There is a consensus that Dazed and Confused is one of the best reflections of a historical moment ever put to film, which perhaps helps to explain its unquestioned place at the top of film hierarchy between its sweet soundtrack and great cast, and I am certainly somebody who dotes on the film whenever possible. Yet viewing Almost Famous earlier today has really thrown a layer of perspective on the entire debate, as it is an equal and at times better film than Dazed and Confused while theoretically focusing on the same post-rock'n'roll disillusioned youth culture of the front half of the seventies. I use the word theoretically because where Dazed and Confused chooses to focus on a seemingly mundane group of individuals dealing with grandiose and heightened issues, Almost Famous is precisely the opposite choosing to situate its narrative within the most lively portion of the era, while considering some of the most mundanely troubling aspects of human existence. Cameron Crowe, perhaps most well-known for Jerry Maguire and one LL Cool J demanding financial compensation, yet what exists within Crowe's ode to an era is a love letter to some lost moment of childhood, or perhaps of an entire generation, one that is a sweetly sentimental as it is brutally detached from the situation. It provides viewers with something that is both completely grounded in reality, as well as being somewhat stylized and expressionistic in its approach. The America that is depicted through travel within Almost Famous is both rejecting the old social order, while also attempting to consider how to properly reinstate some sort of authoritative figurehead. It seems as though Crowe's very personal film attempts to reach out and consider how much control individuals had during the time, while also suggesting that many involved were actively attempting to avoid responsibility, making the handful who genuinely sought to guide themselves with a legitimate moral compass equally confused and lacking direction without any degree of support. Almost Famous is a manifest of sorts to an era long gone, a film whose millennial release date says much about the manner with which the characters move through their space disconnected, yet harping upon a less than grounded belief in a shared culture. Short of calling Almost Famous a revelation, one could certainly deem it necessary viewing.
Almost Famous focuses on the wide-eyed William Miller (Patrick Fugit) an aspiring music critic who is constantly dealing with the loss of a father at a young age, and overbearing anti-anything produced by society mother named Elaine (Frances McDormand), as well as the loss of a close relationship with his sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) who leaves the house to pursue a career as a stewardess. When William is encouraged by a minimally successful local critic, named Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), to write about an up and coming band named Stillwater, he moves away from the nest, much to the worrying and fretting of his mother. Yet, the magnetism of Stillwater with their boisterous lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and their enigmatic guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), proves to much for William to ignore and while passing as being considerably older than he is manages to land a gig as a roving reporter for The Rolling Stone who see Stillwater as the "next big thing." William also meets Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) a self-proclaimed "band-aid" which she claims to be distinctly different from a groupie in that they actually inspire songs in the groups and purposefully avoid having sex with band members. Needless to say, the trip across America proves to be a veritable wakeup call for the young William, who is witness to all kinds of decadence, debauchery and danger, all the while Elaine constantly assuring his safety to no avail. It is also along this trip that William becomes enlightened to the woes related to being pushed through the ringer of celebrity life. He witnesses Russell spiral through a multitude of identity issues, not to mention a problematic love triangle between Russell and Penny, with William being an onlooking third participant. Of course, as was the case for so many bands before and after, Stillwater finds themselves doomed for failure based on their dysfunctional dichotomy and the general deception of the music industry. William catalogs the entire unravelling of the band while also dealing with his own existential crisis, tied both to his inability to return home in times of desperation, as well as his inability to consummate anything of value with Penny. As the tour winds down William is beleaguered and returns home to a welcoming Elaine and a world weary Anita. Although the band denies the report he files to The Rolling Stone a final scene involving redemption between Russell and William proves all the reward the recent high school graduate could have desired.
It is a tricky thing for a filmmaker to create an narrative so heavily invested in considering the human condition, let alone one within such a setting relative privilege. Usually films of this grand introspection require at the very least a third world setting or some degree of impoverishment. However, I would argue that Crowe's particular choice to set the film in the early seventies provides a degree of moral and social decrepitude equal to that, without forfeiting the hipness of "rock'n'roll" or music culture. The characters, both main and extras, seem to simply wander through their spaces hoping for momentary collisions of understanding, some attaching themselves to a single band, as is the case with one overly committed Led Zeppelin fan, or to an idea, as occurs with Penny Lane who seems tied to the idea of Stillwater, both prove tragic because not only of their singularity, but also because of their assured promise of disappointment, considering that Stillwater does not stay together and, historically speaking, neither did Led Zeppelin. The way the characters involuntarily engage with one another both embracing and denying its necessity was a theme that seems to have failed in a film like Crash, but works so perfectly within this work. William's groundedness throughout the film is not a result of his stronger moral upbringing, although it clearly helps him keep his head straight in later portions of the trip, but instead his commitment to his own personal escapism through music, however, unlike the others who use it as a pseudo-drug, William sees it as a metaphor for live and forms a healthy relationship with each musical moment, often choosing not to join in on sing-alongs, opting instead to study each person rendering their voice to a song, this occurs most noticeably with a famous Elton John song. Yet when groundedness literally becomes an impossibility for William, even he breaks down and is forced to reconsider his value placements, confronting the group for their treatment of Penny, not because he thinks it is particularly unjust to Penny, but because it is unfair to him and his desires for her. The choice to situate the final scenes of the film at William's home are key, because even though he has travelled and seen an awful lot for his age, he is still quite young and deserves a chance to remain a child a bit longer.
Key Scene: The opening credits are awesome, if not those, it is certainly the airplane scene.
Buy this movie, it is well worth the few bucks you will have to shuck out to enjoy its brilliance. In fact, I suggest a joint viewing with Dazed and Confused, as they both use different avenues to make similar considerations about seventies America, in fact, just think about both films closing settings.