Astonishingly good. It's one of the funniest films of 2000, yet it's not a comedy. It's sweet, delicate, vulgar and rumbustuous. It's also far better than it has any right to be.
To begin with, I was absolutely not this film's target audience. It's about rock and roll and I'm musically illiterate. I don't buy records and my most-hated movie is The Doors. When Frances McDormand was telling her children not to listen to music and instead to study to become lawyers, I was on her side. I had a bit of dread in my belly as it became obvious what this film was going to be about, which became outright fear when our hero (Patrick Fugit) entered into a contract to do something that might well prove impossible. He's fifteen wide-eyed years old and he's promised Rolling Stone magazine 5,000 words on a rock band called Stillwater. This involves getting an interview. Fortunately he's so indestructibly nice that everyone likes him and he can make friends wherever he goes, including the band members of Stillwater, but even so managing to nail down these musicians to an interview turns out a bit like trying to trap air in a net.
It doesn't help that he's been putting on a deep voice on the phone to his Rolling Stone editor, who has no idea he's talking to a schoolboy. He's also a virgin who doesn't do drugs and loves his mother. He's in way over his head, basically.
The script won a Best Screenplay Oscar and had Steven Spielberg phoning Crowe to tell him to "direct every word", but what really sells the film are the performances. This could have been dreadful. The rock stars are childish hedonists who squabble and make themselves look like idiots. Fugit is a mummy's boy and McDormand is lucky not to have been murdered by her children. However the actors take these flawed, odd, often ridiculous people and make them a joy to watch. Fugit manages to be as nice as he needs to be. He's lovely. He convinces us that he's this freakish kid and crucially he's taking his promises seriously. He's unconvincing when he's trying to be angry ("is that all I am to you?"), but that's because he's being true to the character. He's just too much of a good-hearted dork for anyone to believe that he's dark, dangerous or cool, no matter how much he might like to be.
As for the rock 'n' roll life, we have Billy Crudup being the star of the show and wonderful in all kinds of ways as Stillwater's lead singer, while Kate Hudson won a Golden Globe and got Oscar-nominated as a sweet groupie. Oh, and I defy you to recognise the great Philip Seymour Hoffman (in a crucial role) even if you already know he's there. X-Men fans will enjoy seeing Anna Paquin in a minor role, in the same year she first played Rogue, but the less obvious superhero link is that Crudup is also Dr Manhattan in Watchmen
My favourite of them all though is Frances McDormand (also Oscar-nominated), who's making you fall in love with the Mother From Hell. She's a university professor who'll phone up Fugit twice a day to tell him not to take drugs. She hot-housed her son and didn't tell him his real age, while in the opening scene her daughter walks out on her. She's ridiculous. Theoretically she should have been the Square Who Doesn't Get It... yet McDormand makes her wonderful. She made me laugh in every scene she was in, just by being herself. She's the best thing in a movie full of best things. I love Frances McDormand.
Zooey Deschanel's rubbish, though. Again.
The film's avoiding the darkness. You could tell some horrible stories about the rock 'n' roll business, but this isn't one of them. It's certainly not pretending that its rock stars aren't going nuts with booze, drugs and girls, but that doesn't mean they're animals. On the contrary, the film's going to impressive lengths to show us that even the most unlikely performers in this circus are as human as anyone else, from childish band members to crushed, discarded groupies. Hudson's character is so earnest about what she does that she's turned casual sex into a philosophy. Meanwhile people like Crudup and Hoffman are taking even the showbiz and the libertine excesses as seriously as was taken the novel-writing in Wonder Boys
You see, this film is semi-autobiographical. Cameron Crowe really was a teenaged Rolling Stone reporter and what happens to his protagonist here is based on what happened to him when touring with rock bands Poco, The Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The movie credits only admit that one character (Hudson's) is "loosely based" on real life, but all the things that happen are essentially more or less true.
Roger Ebert called this the best film of 2000. There's an entire wiki page devoted just to "List of awards and nominations received by Almost Famous". It made me nervous, but it's also life-affirming, wild and made me laugh more than any other 2000 film I've seen to date, including Cecil B. Demented
. Admittedly it failed financially, taking 47 million worldwide on a budget of 60 million, but in this case I don't think that means very much. Wonder Boys
flopped too. Both of those movies are brilliant (clue: McDormand) and it shouldn't matter that neither of them has anything on which to sell themselves except sharp intelligence, humanity and a ton of humour. This film was never going to be the teenagers' choice, especially after the MPAA hit it with an R-rating. My theory is that the MPAA is a little old ladies' knitting circle, whose members don't base their judgements on what's actually in the films, but instead on what they think their friends might say about them.
It really shouldn't have worked. Absolutely everyone could have been a million kinds of annoying, especially Fugit. They're not. They're perfect... well, except for Deschanel. There's even a scene in which someone's reading Ray Bradbury.