“Almost Famous” is still even-keeled escapism

Almost Famous Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. (Columbia)

Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.

NOW STREAMING:

I don’t know any tornado chasers or Major League Baseball managers. I’ve never met any head campaign managers or CIA agents. Writing about Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous for this column has me in a unique position. We find Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, a music critic and mentor to young journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he navigates the wild world of ‘70s rock and roll. See, I never met Lester Bangs. But I know plenty of culture critics.

Embarrassingly, I even pride myself on having crossed paths with plenty of middle-aged dudes armed with nothing but their jaded self-seriousness, an occasional jolt of enthusiasm, and an ability to string together 500 words. Their sky is always falling: “It’s just a shame you missed out on rock and roll!” Lester dramatically tells William in 1973, and I can’t tell you how many times these pseudo-gurus have told me the same about movies today.

“It’s over! I mean, you got here just in time for the death rattle, the last gasp.” Well, if cinema and criticism really are dead and gone, who better to immortalize the critic than Hoffman? Wearing a mustache almost as bushy as Gust Avrakotos’, P.S.H. turns in a pitch-perfect performance as Bangs. Every moment he’s on-screen you can feel his passion for rock, for music, for great expressions as a whole. He’s closer to loser than poser. As he confesses the last time we see him, Lester’s deliriously uncool—just like any idiot who commits themselves to writing about art.

Almost Famous

Bangs becomes something of a father to William, especially as his only other parental figure (his mom, thankfully humanized by Frances McDormand) absolutely rejects his love of modern music. Upon their first meeting, Lester hands William an assignment: He’ll pay 35 dollars for a piece on Black Sabbath. For context, that’d be 200 dollars today. Watching Almost Famous a third time, I found myself a little put off by how much of an adolescent fantasy it is instead of being swept up in that fantasy as I had before.

William stumbles into an enormous, unbelievable opportunity. At the Black Sabbath show, he meets the opening act, the up-and-comers of a band called Stillwater. “We play for the fans, not the critics,” spits lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). Still, 15-year-olds’ enthusiasm for some of their stuff charms the band. After their performance, Stillwater—specifically enigmatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup)—invites William on the road with them. Suddenly, Rolling Stone calls William and asks him to write a major story on the band. An established outlet reaching out to a young writer, can you imagine?

Happily tagging along on the aptly titled Almost Famous Tour, William gets a great view of these dysfunctional, clout-obsessed rock stars and their extramarital affairs. This is Spinal Tap played straight. William falls for “band-aid” Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who’s sleeping with Russell, by far the most talented and gifted band member. One detail I noticed on this viewing was that Crowe never shows us Russell’s genius on-stage. Instead, the writer/director lets Crudup articulate that Russell’s got it.

Where another movie would insert a showy guitar solo, Crudup gives moments of genuine earnestness masked by ego, the numbness of his lifestyle, and sheer swagger. When Stillwater’s label misprints t-shirts so that only Russell is visible, you see why he’s the one that stands out. Penny comes off equally as far from down-to-earth. Hudson was in her early 20s, but she seems like an old soul here, easily as alluring as Russell. What’s more, the two have chemistry to spare, the physics of the tour bus pulling them towards each other.

[T]his remains a crowd-pleasing, well-constructed piece of filmmaking, a specific, acquired taste not too far from widely accessible.

But time on the road takes a toll, and as William struggles to pull himself together, he turns to Lester for help. Because Lester’s back home and William’s in whatever hotel room, Crowe tailors the mise-en-scène around Lester whenever we see him. I love the glimpse we get of Bangs’ apartment, a smoky, not-quite-lonely interior overflowing with records and old takeout boxes. The set design immediately matches the energy of Hoffman’s performance and vice versa.

20 years after release, Almost Famous has its flaws. For a movie that so regularly preaches honest, there’s a lot of sentimental fantasy without much in the way of diversity. What struggles would a band not made up of four white guys face on their way to the top? Still, this remains a crowd-pleasing, well-constructed piece of filmmaking, a specific, acquired taste not too far from widely accessible. It’s not all fluff either. When I wrote about the film for last year’s Ebertfest, I remarked that Almost Famous “has more insight into the nature of celebrity than any remake of A Star is Born,” an evaluation I stand by (even if the movie’s more interested in this angle than William’s coming-of-age).

But Almost Famous also contains a near-perfect use of Hoffman. Without pulling focus, his presence boosts the entire picture. The actor can’t have worked on this movie for more than a week, and his supporting role is written such that it’s not missing anything. Of course, this was before Hoffman starred in great dramas, but by this point in his career, he’d clearly mastered his craft. It was instead up to the filmmakers he worked with to incorporate him correctly (as in The Talented Mr. Ripley, released less than a year before). Though he might have his gripes, I’d say all in all Lester Bangs would approve.

Almost Famous Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!