“Almost Famous” is a sweetly amiable memoir of one boy’s coming of age with rock ‘n’ roll that’s more gentle and modestly insightful than it is exhilarating or revelatory. Cameron Crowe’s heartfelt, semifictionalized spin on his own remarkable personal and professional entry into the music scene as a wide-eyed teenager in the early ’70s is eager to please and does just that, but it’s neither as outright funny nor as resonant as it seems to want to be. Boomers whose own rites of passage coincided with those so vividly captured here are sure to respond enthusiastically and in significant enough numbers to give this DreamWorks release a nice commercial liftoff, but ultimate B.O. fate of this production will rest upon whether or not it’s embraced by the under-30 public.
Crowe has taken advantage of the enormous success of his last picture, “Jerry Maguire,” finally to put his long-contemplated, thinly veiled autobio on the screen. As a purely fictional yarn, this would probably be too far-fetched to swallow — a green 15-year-old from San Diego is granted total access to a rising rock band for weeks as he preps a piece for Rolling Stone. But the combination of the fluid, hang-loose nature of the period, the inherent craziness of the music world and, above all, the credibility of the personal observations makes it all go down very easily, just as the affection with which the film views even the most ridiculous behavior will make most viewers warm to it without resistance.
Most of the picture’s elements — the crazed rock scene, raging musician egos, easy sex and drugs, the now amusing fashions and behavior at the tail end of the hippie era — have been seen plenty of times before. The one new angle introduced here is that of the protag’s mother (Frances McDormand), a somewhat eccentric intellectual who abhors rock, and particularly drugs, is far from being a standard-issue moralistic prig. Character hovers over her son, and the entire film, in an often funny, sobering way, but, among other things, the fact that McDormand is so much better an actor than almost everyone else in the picture makes the others seem rather spineless in comparison.
The mother, Elaine Miller, and her strict views dominate at the outset, driving her 18-year-old daughter, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), out of the house and into presumed liberation as a mini-skirted PSA stewardess. But Anita bequeaths her treasured record collection to kid brother William (Patrick Fugit), which turns him into such a rock freak that by 15 he’s befriended legendary critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a standout cameo), who assigns him to cover a Black Sabbath concert for Creem magazine.
Nearly denied backstage access because of his cherubic nerdiness, William manages to establish a connection with Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the good-looking, affable lead guitarist of the concert’s opening act, the up-and-coming Stillwater. Although Russell half-jokingly anoints the kid “The Enemy” due to his critic job, William gets himself invited to L.A. to interview the band. He also befriends the waify but self-confident Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a Stillwater camp follower who carefully distinguishes herself as a “band-aid” rather than a groupie and, before the evening is over, invites William to come live with her in Morocco for a year. All in all, not a bad first night for William as a professional rock critic.
Defying his petrified mother, William checks in at the Riot Hyatt on the Sunset Strip, where, for the first time, he witnesses the true insanity of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Some almost unwitting sleight of hand parlays his growing friendship with Russell into an assignment from the all-powerful Rolling Stone to write a 3,000-word piece on Stillwater, a gig that will entail his accompanying the band on its upcoming “Almost Famous” tour. With his mother bemoaning, “Don’t I get you for another three years?” and promising to check up on him every five minutes, William blasts off into real life while most kids his age are sitting home pinching pimples and watching “The Brady Bunch.”
Beginning in Arizona, the tour wends its way cross-country before winding up in New York. With Bangs’ admonition, “You cannot be friends with the rock stars,” ringing in his head, William tries to navigate a middle course and does so successfully enough that he’s amazingly permitted to witness numerous intimate and convulsive events, including arguments between Russell and the band’s egotistical lead singer Jeff Bebe (a born-to-the-part Jason Lee); the usurpation of the band’s managerial reins by a hard-nosed corporate pro from its longtime but smalltime boss; and a stormy private plane flight, during which the specter of almost certain disaster provokes everyone to confess their most dearly held secrets.
Willingly deflowered by three band-aids who declare, “Opie must die!,” William nonetheless develops an aching attachment to Penny, who is actually Russell’s private squeeze. Naturally, the besotted kid treats her a lot better than the rising star does, and both William and Penny learn a few life lessons along the way. But the most urgent business eventually becomes the delivery of William’s long-awaited article, which is intended as the cover story if William can follow Bangs’ instructions to be “honest and unmerciful,” not an easy thing given the bonds he’s developed.
The wary but usually open attitude with which the Stillwater members regard William is nicely delineated and, in a way, is easier to accept than the total faith the Rolling Stone editors have in their utterly untested young freelancer. At the same time, some of the funniest scenes are those of William having bewilderingly encouraging phone conversations with the mag’s Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen), who patiently tolerates the seemingly endless delays in the piece’s filing.
Perhaps it’s just that rock ‘n’ roll lunacy has been “exposed” so many times before, but pic strangely deflates a bit whenever it has the chance to get outrageous and score laughs at the expense of the scene’s unchecked behavioral norms. It’s not that Crowe should have been expected to compete with “This Is Spinal Tap” in this area, but how can anyone consider rockers on tour and hanging out in hotels anything other than comic bait waiting to be swallowed whole? Pic ribs them, to be sure, but never goes for the kill, resulting in a sense of missed hilarity, which, if delivered, would have given the film a needed kick.
Although the dynamic is quite different, script’s structure actually resembles that of “Jerry Maguire” in that the central characters are facilitators (agent there, journalist here) whose function it is to service charismatic stars (football player, rock singer).
So perhaps the film’s best hope for capturing a youthful audience rests with Hudson, who is sweet and not just a little sad as the dandelion whose equal parts of availability and elusiveness reps just the right combo to drive young men to distraction; pic will undoubtedly serve to put her decisively on the showbiz map.
It’s a tribute to first-time screen actor Fugit that he manages to hold center stage effectively in such a circus; his innocent but open-minded enthusiasm is in perfect synch with the affable tone Crowe establishes with his script and direction. With her profoundly articulate diction contrasting sharply with the more amorphous elocution of the younger generation, McDormand is simply smashing.
Tech contributions are solid without being showy, and period detailing is unforced except for some of the abundant musical cues (fully 50 different tunes are listed on the end credits), which surprisingly lean toward the overly familiar.