moment set to the strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’, and falling in love with the genre against the bitter wishes of his mother (a scene-stealing Francis McDormand) all add up to present a brilliant portrayal of what it is to become enraptured with art that we are told by our elders not to gravitate towards. Where most pop and rock movies are awash in the thrill of creation, while also being very much aware of the perils of what it means to become famous for creating music, Almost Famous puts itself squarely through the eyes of devotion and fandom, portraying what it is to be affected by the work as opposed to creating the art itself. That isn’t to say that Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film doesn’t have singer/songwriters in it, because it does. However, it’s a film that really goes to town with the idea of what it is to become besotted by the aura that stems from these artists that create the soundtracks to our lives.
That the film is also semi-biographical gives it a potent spark. Yes, some aspects have aged in complex ways, and it features prominent use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that can easily come in for criticism nowadays, but one is also reminded of a time when a Cameron Crowe film was something of a mini-event.
The writer and director began his writing career at a young age delivering articles for Rolling Stone, and it’s that part of his life that factors into large swathes of Almost Famous. Prior to making his semi-biopic and its infectious love of rock music and writing, he had made waves by writing the screenplay for iconic 80s movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and subsequently making his directorial debut with Say Anything. He subsequently moved on to more mature works such as Jerry Maguire, and his go for broke, pop cultural-inflected Vanilla Sky, itself a remake of Abre Los Ojos. Both of those films saw Crowe develop a short-term but pivotal working relationship with Tom Cruise, back in the day when he was a genuinely talented movie star and not just famous for death-defying stunts and trying to play an action hero.
Unfortunately, things kind of went awry with Elizabethtown, a film that opens with a truly misjudged suicide joke and which is pretty much built around a dreadfully miscast Orlando Bloom being given life lessons by perhaps a character that is the ultimate version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in that case played by Kirsten Dunst. The film has its moments, and a characteristically great soundtrack and score courtesy of Crowe’s then-wife Nancy Wilson, but it marked a first major misstep for the writer and director, and he has subsequently struggled to reach the peak that came with Almost Famous.
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Aloha and We Bought a Zoo were all desperate attempts to recapture the bittersweet tone of previous films, but as a director he has struggled to match the high from those earlier efforts despite the clear attempts to do so. We Bought a Zoo has its moments, but Aloha came in for much criticism for casting Emma Stone as a character with Asian heritage. As a director, he was synonymous with the deployment of superbly curated soundtracks. Even his most iconic moment features a boombox held aloft by John Cusack and Peter Gabriel playing on the soundtrack, and to watch a Crowe film is to be treated to a superb curation of songs that will have you wanting to own the soundtrack immediately and which are used to tremendous emotional effect.
In many ways, Almost Famous represents the pinnacle of Crowe’s brand of sweet-natured, soundtrack driven cinema. Sure, the following year’s Vanilla Sky was greeted with a mixed reaction, but it’s a much better film than it’s remembered for, and features great performances and a gut-punch of an ending. Almost Famous takes inspiration from so much of Cameron’s early life as a writer for Rolling Stone, but it plays in a near fairytale wish fulfilment kind of way, albeit in a narrative that is taking its cue from real life.
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There is such an unabashed love of music and writing that courses through every fibre of its duration, that it’s hard to resist its undeniable charms. Crowe always has a knack for using the right song at the right time and if one could classify a movie as a masterpiece by its soundtrack alone, then Almost Famous would be it.
That it uses real-life songs in a film centred around a fictional band means that the film needs to deliver the goods when it comes to its own fictional rock group, and Stillwater (a great name for a 70s rock band if there ever was one) amazingly does. With the band made up of a cast that includes Billy Crudup and Jason Lee, all under long hair and well-kept facial hair, you could be forgiven for thinking that the band was based on a real one.
Like so many period films, there is a clear love of the time it’s depicting that is genuinely infectious, but it does that thing of almost being a sanitised white version of that past with little of the actual reality on display. But then again, this is a film based on the memories of a white man. In a way, it would perhaps make a great double bill with Tom Hanks’s That Thing You Do! in that they are both great films, but they both zone in on capturing the blind nostalgia of the time as opposed to portraying the full extent of the social realities.
There are some emotional reality checks, but even these appear to be used more in ways that are part and parcel of the journey of its male lead. Patrick Fugit is wonderful as Crowe-proxy William Miller, and the film also made Kate Hudson into a star. The performances of both are wonderful, and while Crowe’s screenplay really wants to shy away from having her character Penny Lane not be a typical groupie (she uses the term ‘band aid’ to describe girls who follow rock bands for their music more than the band themselves), so much of her character is built around how it emotionally affects William, and you cannot escape the notion that everything about Penny is there to be of importance to William’s journey, not to mention Stillwater lead singer Russell Hammond.
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The film is very much a sensitive white male-lead centred concoction. It’s easy to complain, but at his peak, Crowe delivered this type of film tremendously, and while it’s easy to point out its issues, it also has the ability to wear down your defences as you watch a writer and director at the peak of their powers. It also serves as a gentle reminder of just how brilliant a talent the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman was, showing up every now and then as William’s mentor, the real-life figure Lester Bangs, who steals every scene he is in.
For all its issues that have made it age in as complex a manner as it has, it is still a film that is hard to resist. That soundtrack, Crowe at the top of his game and its unabashed love of music is still infectious, and honestly, rewatching it was like revisiting an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time and remembering that for all their flaws you love them nevertheless. You may even find yourself singing along to ‘Tiny Dancer’ during that iconic bus ride.