Almost Famous – Casting Review

The music of the 70’s captures a time we would all love to get back to…even those of us who haven’t actually experienced it. Cameron Crowe succeeds in encapsulating these

Almost Famous Casting Review – 2000

euphoric feelings while creating the perfect ensemble cast in his Oscar-winning film Almost Famous. The movie takes us back to 1973 in San Diego, California to William (Patrick Fugit), a 15 year-old music obsessed prodigy who writes about the seminal bands of the time. After befriending an eccentric rock critic, William gets the golden opportunity to write for Rolling Stone Magazine, touring with the up-and-coming band Stillwater. After receiving permission from his overbearing mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), William sets out with Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) to tour with Russell (Billy Crudup) and Jeff (Jason Lee) of Stillwater as they hit the road opening for Black Sabbath.

Have you ever heard of Penny Lane? Not the sweet, uplifting Beatles tune. Not the junction in the Wavertree area of Liverpool. But the blithe and mercurial band aid Crowe has as his leading lady in the film. The physical representation of everything Lennon and McCartney’s song desires to achieve with its whimsical piccolo trumpet and resounding oboe; what actress wouldn’t want to play the role of Penny? She’s the girl who feigns not requiring answers. She’s the girl who dons an alpaca coat and round rose-tinted spectacles. She promenades down the Sunset Strip like it’s her job and wants to bring all the people she loves with her. She is the heart of the music and the link that holds everyone together. Without her, all would be lost.

Not only is Penny’s character the one who drives the film down a beautiful outstretched highway, but is she the focal point of William and Russell, our two male leads. She has a captivating allure that commands everyone’s attention and is adored by all. Many actresses auditioned for the coveted role, including Mena Suvari, Sarah Polley and Kirstin Dunst. The role was originally given to Polley, but she dropped out to work on her own movie project. Crowe had an image in his mind of Penny (as she is based on a real-life person), and when Kate Hudson walked into the audition looking like Robert Plant, his first thought was “Hire her!” Kate didn’t have an extensive amount of work under her belt (yet being the daughter of comedic actress Goldie Hawn), but proved herself as being hard-working and disciplined. The scene where Penny is dancing alone in the auditorium is Crowe’s favorite scene in the film. It just wouldn’t be quite the same movie without this blue-eyed treasure. Kate has this way of being soft and classic while still giving off the nonchalant I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Bravo.

Russell Hammond is the handsome lead guitarist for Stillwater and the guy that annoys the rest of the band with his tremendous good looks. Crowe described the character Russell as a ‘guitarist with mystique’ and had originally written the part for Brad Pitt. After working with Crowe for a couple months Pitt dropped out, claiming he just “didn’t get it”, and the role was recast with Billy Crudup. Billy was best known for his roles in Sleepers and Everyone Says I Love You. One would think that in casting a lead guitarist for such a huge film the actor would, ahem, actually know how to play the guitar. But Hollywood doesn’t necessarily work that way. Acting ability and ‘the look’ first, and everything else (fingers crossed) comes after. Thankfully Billy pulls it off with flying colors. Believe me, I paid close attention. In just six weeks, he was able to learn through four hours of band practice per night and the help of Humble Pie’s Peter Frampton.

The camaraderie between he and Jason Lee’s character Jeff carries the movie. Their authenticity and witty banter shines and makes them believable as a band. The bond between Russell and William throughout the film is endearing, in that even though Russell is years older than William and feels the need to teach him ways to be cool, it seems that William has an enormous amount of unspoken wisdom. We see that Russell realizes this more and more as the movie unfolds, and it is clear there is a mutual respect between the two.

William Miller is the wide-eyed journalist and pubescent character that essentially is Cameron Crowe (as the movie is based on his actual experiences as a teenage rock journalist). Patrick Fugit landed the role in a nationwide casting call and plays this part beautifully. To prepare him for the role Crowe inundated Patrick with rock CD’s, in which he was entirely unversed. So he poured over the music for weeks before filming so he would really have a grasp on the music Crowe loved so dearly.

Patrick has these looks of intensity that can shatter and shake you, but a dorky hipness that puts you instantly at ease. His honesty and understated style of acting connects us to his fragility, and this role becomes a visceral experience for the audience. We are William. We are that kid who just wants to be cool, who wants to belong amongst the rockstars who seem to have life all figured out. We can connect with him and his longing for the open road and newness and freedom…and then again when all he wants is his mother’s arms and his own bed.

Frances McDormand grounds this film as William’s mother, Elaine Miller. Her poised and determined relationship with her son says “I love you, I’m going to teach you, you will obey me, but I will give you the tools you need to live a life of freedom…eventually.” Her rigid body language and all-knowing philosophies on life are a riot to watch, and the contrast of her struggling to be patient with William and him being on the road while shedding parts of his innocence are crucial to the movie. She is aware of his evolution yet still holds true to not only her beliefs in life but her belief in him. The phone call she has with Russell is one of the best parts of the movie for me. Elaine not only marvels us with her unfailing words of wisdom, but we get to see a part of Russell that hasn’t yet been seen; a more vulnerable, self-aware side. Frances is a genius at bringing her characters to life triumphantly.

Almost Famous defines a generation in a way that other movies can’t. The music, the clothes, the dialogue…it all ties up in a beautiful package with a new surprise waiting to be unwrapped in every scene. The cast comes together in such an organic way that the authenticity is unmatched. Don’t watch Almost Famous to lose your identity. Instead, watch Almost Famous to embellish it, refine or define it. The film, like Jeff Bebe of Stillwater, connects and gets people off. It “looks for the guy who isn’t getting off and [it] MAKES him get off.”

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Jess