Although adolescence is hell, there’s no denying it contains some of the best times in life. To be 16 and sneaking under-age into a nightclub is to know an excitement that can scarce be expressed once you’re over 21. There is something about not knowing much about the world, thinking every “best time” is the best it’s going to get… That’s what Almost Famous is about.
A lot of people lined up to criticise this movie when it first came out. The consensus among the nay-sayers was that Almost Famous was too happy to be true. In a world where Best Picture is synonymous with “downward spiral”, the upward swing of Cameron Crowe’s follow-up to Jerry Maguire seemed to connote shallowness. No-one expects much of a coming-of-age story. A movie based on Crowe’s own experience as a teenage reporter on the road with a rock band in the 70s had to be – following the nay-sayers logic – a callow, navel-gazing exercise, devoid of merit save to massage the director’s ego. Throw in a first romance and some gentle comedy into the mix and the movie had every right to be as bad as My Girl.
But complaints about Almost Famous are based on the fallacy that artists can only look back in anger or regret for their inspiration. If the movie proves anything it proves that fond reminiscence isn’t necessarily misguided or skin-deep. Cameron Crowe chooses a rose-tinted perspective because he wants to make a movie that deals with the thrill of youth. There are ample movies dealing with the reverse.
In the lead role, playing Cameron Crowe (more or less), Patrick Fugit is uncool in just the right way – no props, no glasses, just the look in his eyes (pick me!) and no way with the girls. He’s a mother’s boy, but not a hopeless case. We see that in the way he treats girls: all at sea, yet not resentful. When he meets Kate Hudson at his first concert as a reporter, you know from the outset that theirs isn’t a love story, but you also know confidently that she cares for him. Even though Kate is playing a groupie and a girl who’s born to smash nerdy hearts into atoms, there’s a platonic chemistry between her and Patrick because each is an outsider in the rock camp. In Kate’s case, it’s because she has no home outside the party. For Patrick, it’s because home isn’t something he wants to escape. These two characters offer a way into Almost Famous that a movie about a band would have sacrificed. The mistake that Cameron Crowe doesn’t make is thinking fame is worth documenting – he sticks with the fans.
Frances McDormand could make any role into something smart and (emphatically yes) sexy. Here, playing Patrick Fugit’s mother, she takes a stern and potentially unsympathetic character and works her magic, makes the audience see the woman ahead of the mom. To watch her act maternal is to understand how many actresses pre-suppose maternal love means being nice. McDormand leaves you in no doubt that she would take a bullet for either of her children, but her take isn’t drenched in syrup – it’s practical, the love that sustains day-to-day life. It’s not just there for the close-up. Likewise, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays nerdy rock-aficionado Lester Bangs as Patrick Fugit’s friend and mentor, but he doesn’t milk the part for Hallmark-moments, he plays the man’s passion for music. Nerdy friendships are always going to be built on a shared interest (as opposed to natural gregariousness) because if nerds were good at making friends, they wouldn’t put so much time into their hobbies.
Almost Famous is a movie that was once set to star Brad Pitt. If you understand how wrong that casting would have been, you understand what Almost Famous gets right. This isn’t a movie about fame or how great it is to be a rock star. It’s about being a teenager and “truly lov[ing] some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” Cameron Crowe sees adolescence in a rosy light, but that needn’t mean he’s mistaken. The best times of a man’s life are his alone to judge. Besides – happiness is always worth celebrating.