My favourite film
Why I Love… Almost Famous
Just as her world was tilting, along came a movie that made it all seem right – Stuff‘s Sophie Charara explains how Almost Famous made her feel almost adult…
I’m told it’s best to see a coming-of-age film as you’re coming-of-age so maybe that explains why I’ve loved Almost Famous since I saw it aged 15. Aged 15, I wasn’t cool – I was reading dystopian sci-fi and recording my own radio shows on a karaoke machine.
But neither it seems was Cameron Crowe, writer and director of this semi-autobiographical “love letter back to music”.
In some ways it’s a slight film, following one ‘Almost Famous: 1973′ tour of a fictional, mildly successful rock band Stillwater and a 15-year-old journalist along for the ride. The would-be writer is based on Crowe’s own wonderful, formative experiences on the road with Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and others as he managed to trick and woo Rolling Stone magazine into making him a contributor. As Crowe says, it’s about the time in someone’s life where the world tilts a little bit.
The great thing about William Miller (aka a young Crowe) is that he doesn’t lose his innocent love of music or ever become cool. Not even when he loses his virginity to three groupies. He has bags of heart and wide-eyed charm amid self-centred rock stars shouting “I am a golden god!” from rooftops and groupies – or self-styled ‘Band-Aids’ – galloping around half-naked at The Continental Hyatt House (or Riot House) on LA’s Sunset Strip.
“Rockstars have kidnapped my son”
Anyone who has ever geeked out will love this movie – whether you’ve stay up late reading, playing video games or listening to music with your headphones on. For the characters in Almost Famous, it’s all about the music. Think of pop music in films and you might think of Rocky montages, Shrek or Top Gun. Don’t.
Scorsese was one of the first to pluck a pop song and stick it front and centre to set the tone of a scene – from the Rolling Stones in Mean Streets onwards. David Lynch twists songs like ‘Blue Velvet’ to transcend the originals and Tarantino exploits iconic tunes for his own deviant purposes. Being a film about rock and roll, about being a fan, about trying to be ‘cool’, Crowe could cherry pick his soundtrack to Almost Famous – and it couldn’t have been made without it.
Crowe wrote the original screenplay with the pop music within it: the soothing opening 10 seconds of humming in ‘America’ by Simon & Garfunkel as William’s older sister leaves home to become an air hostess; a few loud, sexy chords of ‘Voodoo Child’ as Stillwater abandon the tour bus for a plane and start ‘selling out’; the band and their entourage belting out Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, between grins, on the bus after a rock ‘n’ roll domestic over a T-shirt. Pre-Instagram filters, Crowe infuses his own hazy, low-lit memories with such expertly crafted nostalgia that everytime you hear those songs, you think of this film.
The picture quality of The Bootleg Cut Blu-ray release has actually been criticised but it’s preferable to SD and really it’s all about the sound. Whether it’s Stillwater’s live concerts or chief Band-Aid Penny Lane’s conspiratorial hushed tones, Almost Famous is best watched with a cracking 5.1 system and the curtains drawn.
“I’m always home”
And yet Almost Famous is much more than a two hour music video. It’s a story about spontaneity (crashing through gates in a tour bus, trading groupies at poker, promising to run away to Morocco) at a time when everyone thinks their adventures won’t catch up with them.
Part of that freedom comes thanks to the retro tech of 1973. William’s mum relies on hotel concierges to relay ‘Don’t take drugs!’ messages. He carries a gargantuan dictaphone around in a rucksack and by the time he’s ready, the band members lose interest in interviews. Polaroids, typewriters, fax machines that take 18 minutes a page, there’s also the scene that starts it all: a Decca record of The Who’s ‘Tommy’ spinning with close-ups of the player’s needle and a handbag stuffed with records.
You’d expect superb, grounding performances from Frances McDormand as William’s mother and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a grizzly rock journo and mentor Lester Bangs. But a young Kate Hudson puts in an Oscar-nominated performance as Penny Lane too – she plays it self-assured but delicate and hasn’t got anywhere close since.
Still, it’s all about William who is pretending without becoming a pretender. As he says goodbye to the first girl he’s fallen in love with at the airport, he runs, jumps, bounds and waves as her plane takes off. Being crazy about something doesn’t look cool whether it’s girls or guitars.
In one of the final scenes, William tells rock mag editor Lester that he’s glad he was home when he calls late at night, stuck on his Rolling Stone cover story. Lester replies “I’m always home. I’m uncool.”
Sophie Charara is reviewer for Stuff magazine
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