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Crowe’s 2000 masterpiece showing at Legends

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Cameron Crowe is a director of modest pleasures. His filmography – full of low-key melodramas (“Jerry Maguire,” “Singles”) and coming-of-age stories (the 1988 teen classic “Say Anything”) – has established him as one of Hollywood’s most acute and upbeat storytellers.

“Almost Famous” (2000) may be his best, or at least more archetypal, film, an intensely personal low-key coming-of-age melodrama about a teenager drawn into the seedy world of 1970’s rock and roll.

The film follows 15 year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he follows the fictional rock band Stillwater as a Rolling Stone journalist in 1973. Despite the apprehension of his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), who at one point claims “rock stars have kidnapped my son,” William falls under the spell of guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Along the way, he witnesses the band collapse, relationships collapse and his own own life start to fall into shambles. That William emerges from the chaos still a good kid is a minor miracle unto itself, but Crowe’s well-honed insight lends the entire plot a surprising credibility. The bizarre love triangle that becomes one of the film’s key themes is based loosely on Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” demonstrating Crowe’s clear indebtedness to past filmmakers (Wilder and Capra chief among them). At once a road movie, a music movie and a sweetly sincere coming-of-age movie, Crowe balances these themes through a witty and memorable screenplay and slick, smart directing.

“Almost Famous” is the writer/director’s most autobiographical film, as he was a real-life 15 year-old journalist for Rolling Stone in the 1970’s. As such, it wears itself on its sleeve, with most of Crowe’s typical touches (great soundtrack and cast, simple, effective filmmaking technique) permeating throughout. And though Stillwater is a fictional band (albeit one that performs original songs penned by the rock band Heart), the rock landscape they traverse is littered with real-life musical references and allusions, including Led Zeppelin (after whom Stillwater was allegedly based), David Bowie and Humble Pie.

If nothing else, the soundtrack is unforgettable, featuring music by The Who, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and, in one indelible scene, Elton John.

As is to be expected from the director who coaxed star-making from great actors like John Cusack and Renee Zellweger, Cameron Crowe gets strong performances throughout “Almost Famous.” Patrick Fugit is appropriately starry-eyed as the naive young journalist William, Frances McDormand is commanding as ever as William’s overbearing but loving mother, Kate Hudson is bewitchingly charming as the enigmatic groupie Penny Lane, Billy Crudup is boldly charismatic as the rock star Russell and Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in one of the film’s most memorable performances as gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs.

In a world in which “teen-movie” means raunchy fare like “American Pie” and “Old School,” a sweetly sentimental picture like “Almost Famous” is a rarity. At once nostalgic and insightful, the film achieved all its goals and then some. Cameron Crowe has made some pretty bad movies over the years (“Vanilla Sky,” anyone?), “Almost Famous” solidifies his talents as a good filmmaker and an observant commentator on what it means to be 15.

“Almost Famous” will be shown on Thursday as part of Legends’ “Brew and View” series.