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Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Almost Famous is a movie for anybody who’s ever had dreams of running away with the circus – or, at least, of carving out a life of their own rather than doing what society says is appropriate.

The 15-Year Old Rolling Stone Journalist

The movie tells the story of William Miller (Patrick Fugit in a very engaging big screen debut), an aspiring 15-year-old rock journalist with an overly protective mother (Elaine, played by Frances McDormand, Fargo).

With a soundtrack that includes The Chipmunks, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and references to numerous other artists, the film captures the liberating power of music and how it shapes and colors people’s lives. At the same time, it compares and contrasts the security and values of middleclass America (along with its banality) with the fantasy of life on the road as a rock band (including its insecurities and amorality).

Outside it’s America

The course of William’s personal history is set in a new direction when his sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel, Mumford), feeling suffocated by their mother, takes off to discover America as a stewardess (hey, the movie takes place in the pre-politically correct 1970s).

Being the caring sister that she is, she leaves William a present. “Look under your bed,” she tells him. “It’ll set you free.” William uncovers the gift – his sister’s LP collection – and in almost reverent awe (after all, in his mother’s eyes, these albums are forbidden fruit), he sifts through titles by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. It’s a watershed moment for the boy, as we next see him covering his notebooks at school with the doodled names of these artists.

Anita’s departure, with Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” playing in the background, finds Elaine questioning her abilities as a mother, and luckily for William, causes her to loosen the strings on her young son. While she would rather see him become a lawyer, she sees the value in his journalistic “hobby” and agrees to drive him to a Black Sabbath concert that will ultimately help put his writing career into high gear.

On the Road Again

At the concert, William meets Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, 200 Cigarettes, Desert Blue). Finding the term “groupie” demeaning, she explains to William that she’s a “band aide”. She’s their inspiration, and in keeping with the mysterious ways of a long line of rock ‘n’ roll icons, she’ll never tell her real name.

As events unfold, Penny exposes William to a menagerie of people, places, and things. She also provides a lesson in love that manages to escape Hollywood’s saccharin-heavy formula.

But, William’s main ambition is to get an interview with Black Sabbath. After all, this kid came to work, not play. The security guard denies him entrance at the backstage door, primarily because he’s not a girl. But William’s tenacious. He gains entrance by befriending the late-to-arrive opening act, Stillwater; they’re won over by his impressive musical knowledge and a little bit of flattery.

With the persistent tease of Penny goading him on, and with the hopes of securing a sincere and open interview with Russell Hammond, Stillwater’s lead guitarist (played by Billy Crudup, Sleepers, Jesus’ Son), William finds himself touring across the country with the rising-star band.

Things start to fall into place nicely for William and his determination and focus amidst the parties, sex, and drugs is endearing.

A chance encounter with Lester Bangs, the influential critic for Creem magazine (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a nice twist on his music-maven roll in The Talented Mr. Ripley), provides William with a new friend and the professional contacts he desperately needs to accomplish his dreams.

One of William’s first tastes of the seductive rock fantasy world comes while talking over the phone with his editor at Rolling Stone. (The two haven’t met in person yet, so the editor is oblivious to the writer’s true age.) William’s jaw drops at the offer of $700 plus expenses for his Stillwater story. His pause of incredulity pushes the editor to up the ante to $1,000. It’s a moment to which anyone who has been on the cusp of making a dream come true can relate.

Who Are You?

Identity and reality are two of the primary themes running throughout the film.

Along with Penny’s uncertain history, there’s also William’s need to cut through the mystique and find the band’s true identity for the sake of his story. But the band members are so out of touch and so immersed in their lifestyle that they’re too blind to see the way they really are.

Throughout all this, William receives warnings and advice from Lester about how people in the business are just out to use each other. They’re not people to be friends with, he’s warned.

All of these things are being looked at through the eyes of a boy who is still too young to understand what it is actually like to have your own identity.

Yet, the older and wiser Lester identifies with William’s “un-cool” appearance and demeanor. In the midst of romantic anguish, Lester even tries to console the struggling newcomer. “Women will always be a problem for guys like us,” he enlightens William. “They (the rock stars) will get the girls, but we’re smarter.” As well meaning as those words are, they’re little consolation to a hurting heart.

The River of Dreams

The film is a semi-autobiographical account of Cameron Crowe’s youth. The film’s writer and director (whose previous credits include Say Anything and Jerry Maguire) did in fact start out as a 15-year-old rock journalist, writing for Playboy and The Los Angeles Times prior to his Rolling Stone days.

That grounding in reality is what gives the movie its substance and keen insight. Ultimately, the film also gives those of us who have thought of running off with the circus both some inspiration to follow those crazy dreams and the tender reminder that having a home is also a good thing. Like a grand adventure movie, the characters are changed by their experiences and, by the movie’s end, William is no longer the innocent 15-year-old we met at the start. He’s been through a lot, and it shows.

Amidst the euphoric highs of being on the road and all the excitement – and potential danger – that entails, each of the main characters provides William with a different insight into reality, dreaming out loud, love, and human nature. That’s what helps make it such a satisfying and complete movie.

With a unique grace, the film sidesteps most of the typical Hollywood clichés this kind of material can supply. While it veers dangerously close to schmaltzy sentimentality, it also stays far from easy gross-out teenage humor. Luckily, though, it does have a Spinal Tap moment or two (some poorly produced T-shirts and a visit with the “regular people” of Topeka come to mind).

Thankfully, Almost Famous also goes far beyond Crowe taking us on a trip down memory lane and it doesn’t fixate on the trappings of the 1970s. While that period may have had its share of grand rock moments and iconography, the retro scene has gotten old.

The band names and styles of music floating through the airwaves have changed over time, but the magical link between fan, band, music, and reality (and the desire to utter that immortal saying, “I’m with the band”) remains a constant. That’s the key to this movie’s heart.