The Asheville Film Society is dedicating the month of March to Philip Seymour Hoffman, and first up is Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000). It’s the only film being screened where Hoffman has what is very much a supporting role. But his performance as rock critic Lester Bangs (“I’m always home. I’m not cool”) is one that everyone seems to remember—even if the rest of the movie has become something of a blur. Even in 2000, a few critics suggested that Almost Famous might have been better had it been about Hoffman’s Lester Bangs. That’s a little ungenerous to the film itself, but there’s no denying Hoffman’s every appearance in the film is a highlight. Plus, in the long run, Almost Famous did him more good than anyone in the cast. At the time, that accolade would have been applied to Kate Hudson—except that she quickly proved her Penny Lane was her one really good performance. Now, it’s Hoffman.
The film itself—a quasi-autobiography of writer-director Cameron Crowe—is still good, but not as good as it seemed 14 years ago. It’s Crowe as William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old wanna-be rock critic, finding himself doing a long piece on a fictional band called Stillwater—a piece so involved that he goes on tour with them (much to his mother’s (Frances McDormand) chagrin). As a story, it mostly works. The characters are engaging and well acted, and the filmmaking is good at capturing the fantasy essence of the rock scene in 1973. It helps that Crowe clearly loves and believes in rock music of that era—deeply, sincerely (you find this even in his lesser movies). Often times, his use of music is brilliant. There is, in fact, one section in the film—though damaged by the decision to cut the music to a tractable length, which is distracting and jarring if you know the song—using Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” that sums up Crowe’s views. Everyone is on the tour bus—tired, irritable, in some cases hungover, in others on the outs with each other—when the song comes on. The music slowly gets to them, bringing them back into connectivity by the healing power of the shared experience of the song. Even flawed as it is by the cutting, the message comes through.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Almost Famous Tuesday, March 4, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.