Essential Movies: Almost Famous

Almost_famous_poster1.jpgGrowing up in the 1970s, music was an important part of my life. My friends and I went to concerts dozens of times each year. Sometimes these were big concerts in Madison Square Garden, one of the best arenas for rock music. Others were in smaller venues in New York City, such as The Palladium, Radio City Music Hall, or The Bottom Line, as well as local colleges, and some other venues on Long Island.

I saw bands large and small, ranging from Genesis to Yes to the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden; I saw Dire Straits on their first US tour at The Bottom Line, where I also saw Lou Reed and the Steve Reich Ensemble; and at Radio City Music Hall, which was just starting to hold rock concerts, I saw the Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull. The Palladium was where we went to see all the bands that were on the cusp of stardom, the ones that were almost famous. I saw groups such as The Grateful Dead (their spring 1977 tour, one of the last in smaller venues), Lynyrd Skynyrd, Be-Bop Deluxe, Joe Jackson, Jorma Kaukonen and dozens of others. And in summer, we’d hang out in Central Park, on a hill overlooking the Wollman skating rink, where there were several concerts a week. We were close enough to hear the music, though the stage was small. Music was, for me and my friends, one of the essential elements of our lives.

I can think of no other movie about music that resonates with me as much as Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film. (Get the “Bootleg Cut, the extended version, on Blu-Ray: Amazon.com, Amazon UK.) While this movie looks at music from behind the stage – it’s based on Crowe’s experiences touring with bands in the early 1970s – the atmosphere it creates matches up with what I new back in my teenage years.

The movie is, at heart, about music; about the love of music; about fans and how much they love music.

To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.

Almost Famous is also about how music brings us together. One of the pivotal scenes in the movie takes place when William Miller has managed to get Russell Hammond away from a local party, where he took acid, and back onto the bus. Everyone on the bus is angry, upset with Hammond for taking off, and the music on the bus is playing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. Slowly, one after another, each person on the bus picks up the beat of the music, until they all sing along with the words. They are united by that “silly little piece of music.”

During this, Miller – the 15-year old kid who talked his way into an assignment from Rolling Stone to write about the band – says: “I have to g home.” Penny Lane, the groupie – or Band-Aid – turns to him and says, “You are home.”

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Almost Famous is based on Cameron Crowe’s own experience, as I said above. In the commentary to the movie – the only commentary I’ve ever listened to – he highlights the many events that happened in nearly the same way in his youth. His mother, who is also on the commentary track, tells about how he was during this period. And even some of the props are items that Crowe saved from his days touring with bands.

There are some wonderful performances in this movie. Patrick Fugit gets the innocent teenager perfectly, and Kate Hudson is luminous as Penny Lane. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a powerful and humble performance as the rock critic Lester Bangs, and all four actors in the band, Stillwater, act as though they are a family of four.

On the surface, Almost Famous is a story of a boy growing up; it’s a love story; and it’s the story of “a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”

But above all, it’s a story about how music can move us.

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