Almost Famous is one of the best cinematic expressions of adolescence and a beautiful love letter to 1970s rock. It’s a crime some critics reduce it to merely being a “coming-of-age” story. The film is rare because it does not take on a condescending, judgmental tone when dealing with its young characters; the script and direction treats them, their aspirations, and feelings with respect. Any teenage faults and fantasies are not played for laughs, simply expressed. Famous is sweet without being cheesy, a feel-good, but not sappy, movie; just a crazy story of a 15-year-old’s rock ’n’ roll adventure.
Young William (Patrick Fugit) is first turned on to rock when his sister (Zooey Deschanel) leaves him her record stash as she moves out to get away from their well-meaning but overbearing mother. William is an outcast due to skipping a few grades, and the music speaks him. Four years later, in 1973, he is intent on becoming a rock critic. Through luck, determination, and meeting the right mentor (Lester Bangs, the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman), his writings for Creem and the San Diego Door land him a gig at Rolling Stone. He hops a bus with the up-and-coming band, Stillwater, and some young, nymph-like “Band-Aids” lead by the charming Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Against Lester’s advice, William becomes enthralled with Stillwater, especially their enigmatic guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup). With each day on the road William gets more distracted and learns a few things about the behind-the-scenes world of rock, the good and the bad.
The explicit decadence of the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll era are a little fuzzy and glossed over. This could easily serve as a criticism of the film, but we are only getting glimpses of the debaucherous lifestyle through the eyes of a sheltered 15-year-old. Consequences are only seen or heard from an outsider perspective; William is not directly involved. Often he is pulled away from a scene or has the door closed in his face when things get too risqué or potentially damaging. He is a journalist embedded in enemy territory; William serves as a witness and confidant when need be, and learns the hard way not to interfere in this tribe’s affairs. There have already been plenty of movies emphasizing the extreme lengths to which rockers of various generations will go to for a good time, and the darkness which comes as a result. While it touches on the issue of exploitation of young female fans, Famous primarily offers a view of the good stuff: youthful exuberance, comradery, and the way that music moves us and shapes our lives.
This is the film Cameron Crowe was destined to make; it is the culmination of his previous work. While each film contains parts of him, Almost Famous is the most autobiographical. Not everything is completely accurate or factual; rather it is more about conveying a feeling, like how listening to your favorite song from high school will bring up the emotion of a hazy memory. This is the reason why the teenagers in the film are given so much space to be themselves; Crowe is relying on reminiscence mixed in with just the right amount of fiction and nostalgia. John Hughes is usually regarded as one of the best cinematic storytellers of adolescent tales, but it is Crowe that fully gives them the respect they deserve.