By Charles Culbertson
For 122 minutes on April Fool's Day, the normally hallowed halls of TCM will reverberate with the sounds of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
No, really. This isn't a prank. One of the best coming-of-age films with a rock 'n' roll premise ever made — Almost Famous — will air on TCM April 1 at 10:00 PM ET. It would be April Foolish to miss this 2000 classic, even if your musical tastes run to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. Mine do, and I'm nuts about this movie.
Based on the real-life experiences of writer-producer-director Cameron Crowe, it's the story of William Miller, a terribly earnest, 15-year-old wannabe rock 'n' roll writer who snags a gig with Rolling Stone magazine — the editors of which don't know he’s only 15. Miller is hired to write a feature story on the up-and-coming band, Stillwater, but doesn't have a clue how to gain access to them or approach the story.
Through pluck, luck and the help of a bevy of Stillwater groupies (they call themselves Band-Aids, but they’re still groupies), Miller finds himself behind the lines at a Stillwater concert making friends with the band. They connect with him — although, as a writer, he is considered "the enemy" — and benignly drape their wings over him. Needless to say, those wings also happen to embrace copious quantities of drugs, sex, booze and – naturally – rock 'n' roll.
Soon, despite the objections of his horrified mother, Miller wangles a ride on the Stillwater tour bus and determinedly struggles to write the Rolling Stone article despite some significant distractions. An unexpected event, which is one of the funniest in the movie, provides Miller with both the impetus and the inspiration to get it done.
If you've formed the impression that this is just a movie about a bunch of young rock 'n' rollers in the early 1970s traveling the country, drinking, doping, fighting, shagging and living the high life — well, you wouldn't be completely wrong. That's just what rock bands did back then (and now, too, for that matter). But there's another part of the story, one that's altogether hilarious and heartbreaking and exhilarating and strangely tender. Together, all these seemingly unrelated elements perform a sweet and finely tuned balancing act to create a movie nearly everyone can watch, despite its bad language and sexual situations.
"Rock stars have kidnapped my son!"
--Frances McDormand as Elaine Miller
While newcomer Patrick Fugit as the virginal William Miller is almost always on camera and handles his role with great finesse for someone so young, he is no match for veteran actress Frances McDormand, who portrays his mother. Nor, for that matter, is any other actor who has a scene with her. Not since Lainie Kazan's turn in My Favorite Year has an actress so vividly portrayed so many universal aspects of motherhood.
Even though Elaine Miller is a college professor whose lifestyle and politics are stereotypical of her occupation, she is also an overbearing and controlling woman who hates drugs, rock 'n' roll, unmarried sex and backtalk — all of which she considers representative of the downfall of society. And yet, somehow, her precocious 15-year-old son talks her into agreeing to his road trip with Stillwater, contingent on him checking in with her every now and then by telephone. What could possibly go wrong?
One of the best scenes in the movie, in fact, centers on one of these phone calls home—except that Stillwater's lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup) gets on the line and starts to be flippant with mom about William. She whacks him off at the knees.
"If you break his spirit, harm him in any way, keep him from his chosen profession which is law — something you may not value, but I do — you will meet the voice on the other end of this telephone and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other?"
The cocky rocker suddenly becomes a little boy again, and meekly answers, "Uh…yes, ma'am."
Another standout in Almost Famous is Kate Hudson in one of her earliest film performances as groupie Penny Lane. She's in love with guitarist Hammond, but he simply uses and abuses her, and at one point "sells" her to the band Humble Pie for $50 and a case of beer. When William, who loves Penny, tells her this, Penny sniffs, forces a smile, and says in a small voice, "What kind of beer?" Hers is a sensitive and heartfelt portrayal, and was worth far more than simply the Academy Award nomination she received. She did, however, win the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award at the Golden Globes and Satellite ceremonies.
"If you think Mick Jagger will be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, you are sadly, sadly mistaken."
--Philip Seymour Hoffman as writer Lester Bangs
Also starring as Stillwater band members are Jason Lee, Mark Kozelek and — with only one but very memorable line in the entire film — John Fedevich. In order to make Stillwater appear like a real band, cast members rehearsed four hours a night, five nights a week, for six weeks. Stillwater's songs were written by Crowe, Peter Frampton (who had a small part in the movie) and Crowe's former wife, Nancy Wilson of the rock band, Heart.
In addition to Frampton, real-life musicians taking a turn in the film include Gordon Kennedy, Marti Frederiksen and Pearl Jam's Mike McCready. Other cast members include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jimmy Fallon, Anna Paquin and Zooey Deschanel.
Although Almost Famous lost money at the box office, it was a critical success in a number of arenas, claiming an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack, two Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Hudson). Movie critic Roger Ebert said it was the best film of the year and the ninth best film of the 2000s. Today, it has a solid cult and mainstream following.
So roll over, Grant and Garbo. Make way for Stillwater and one of the most entertaining movies of the new millennium.
Charles Culbertson is a freelance writer with a lifelong interest in the early days of film, television and radio. He has written and published extensively about American history, and has just published his first work of fiction, “Siege at Fort Lyautey and Other Stories.” Culbertson lives in Waynesboro, Virginia, with his wife, Janet.