This review is an entry into Jordan Dodd’s Philip Seymour Hoffman blogathan. You’ll be able to read more entries in mid-July but for now go here to find out more.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s supporting roles in the late 1990s and early 2000s are, with only a couple of exceptions, a pleasure to watch. It should be apparent to anyone who sees, say, three or four of them that he had the ability to take a minor role and make it far more interesting than it ought to have been; this he did consistently, turning in some of his best work during the period. Just look at the evidence from the years following his first notable appearances (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight – also known as Sydney – and Jan de Bont’s Twister): there’s the tragic Scotty in Anderson’s Boogie Nights; fusty PA Brandt from The Big Lebowski; obscene caller Allen in Todd Solondz’s Happiness; nurse Phil Parma in Anderson’s Magnolia; suspicious Freddie Miles in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley; and, at the end of this great run, the inimitable Lester Bangs, the motormouth rock critic he played in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 coming-of-age drama Almost Famous. In every single one of these performances Hoffman grabs and holds your attention, regardless of who he is acting opposite, regardless of what’s actually happening and regardless of the short amount time he gets on screen (at least relative to his later career). And of all these minor roles his depiction of Bangs in Almost Famous is probably my favourite.
Not that I had read much by Bangs – who edited Creem after spending a couple of years in the late 1960s freelancing for Rolling Stone – when I first saw Crowe’s film. I was aware of his name because the music journalists that I cared about in the 1990s seemed eager to mention him as often as possible, but in the pre- or early internet age accessing his work wasn’t easy, at least not in the UK; this made seeing an actor’s portrayal of him (a relatively minor part in the grand scheme the movie) even more interesting for me. Hoffman initially plays Bangs as if he’s a rock star, because that’s what he is in the eyes of 15-year-old journo wannabe William Miller (Patrick Fugit), our way-in to this 1970s-set story of a rock band and its touring circus of hangers-on. Yet although Bangs only features in a few scenes outside of the first fifteen minutes of the film, the actor subtly softens him into a big brother type, less animated, almost sad, with advice readily available at the end of a phone line.
I’m not sure whether Hoffman saw or heard any of the interviews with Bangs that are now available on YouTube, but he captures the man’s passion for rock n’ roll and gives him a magnetic unpredictability. I don’t think there’s any great connection between the two beyond the fact one portrayed the other in a film, but there’s certainly a ghoulish comparison to be made about their deaths: both of accidental drug overdoses in New York City, both involving cocktails of substances, and both at an early age (Bangs was 33 when he OD’d in 1982).
Weirdly, Hoffman’s performance can itself be described as a more refined version of Jack Black’s offensive, cartoonish record store employee in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, released earlier the same year, and the same broad over-passionate spirit resonates throughout Almost Famous. The film never drifts, and Hoffman is joined by the likes of Frances McDormand and Jason Lee – playing the lead singer of Stillwater, a group that takes William under its wing for a national tour – in giving the movie regular bursts of energy, of adrenaline.
I’m not a fan of the majority of Crowe’s films, although I remember enjoying Say Anything many years ago, and I concede that I probably ought to give Jerry Maguire a second chance at some point. However Almost Famous is, I believe, one of the very best of 2000, a relentlessly charming work that takes a few typical coming-of-age plot threads, lets them play out in a world that is far more interesting as a spectacle than high school, and then adds liberal doses of the kind of behaviour mercilessly lampooned by Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. Filled with memorable major and supporting characters and semi-autobiographical – Crowe went on tour with the Allman Brothers for three weeks at the age of 16 and his feature became Rolling Stone‘s cover story – you can sense the writer-director’s personal attachment to the story throughout, and though the incidents that occur often seem far-fetched there’s an underlying feeling that this is one of the definitive fictional depictions of a band’s life on the road.
The film lampoons rock n’roll clichés while also incorporating a huge amount of nostalgia-driven warmth toward this bizarre, outlandish world. Occasionally the idea of hanging around with a band and its crew, and enjoying the camaraderie, looks great: driving down the highway singing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer together, for example, or breaking free of a concert venue after a promoter has locked the gates during a dispute. Yet at other times Stillwater’s behaviour is awful, and we see them cruelly trading their groupies for kegs of beer or arguing as fragile egos combine with druggy late nights. Throughout Crowe delights in revealing the falseness of everybody involved in the music scene except for William and Lester: Penny Lane (a career-launching, Oscar-nominated turn by Kate Hudson) is a groupie who maintains she isn’t a groupie because groupies sleep around; but she’s sleeping with married guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) and far less sure of herself than she initially seems. Russell himself gives her the impression that he is in love, which is untrue; he also claims that he is doing the other members of Stillwater a favour by staying loyal, though really he lacks the confidence to break out on his own. The band’s manager Dick (Noah Taylor) is out of his depth and hanging on to his job by a thread. Singer Jeff (Lee) reveals that the dynamic he shares with Russell is carefully planned (although there are fleeting moments where it seems genuine). These are people who spend all their time together yet are completely dishonest and unable to communicate their true feelings (at least not until a hilarious scene on a private jet forces all kinds of confessions from those believing they’re about to perish). Touring is repeatedly described by characters as being separate from the real world, and though much is made of William’s naivety throughout, he’s the only one who can identifies this way of thinking as a lie.
There are many great lines in this comedy-drama, often delivered with perfect comic timing by the cast, but Crowe doesn’t just rely on the script and the actors to raise laughs. The editing by Joe Hutshing and Saar Klein is often just as successful: when William and Russell attend a party and William calls the band to inform them that Russell has taken acid, for example, he asks ‘How can you tell when it has kicked in?’; queue a fast cut to Russell standing on top of a house screaming ‘I am a golden god!’ to the gathered crowd below. Later, when a jealous Penny overdoses in a New York hotel suite, the shots in which a smitten William watches her stomach being pumped are scored, rather amusingly, with Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour.
There are scores of similarly witty moments, but Almost Famous isn’t a straight up comedy; its serious moments also resonate and William’s trio of familial relationships (one with the band, one with the groupies he shares his hotel rooms with, one with his worried, over protective mother (McDormand) and his sister (Zooey Deschanel)) all carry weight, even if there are some criminally sickly-sweet scenes near the end. However the bond that interests me the most is the professional one William shares with Bangs, and Hoffman’s performance is the prime reason for that. Of those that I have seen, this is finest supporting performance.
Directed by: Cameron Crowe.
Written by: Cameron Crowe.
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor, Zooey Deschanel.
Cinematography: John Toll.
Editing: Joe Hutshing, Saar Klein.
Music: Nancy Wilson, Various.
Running Time: 122 minutes.