Almost Famous: Essay On Entertainment Criticism

  • Category: Theater
  • Words: 2249
  • Grade: 100
04 October 2000
Almost Famous: Essay on Entertainment Criticism
A rolling stone gathers no moss. If Cameron Crowe is to be believed, a 15-year-old Rolling Stone writer will gather all kinds of things. Not the least of which are life experience, sexual exploits, and rock and roll insights. Almost Famous is Crowe's semi-autobiographical account of a young man taking the fast lane to adulthood on the tour bus with a rising rock and roll band. The critics are almost unanimous in their praise of this peek at the backstage machinations of the 1970's rock music scene. The critics feel that Cameron Crowe's script and direction, combined with breakout performances from Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit in major roles, and enhanced by the scintillating talents of Frances McDormand and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in supporting roles, tells a natty tale of life by misadventure.
Almost Famous tells the story of William Miller (newcomer Patrick Fugit), an underage prodigy-writer attempting to document the thrills and spills of life on the road with a burgeoning rock and roll band called Stillwater. The first verse of this protracted rock and roll number is where we first meet William Miller (played initially by Michael Angarano). He is a precocious eleven-year-old boy living in San Diego, California. For reasons unexplained, his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand) has convinced him that he's 13. She has skipped him forward two grades in school, so this fiction continues until his rebellious older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), in a great scene, forces Elaine to tell the truth.
The second verse jumps forward four years to 1973; William is now free-lancing articles and reviews for local and school newspapers. Soon William meets the legendary Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the editor-critic of the San Diego based Creem magazine. Lester becomes a mentor for William and soon hires him to cover a Black Sabbath concert at a local venue. William's first hurdle comes when he is denied back-stage access and is forced to wait outside with the groupies. He meets the Band-aids, a group of girls including Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) and Polexia (Anna Paquin) who are led by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Penny says the girls are not groupies because they don't have sex with the musicians. They think of themselves as muses acting as the inspiration for rock-and-roll music. Penny introduces William to Stillwater. The members of the band promptly dub him "the enemy" and disregard him. William will not be denied and impresses the band, particularly lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), with his knowledge of their music. The band members get William inside for the show and then inexplicably invite him to join them in Los Angeles. His access to Stillwater lands William an assignment with the preeminent music magazine of the time, Rolling Stone. He is given the assignment of touring with the band to document the dirty little secrets of rock music.
The third verse is the saga of the tour. This is the longest movement of the piece and is comprised of numerous vignettes connected by regularly spaced scenes from the bus, and later, by a delightful scene on an airplane. Conflicts abound for William during this segment as he develops a friendship with Russell and an infatuation with Penny. Then he loses his cherry to the Band-aids, sans their leader. William must decide if his loyalty is to his craft or to his new friends. Then he must decide who deserves his friendship when Russell's hidden nature is displayed, Penny overdoses, and the tour ends.
The fourth verse is short and bittersweet. Russell tells William to write whatever he wants. William decides that what he wants to write is the truth and then is crushed when Russell decries the entire article as fiction. This costs William his credibility with his editor and he returns home exhausted and disenchanted.
Elaine and Lester provide the chorus that holds it all together as they try to guide William, by phone, through this developmental stage of his life. Lester is the sage with advice like: "These people are not your friends," and "Be honest and unmerciful." Elaine is his conscience, exclaiming, "Don't take drugs," and "I know what's going on there." In the end it is mostly a happy song. Penny sets Russell up, tricking him into visiting William at home, and everyone realizes that friends are among the most important things in life.
The overwhelming majority of critics viewed Cameron Crowe's script writing and direction in a positive light. Most critics thought that the characters were well developed and that Crowe's direction brought out the best of his cast. For example, James Berardinelli said the script "sparkles with wit and intelligence" (2). Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times echoed the sentiment and said the film was "funny and touching in so many different ways" (1). In a similar vein, Andrew Johnston of Us said the movie was "as exuberant and intoxicated with possibility as the music of the period the film celebrates" (48). A. O. Scott of The New York Times lauded Crowe as "an unmatched comic portraitist" (2). Crowe's directorial style was similarly complimented. Scott Renshaw said, "Crowe's uncanny ability to direct actors" created a "moment to moment pleasure" so powerful it masked any distractions (1). Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times said of Crow: "[A]s a director he's got the wisdom of an old soul" (2). Jay Carr of The Boston Globe called the effort, "Hollywood filmmaking at it's best" (2). Renshaw also said of Crowe, "I'm tempted to call him America's most effortlessly gifted film-maker" (1).
Although most critics were delighted by Crowe's script and direction, there were some voices of dissent. Edward Guthmann of The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, called the movie "a sweet but curiously unfulfilling story" (1). Terry Lawson of The Detroit Free Press seconded Guthmann in disapproval and opined of the movie that it "never quite arrives" (2). Ben Varkentine said of Crowe's scripts in general, "I don't believe [they] would stand on their own," and added of this script that it, "does little to help Fugit or the other actors" (2). John Anderson summed up the naysayers with this gem: "[T]he entire movie is as consequential as the Raspberries' greatest hits" (1).
In addition to Mr. Crowe's efforts in the production end of the film, the critics found the breakout performances by Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson to be particularly endearing. The critics described the performances of these two relative Hollywood newcomers as fresh and accurate to the intent of the script. In one example of this, Jack Garner said of Hudson: "Hudson ["¦] should be propelled to even bigger things as a result of this film" (3). Similarly, Berardinelli said she " gives what is by far the most charismatic performance of her short career" (2). Ebert gushed that Hudson "has one scene so well-acted, it takes her character to another level" (2). Hudson's alabaster skin and golden locks caused three critics, Renshaw, Berardinelli, and Johnston, to refer to her as "luminous" (1) (2) (48). Cast mate Fugit fared equally well as demonstrated by Garners comment: "He perfectly portrays the Crowe surrogate ["¦] who can't quite contain his enthusiasm and wonder" (3). Turan said he "is a kid we warm to at once, someone whose emotions are always accessible" (1). Renshaw clearly agreed with the sentiment when he said: "Fugit is likeable and innocent" (1).
Again like Crowe, though most critics enjoyed Hudson and Fugit in the movie, there was some dissatisfaction with their performances. Specifically, Varkentine said Hudson's performance is "pretty but vacant" (2). In a particularly vitriolic review, Victoria Alexander said: "Hudson instantly became a star due to DNA and the hard years her mother put into her Hollywood career"(1). Alexander went on to say that for Hudson: ""Look pretty" is an emotion" (2). Fugit did not escape unscathed; Guthmann said, "he isn't skilled enough to show us William's inner world" (2). Varkentine added his opinion that Fugit "does not evidence the intelligence his character should most certainly have" (1).
The critics were upbeat about Crowe and seemed to truly enjoy Hudson and Fugit, but they absolutely raved about the performances of Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman in supporting roles. In a relative understatement, Johnston called McDormand "terrific" (48). Turan pitched in with the slightly more verbose comment that she was "completely wonderful" (1). Scott was also impressed with McDormand and said she played her role "with glowing intelligence and scary intensity" (2). Berardinelli was the most vocal in support of her when he said: "Frances McDormand should be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress nod for her participation" (2). Hoffman fared, if it's possible, better than McDormand. In a typical comment, Scott said Hoffman played his role "with guile and gusto" (2). Jay Carr said he was "froggy-voiced perfection" (2). Berardinelli agreed with the assertion that Hoffman had "a wonderful turn as Lester Bangs" (2). This time it was Renshaw who provided the ultimate comment when he said: "Hoffman is yet again is [sic] so good you just want to throttle Hollywood for not allowing him to be a star" (1).
Unlike Crowe, Hudson, and Fugit, who had some detractors, McDormand and Hoffman were virtually untouched by the harsh light of negative criticism. Renshaw made the least complimentary statement when he said of McDormand, "she remains a too-mannered performer at times" (1).
Taste in movies, like taste in music, is mostly a matter of personal preference. A movie that strikes one man as a masterpiece and a "must-see" can cause another to writhe in abject discomfort. I agreed with the majority of the critics and enjoyed Almost Famous for a number of reasons. I thought the film was well cast. It was easy to forget that these were actors, not rock stars, writers, editors, or groupies"¦ or oh so slightly psychotic moms. I also found the sound track and costumes to be enchanting flashbacks to my youth. Anyone who grew up in the 60's and 70's will probably love this aspect of the film. I guess my feelings can be summed up with one word --- nostalgia! Almost Famous won't make anyone forget about the masterpieces of cinema, it probably won't even be among the five best movies made this year. It will, however, make a lot of people wonder how two hours went by so fast.

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