Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.
As I come closer and closer to the end of this Oscar project (slowly, if you’ve been paying attention—more on that in a few days), I’m finding the movies that have waited to this point harder and harder to get to. There’s something that feels like it’s preventing me from watching them. In the case of a film like Almost Famous, I don’t have a real explanation for why that is. This is a well-beloved movie, one that almost everyone I know who has seen it has an extremely positive opinion about. And so it’s been a long time since I’ve been this conflicted about a movie.
Here’s the thing—I’m supposed to like Almost Famous, and I have a feeling that if I had seen this when it was originally released, I probably would have liked it a lot more than ultimately do. Two decades ago, I cared a great deal more about music than I do now. And yet, even then, there was always something about music that I found at least a little depressing, at least in terms of live music. There’s something that always feels a little like a funeral to me when it comes to live music. I have no explanation for that, but it colors how I feel about a film that is in large part about a band on tour.
Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) is a college professor who has unique ideas about raising her children. This includes no meat and no rock music, something her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel) objects to. When she turns 18, Anita runs off to become a stewardess (yeah, I know—it’s the ‘70s, though, and that was what they were called) and she leaves her secret collection of albums to her brother William (Patrick Fugit). William becomes enamored of music and starts writing about it, eventually meeting up with Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), editor of Creem.
Over his mother’s objections, William starts writing about music and, attempting to get a story about Black Sabbath, he encounters the band Stillwater, who initially treat him as the enemy, something they call all journalists. When William shows a deep knowledge of their music, they more or less take him on as a project, and suddenly William has pitched an assignment to Rolling Stone about the band. It’s important to note that William is still in high school at this point, and while he’s claiming to be much older than he is, he’s just 15.
There are just a few recurrent points in the film. One is William dealing with Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a sort of groupie who happens to be infatuated with Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the band’s guitarist. That’s the second point—the relationship between Russell and Penny. The third is the constant dealing William has to do with his mother, who is terribly upset that her son is out on tour with a band at his young age, but still somehow allows it. Fourth is the fact that William is desperate to interview Russell, but is always put off. Fifth and finally is the tensions within the band. Russell is the true talent, but the band’s frontman, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is finding that reality frustrating.
Almost Famous has a surprising cast. In addition to those already mentioned, Penny’s groupie gang is played by Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, and Bijou Phillips. Jay Baruchel shows up as a Led Zeppelin superfan, Jimmy Fallon appears as a band manager, Rainn Wilson as someone working for Rolling Stone and Marc Maron appears as a promoter. It’s a remarkable cast, and everyone is good or better than good in the roles.
So why don’t I love this film? I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but it is the case. I didn’t hate the film, but I didn’t love it nearly as much as I wanted to. A great deal of this is simply that I didn’t love the characters that much, and I’m supposed to.
The music is good. The songs were written by Nancy Wilson, who was married to writer/director Cameron Crowe at the time. The songs she didn’t write were written by Peter Frampton, and the guitar parts were handled by the lead guitarist from Pearl Jam. This is a movie that has some musical credibility, so credit where it is due.
The truth is, though, that I’m supposed to like these people and I find most of them annoying. William is desperate to be liked by everyone involved rather than writing his article. Penny is very much a manic pixie dream girl and she knows it and cultivates that role in her connection to both the band and William. And the band members==especially our frontman and guitarist—are pretentious.
I should probably give this another shot, but right now, I feel like it’s a film that desperately wants to be liked and I just can’t get there. I know that’s against how most people feel—that’s what the comments are for.
Why to watch Almost Famous: The music, mostly.
Why not to watch: I find these characters so hard to like.