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Movie Review

Sex, drugs and classic rock ’n’ roll. The 1970s music scene fairly reeked with big guitars, even bigger hair, giggling groupies and casual drug use. In Almost Famous the palette director Cameron Crowe paints from is an autobiographical one. He indeed was the Rolling Stone reporter that he documents here. The colors he uses are at once yellow and gray. The bright lights of music and art are contrasted by the darkness of self-indulgence and lust. His story centers on a 15-year-old rock journalist named William Miller. William begins writing for Creem and a few California newspapers, then gets the call from Rolling Stone. They like his work. He’s to write a story about fictional up-and-coming rock act Stillwater. On the road with the band (which is a composite of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers), it’s not long before he’s helpless to separate himself from the people he’s studying. The seduction of "the scene" is a nearly tangible thing. The power of the music. The strength of the personalities. The vividness of his own flailing emotions.

Parallel to his story is that of Penny Lane. A groupie and willing sex partner of guitarist Russell Hammond, Penny steals the hearts of just about everyone she meets—including William. A softly constructed exterior of innocence envelopes a stone-cold heart hardened by repeated sexual encounters, misused youth and misplaced love. William is no match for her; he’s lightyears behind when it comes to worldliness, but that doesn’t stop him from stepping up and being her only true friend when it really counts.

Not quite relegated to the background is William’s mother, Elaine. A single parent since the death of her husband, Elaine stretches out her arms to shield her two children from the encroaching culture, but to no avail. She pleads repeatedly with William to never take drugs. She loves him. She even trusts him. And he knows it. But it’s not enough. Her kindness and consistency guides her children home when their "adventures" are through, but the damage has been done. She accepts them anyway, forgives them and opens her tired arms once again.

positive elements: Let’s start with Elaine. She’s strong. Resolute. Dedicated. She may have made a mistake by letting William "run off with the circus" as it were, but her heart is in the right place. Hollywood would do well to examine Elaine to see how families must fight to hold together in the midst of popular culture’s insistent chaos. William learns tough life lessons on the road. He sees Russell’s weaknesses and lack of character (even Russell see that eventually). He sees Penny desperately grasping for love, using lust and sex to try and get it. He sees the pain it causes her. He sees the futility of fame. He sees discouragement. He sees anger. And he doesn’t like what he sees. At 15 years of age, William manages to be the biggest man on the bus (not that it stops him from making quite a few mistakes—see "Sexual Content" for some of them). Even Penny isn’t oblivious to the emptiness of the life that she’s chosen for herself.

spiritual content: None.

sexual content: William is 15 and still a virgin. That doesn’t last long. The girls who travel with the band are more than eager to "deflower" him. A trio of them do so in a single night. The scene isn’t graphic, but the implications are bruising. He wakes up surrounded by all three girls (ironically, Penny isn’t among them). Even worse, he has no regrets. No second thoughts. He does not push them away. Now he’s a "man" and can get on with his life, or so the filmmakers would have us believe. Penny and her girlfriends, of course, sleep with the bandmembers repeatedly. The activities are never actually shown, but it’s more than clear why they tag along on the tour. One drunken scene reveals brief glimpses of bare breasts as the girls cavort with the guys. A reference to homosexuality pops up out of left field during one conversation. There’s also a quip about oral sex.

violent content: Incidental. The tour bus smashes through a chain link fence. A girl runs into a brick wall. The lead singer gets a hair-raising electrical jolt from a faulty microphone.

crude or profane language: Typical for rock ’n’ rollers. Two dozen-or-so f-words and a handful of s-words are accompanied by other profanities. William and Penny both make obscene gestures.

drug and alcohol content: Drinking, smoking and drug abuse were part of the lifestyle and this film doesn’t shy away from the subject. Pot is the drug of choice. William is never shown partaking, perhaps because of his mother’s persistent pleas to avoid it. Russell gets high on acid and jumps off a roof into a swimming pool. Penny’s Quaalude overdose shows the repercussions of drugs, but none of the other scenes even hint at the idea that drugs are dangerous and wrong.

conclusion: Almost Famous simultaneously berates the rock culture for its carnal indulgences and seduces viewers with its glamour and excitement. It comes off as a stirring, concert-laced docudrama (like Oliver Stone’s The Doors in 1991), making you want to go home and check out the old Billboard charts, convinced that the movie's Stillwater must be a real band and that you somehow missed it back in 1973. All the details work, down to the petty backstage bickering over whose picture is the biggest on the band’s T-shirts. It’s a beautiful thing when Elaine lectures Russell, telling him that her son "isn’t ready for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells, which you throw away like confetti." But at the same time, Crowe’s lifelong love affair with rock screams between the lines. Crowe is not denouncing rock here, he’s actually exalting it in all of its imperfect glory. He’s looking for kids to stream out of the theater playing air guitar. Ultimately, he’s celebrating the decadence that makes rock what it is. When William’s sister leaves home she gives him her stash of LPs. She tells him they will set him free. Many teens are more than eager to believe that.

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Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond; Patrick Fugit as William Miller; Kate Hudson as Penny Lane; Frances McDormand as Elaine Miller; Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe; Anna Paquin as Polexia; Fairuza Balk as Sapphire; Noah Taylor as Dick Roswell; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs


Cameron Crowe ( )





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Steven Isaac

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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