Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Classics: A Review of Almost Famous By Lauren Ennis

"I've met you, and you are not cool"
On Sunday, February 2, 2014 Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York City Apartment. Hoffman’s death has been determined to have been the result of a heroin overdose, though it remains unknown if the overdose was accidental or intentional. He is survived by his partner of fifteen years, Mimi O’Donnell and their three children. Throughout a career that spanned over twenty years, Hoffman played a variety of intense and complex roles, specializing in morally ambiguous and emotionally tormented characters. Although he only won a single Oscar in his career, many considered Hoffman one of the greatest, if not the greatest, actor of his generation. In tribute to the late and great Philip Seymour Hoffman I’ll be reviewing the film that first introduced me to his work, the coming of age classic Almost Famous; a fitting tribute that features Hoffman’s character passing on the torch of experience and knowledge to the next generation much in the same way that Hoffman’s legacy will now be passed down to a new generation of actors.

Adolescence is a time in which we struggle to discover who we are and who we want to be. It is a time in which we still possess the idealism to entertain delusions of grandeur as we continue to hope for a future of excitement, fortune, and fame. Director Cameron Crowe portrays a unique take on the adolescent quest for meaning and identity in his 2001 drama Almost Famous. In the film, Crowe uses his real life experiences as a teenage rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970’s as the basis for a tale of a sheltered teen coming of age amidst the drugs, sex, and egos of the early seventies rock scene. The film explores the power of music as a motivator, inspiration, and companion throughout the various complications and successes of life at this crucial age. This film is a must see for the young and young at heart who are all too familiar with the opposing desire to stand out and need to belong that characterize the adolescent experience.

The story begins as eleven year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is introduced to the power of rock and roll by his older sister, Anita, (Zooey Deschanel) as she prepares to move out of their family home to pursue a career as a stewardess. The story then flashes ahead to William’s senior year of high school as he devotes himself not to friends and girls, but instead to the single minded pursuit of all things rock. He receives his big break after sending his articles from a local underground newspaper to rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and is given his first paid assignment covering a Black Sabbath concert. As an underage journalist with no notable credits to his name, William is quickly dismissed by backstage security but manages to find an even more tantalizing story when he encounters the opening band, Stillwater. With the help of the band’s groupies (scratch that, Band Aides), led by the enigmatic Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), he gains access to the band and is invited to accompany them on tour. Although he realizes that the band is using him as a means to obtain easy praise and free publicity, he quickly finds himself caught up in the glamour, excess, and camaraderie that makes up Stillwater’s world. While on tour, he is forced to confront the gritty reality of the music industry as he interacts with the assortment of stars, businesspeople, and hanger-ons who compose it. Through his varied experiences with the band, William learns about life, love, and ultimately himself.

The greatest draw of the film is its refusal to glamorize the rock and roll lifestyle. While William is faced with the temptations of fame, sex, and drugs during his journey he also learns the devastating price that they come with. He realizes that fame does not always bring the happiness that it promises as he observes from a professional distance while the pressures of new found fame take their toll on the band’s relationships and judgment. One standout scene features the band’s conflict over guitarist Russell’s (Billy Crudup) rise to the center of the band finally coming to a boil with the arrival of the band’s new T-shirt. Rather than acknowledge that the shirt is an insult to the other band members, who are presented in a fade behind his front and center image, Russell instead insists upon placing his image first, and agrees with the band’s money hungry agent that the shirt should remain as is. The tensions between the band members continue to rise until a climactic near plane crash in which each member airs their grievances, certain that death is imminent. The scene reveals the underlying issues between each band member and the ways in which their search for fame has compromised their relationships, values, and goals. After safely landing, the band is forced to confront their conflicts and decide how best to continue following their dreams without crushing each other’s spirits in the process.

One big dysfunctional family
The film similarly reveals the self-destructive effects of sex and drugs upon the tour members. Throughout the film, William nurses an infatuation with lead groupie Penny Lane, whose supposed maturity and free spiritedness he admires. While he views her as a symbol of liberation, she is actually a slave to her own loneliness and insecurity, which she tries to alleviate by sleeping with various rising and established rock stars. William soon learns to see beyond her invincible facade, however, as he observes her pathetically continue to pursue Russell’s affections even after he trades her services to another band in exchange for fifty dollars and a case of beer. Similarly, William attempts to fill the void left by his unrequited love for Penny by participating in an orgy with the band’s groupies, which only leaves him feeling more confused and displaced. He finally learns the full consequences of the band’s ‘free love’ philosophy when Penny attempts suicide after Russell rejects her and returns to his steady girlfriend. William also witnesses the dangers of drug use when he spends a night monitoring Russell after the latter takes drugs with a group of fans and nearly kills himself jumping off of a rooftop. Through these eye-openening experiences, William is ultimately forced to confront the dark side of rock as he comes to realize that the self-destructive behavior of his music idols is far from glamorous.

The film does not contain a weak performance as the lead and supporting cast members all present top form performances. Patrick Fugit provides the film with its essential core as the inexperienced William, capturing his character’s appealing combination of maturity and innocence. Kate Hudson expertly walks the fine line between seductive woman and vulnerable girl as the enigmatic Penny and Billy Crudup and Jason Leigh lend accuracy and depth to their respective performances as Stillwater’s guitarist and lead singer. Frances MacDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman nearly steal in the film in their hilarious turns as William’s loving but domineering mother and cynical mentor.

Almost Famous is a true coming of age classic with a rock and roll soul. The film presents an honest and heartfelt account of life amongst the diverse misfists that make up music at its finest. Through its portrayal of William’s cross-country journey, the film relates a coming of age tale that is able to relate a powerful message about friendship and art without reducing itself to sentiment or stereotypes. Through its combination of superb storytelling and excellent acting the film is wholly deserving of the title ‘famous’.

Famous people are just more interesting.


  1. Awesome Review. What a wonderful tribute to the late P.S.H. He truly was one of the greats. Also, I did not realize that was Patrick Fugit in this film (wow, he was so young) He's another actor I hope to see in more films, he's so talented.

  2. Thanks so much! I love how there's so many good actors in this movie who were just starting out, this was the first time I'd seen a Zooey Deschanel movie too. P.S.H.'s Lester Bangs is the mentor I think every high schooler needs