My original thought for The Legionnaire was merely to post a review a week, taking on whatever I thought would be the most popular new release every weekend. Not long after doing so it became apparent that sometimes there is more than one film that captures the public’s attention at any one time. Hence, along came Cameron to give the blog a little more reach. And then COVID happened. With no theaters open to see Hollywood’s latest offerings, we turned to whatever films struck our fancy. Over the years, I feel like I have built up a modest but eclectic digital library of films. I worked through those pretty quickly, realizing more and more that daily content was the way to go. Then I started conjuring up whatever movies struck my fancy. When I got tired of thinking of my own selections, I turned to you all. That has been some good fun (and no small amount of pain), though I do also slip in my own choices whenever I feel the whim to do so. Hence, feeling in need for a little real sentiment after coming home from the sewer that is Copshop, my thoughts turned to an older favorite of mine Almost Famous (2000). Still, since I have been keeping calm and carrying on as the English do with daily content, it gives me little chance to re-watch movies. As such, I was pleasantly surprised that somehow it had slipped my net last summer and thus could be reviewed.
The first thing that becomes apparent in Almost Famous is that single mother Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) is a different kind of parent. She has a special bond with her young son, William (Michael Angarano), discussing the finer points of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) as they leave the theater. She has also lied about his age, telling him that he is a year older than he actually is in order to advance him through school quicker. Her daughter, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), on the other hand, is rebellious. Citing a stifling home life, she runs off to become a stewardess, playing “America” by Simon and Garfunkel in order to explain her reasons for leaving. Despite Elaine’s intense dislike for such music, Anita leaves her record collection for William and thus creates a major rock and roll fan in her younger brother. By the time he reaches high school, an older William (Patrick Fugit) is applying his skills as a writer to produce stories on different bands in the San Diego area where he lives. He gets his first real break as a journalist one day when he meets the legendary writer and editor of Creem magazine Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bangs is older, and seemingly embittered by the music industry, but sees in William a younger version of himself. William thus receives an assignment to write a piece about the upcoming Black Sabbath concert. Unable to get into the venue initially, William encounters Black Sabbath’s opening act, an up and coming band called Stillwater, on their way into the stadium. With some words of praise, he is able to earn some initial trust and gain entrance with them. It is also during this sequence that he meets the famous Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). She runs a group of women known as the “Band Aids.” Eschewing the label of “groupies,” people that have sex with the famous, she claims they are there solely for the music and any relationship that develops as a result is secondary. It is while backstage getting to know each other that Penny and Stillwater lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) meet through William. On the way out, Russell invites William to meet them in Los Angeles, telling him to bring Penny with him. William then finally goes home and publishes his story. This gains the attention of the bigger publication Rolling Stone magazine, and one of their editors Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) calls William looking for article ideas. When William suggests Stillwater, the budding journalist now has his next assignment. The only problem is that, though he is a senior in high school, he is only fifteen and the magazine wants him to join the band on the road. Elaine is hesitant to let her son go. It is only when he gives his promise to miss as little school as possible that he receives permission. What was supposed to be a few days ends up being a cross country trip that ends in New York City. There are two things that keep William traveling with the band despite his promises to his mother. First, his main source, Russell, proves tricky to pin down for an interview, and instead keeps stringing the young man along with promises of friendship. The other is Penny. Even though she appears to be infatuated with Russell, William falls in love with her. Before the band gets to New York, though, their manager, Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor), informs them all that the Band Aids must leave. One of the reasons for this is they all have wives and girlfriends, and Russell’s wife lives in the city. Not wanting to be put off, Penny travels to the Big Apple anyway only to be humiliated when Russell will not see her. William witnesses this, and sees her storm off. By the time he catches up with her in her hotel room, she has downed a dangerous number of quaaludes (a now banned over-the-counter sedative) and only his intervention saves her life. In gratitude, she reveals her real name to him, Lady Goodman, and they vow to keep in touch. William then meets with Rolling Stone to submit his story, and is crushed when Stillwater denies the facts. Defeated, on the way home he encounters Anita, and is able to convince her to come home with him. Russell then calls Penny to apologize, wanting to meet her face-to-face. Instead, she gives him William’s address, and the two make amends, with Russell telling the magazine to go ahead with the story anyway. Everyone ends on friendly terms.
I like Almost Famous a lot, even if it is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I appreciate William’s character. He is innocent, even if he does lose some of that along the way. Still, when William tries to convince Penny not to go to New York, in defending her decision she tells him that he is “Too sweet for rock and roll.” He vehemently denies this accusation, saying that he is dark and mysterious, and pissed off, and that he could be dangerous to all of them. A little research about the film will tell you that it is a semi-autobiographical piece about the early life of Cameron Crowe, the film’s director. Like William, Crowe was a teenaged journalist for Rolling Stone. The events depicted are a composite of much of what he experienced while covering bands like Led Zeppelin and The Eagles. Knowing this makes me wonder just how much real life and cinema match in this case. Hopefully not too closely, although I am willing to bet this is the tame version of some of the things Crowe experienced. While William does lose his virginity, which is problematic for this Catholic reviewer, he does not engage in any of the party behavior you see the others do. Perhaps this is a case where Hollywood is less dramatized?
Speaking of drama, the most dramatic moment in Almost Famous comes after William leaves with the band from New York, traveling back to the West Coast by air. They have abandoned their old reliable bus, Delores, at the prompting of record label executive Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). During their trip, their plane flies into an electrical storm. They are tossed about by angry air currents, and at one point the cockpit door flies open reveal a pair of worried pilots. As they all believe they are about to die, they take this moment to confess their grievances with one another. It is not pretty. They had been cheating on each other, Dennis admits to killing a man with his car and driving away, and their drummer, Ed Vallencourt (John Fedevich), comes out as gay. Watching them spill their darkest secrets reminded me of how priests visit dying patients in hospitals. One of their tasks is to get a last confession, the belief being that it will unburden the nearly departed of their sins. The Church teaches that a good, heartfelt recitation of sins sacramentally can do wonders for the soul as it heads into the afterlife. As long as it is truly meant, even the most hardened criminal can experience God’s grace at the final moment. Had there been a priest with Stillwater on the plane, he would have had a field day with their words.
So, why does Almost Famous tickle my sentimental bone? It is simply because of the relationship between William and Penny. Her interactions with Russel are motivated by lust and the desire to be with somebody, well, famous. With William, the feelings are more genuine. It is because of that, and that it is such a sweet movie overall, that I recommend it. There is a bit of objectionable material to get through, and a brief moment of nudity, but it does not overwhelm the film. It is solidly done all the way through.