Almost Famous rides on the crest of this nostalgia factor while also reaching noteworthy cinematic heights on its own merit.
Based on the life of its director, Cameron Crowe, the film is set during the early 1970s and tells the story of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old boy who is assigned by Rolling Stone magazine to profile a rock band named Stillwater. Through the long-distance guidance of his conservative mother (Frances McDormand) and rock journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), William sets off with Stillwater on a cross-country tour. As a teenager in an adult landscape, William refrains from many of the dark temptations of a rock and roll lifestyle and instead forms friendships with a “Band-Aid” named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and Stillwater front man, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).
With acting all-stars McDormand and Hoffman fulfilling side roles, my greatest reluctance going into the film was with Fugit, Crudup, and Hudson. Never before have I seen these actors carry a film of this caliber and so I was pleasantly surprised with their enriching performances.
It truly is a testament to Crowe’s directing abilities that this film is so well rounded in all aspects. With the material close to his heart, Crowe doesn’t hold back. From a blatant but impressive soundtrack to simplistically elegant cinematography, I can’t think of another movie that looks so bland on paper but charming on screen.
Just as the classic rock format has nostalgic appeal, so does the coming-of-age genre. And on the surface, that is exactly what Almost Famous is: a coming-of-age story set during the period in which classic rock was known simply as rock. However, there is much more to this film than an appealing tonal blend. The film’s particular sense of detail in setting and character are so intelligently aware of the 1970s that it feels like a documentation of the decade as opposed to a post-millennium period piece.
Crowe placed himself in a very exposing position making this film. But the result is a risk well taken. The power of Almost Famous is how the pleasures of youth are illuminated through the eyes of adulthood. Here we are fortunate to have Crowe as our tour guide.
Editor's Note: This review is based on the film’s theatrical cut. An extended director’s cut dubbed “The Bootleg Cut” also exists on home video, running about 40 minutes longer. I plan on viewing that version in the near future and updating this review with my thoughts regarding the additional footage.