Friday, June 24, 2011

Film Analysis: Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous






Now and then I like to take one of my favorite films and write an extensive blog entry where I dissect the movie. One of my favorite writer/director filmmakers has to be Cameron Crowe. His works include Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Elizabethtown and Vanilla Sky. Also, he wrote the book that became the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. His films are not blockbusters that make hundreds of millions of dollars. They are not filled with explosions or special effects. They are works of art which have the story as the focus of the film. Crowe is a music lover, and rock music often plays a significant role in his films. Almost Famous and Singles are the two of his films which have music featured prominently. The top photo above shows writer/director Cameron Crowe with his Academy Award. Picture #2 shows Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Creem magazine writer Lester Bangs. Picture #3 shows rock journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) and "band aid" Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) backstage watching the band Stillwater perform. Picture #4 has the band Stillwater and various cast members in front of the tour bus. The bottom picture is the official poster for Almost Famous.

Almost Famous was released in 2000, and was hailed by critics as outstanding. Roger Ebert called it the best film of the year. 88% of the critics liked it according to rottentomatoes.com. Entertainment Weekly magazine gave it a grade of A+. The film won two Golden Globe awards, one for best picture and one for best supporting actress, Kate Hudson. It received four Oscar nominations and Cameron Crowe won for best screenplay. In 2001, the Almost Famous soundtrack won a Grammy. The movie was filled with outstanding music, mostly from the 1970s. The soundtrack had songs by Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Black Sabbath, The Allman Brothers, Elton John and many more. The average music budget for a film is $1.5 million. The music budget for Almost Famous was $3.5 million.

Key characters in Almost Famous;

Patrick Fugit--- William Miller (main character, rock journalist)
Frances McDormand--- Elaine (William's mom)
Zooey Deschanel--- Anita (William's sister)
Philip Seymour Hoffman--- Lester Bangs (writer for Creem magazine)
Kate Hudson--- Penny Lane (one of the "band aids")
Billy Crudup--- Russell Hammond (guitarist for Stillwater)
Jason Lee--- Jeff Bebe (lead singer for Stillwater)

Budget: $60 million
Box office gross: $47.3 million

This film is semi-autobiographical since the lead character tours with rock bands in the 1970s, and Cameron Crowe did the same thing. Crowe was a writer for Rolling Stone as a teenager and he wrote articles about bands with which he toured such as Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers. The best critic's quote I have read regarding Crowe's films was from Entertainment Weekly magazine; "Every Cameron Crowe film is in one way or another, about romance, rock and roll, and his romance with rock and roll." On the bonus footage of the DVD, Crowe said "The goal was to write a love letter back to music." He also said "Music is usually more profound than anything the actors will say." Crowe felt that Almost Famous was a work that was important to him and he said "I'm getting stuff said on film that matters to me." The movie had been brewing in Crowe's mind for many years before it got made. He wrote the songs performed by the band Stillwater with his wife Nancy Wilson of the group Heart.

Almost Famous starts with shots of San Diego at Christmas time, 1969, after the hand written credits. William Miller's mom is overprotective of her son and daughter. She tells her son to stay away from rock and roll since she thinks that many rock and roll performers are "on pot." William's sister leaves home to start a new life as a stewardess. She tells her little brother "Look under your bed--it'll set you free." She had left vinyl albums by performers such as The Beach Boys, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and more. There is a note with the albums that says "Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future."

Skip to 1973, and William reads the rock and roll magazine Creem. He idolizes the rock writer, Lester Bangs. He meets Bangs outside a radio station and gets the advice to not make friends with the rock stars. Rock writers hang out with rock stars to make them feel cool. Miller gets hired to cover Black Sabbath at a San Diego concert. He cannot get in to interview them, but he meets Penny Lane, who is a groupie, or as she calls it, a "band aid". William gets a chance to interview the opening band Stillwater and he watches them perform from backstage. Penny tells William "If you ever get lonely, go to the record store and visit all your friends."

William and Penny go to Los Angeles to meet up with Stillwater at the Hyatt House hotel, called the Riot House. Rolling Stone calls William and they want him to tour with Stilwater and write about them. They do not realize how young he is, he is only 15. The Stillwater tour bus says "Almost Famous Tour '73."

Next stop on the tour is Tempe Arizona. Stillwater says to William "Just make us look cool." Russell gets electrocuted when he grabs a mic on stage and the band flees the venue, not finishing the show and angering the manager of the facility.

In Topeka Kansas, Stillwater gets their band t-shirts and a fight ensues when the shirts feature Russell the guitar player not the lead singer. Russell and William go to a party and Russell gets high on acid and jumps off a roof into a pool. He screams "I am a golden god" which was supposedly said by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. As the leave Topeka they sing Elton John's Tiny Dancer. When I see this scene I get chills down my spine. William says "I need to go home." Penny says "You are home." The band and their followers have a sense of camaraderie. Penny struggles with real life and sees the life on the road as a way to escape from her issues.

In Cleveland, the band meets a new manager played by Jimmy Fallon. He will have them tour by plane, not bus.

In Boston, the band loses the right to have the "band aids" travel with them in a card game. The girls will be given to the band Humble Pie for $50 and a case of beer.

In New York, William finds out he has the cover story. Penny Lane is in New York and she is sad since she loves Russell but he does not love her back. She overdoses on Quaaludes and almost dies. The band has a rough plane ride on the way to Tupelo, Mississippi, perhaps an homage to the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash? When the band thinks the plane will crash, they confess their secrets.

Back in San Francisco at the Rolling Stone headquarters, the magazine wonders how they can put together a story from Williams' notes. They find out how young he is. Rolling Stone loves the article but Stillwater says the facts are fabricated. Later they say to go ahead and publish it. Stillwater embarks on the "No more airplanes tour '74." Rolling Stone prints the cover story and Penny follows her dream of going to Morocco.

I love the movie since music and movies are the two things in my life that have brought me the most enjoyment. Cameron Crowe's films speak to me on a personal level. I thought the key people in the movie that were outstanding included Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson (her best film in my opinion, it all went downhill for her after this), and Billy Crudup. The fictional band was great, thanks to Peter Frampton, who was a technical advisor who helped the actors to look authentic on stage.

*Some material for this article from imdb.com, en.wikipedia.org, and the Almost Famous DVD bonus footage.
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