Almost Famous - * * * *

No stranger to the world of music, director Cameron Crowe is well known for the strong rock-and-roll soundtracks of his earlier films, Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire. However, in his youth, Crowe was actually a rock reporter for Rolling Stone. Now, the director dips into the well of his own adolescence, and creates his strongest film, Almost Famous.

Loosely autobiographical, the film follows a budding rock critic, William Miller (Patrick Fugit). In 1973, at the tender age of 15, William is given the chance to live a dream: Rolling Stone magazine asks him to write a piece on the rock band, Stillwater.

Stillwater is a middle-of-the-road band, with aspirations of greatness. Fronted by singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), Stillwater has its true strength in the talented guitar player, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Although initially viewing William as “the enemy”, the band quickly warms up to him as he sinks further and further into their world. On tour with the band, William soon finds himself seduced by the fame and “coolness” that Stillwater can provide him…a perception which threatens to destroy his objectivity as a reporter.

Meanwhile, along the way, William is beset with girl problems. They all start, in an oddly Freudian way, with his mother (Frances McDormand). Although she’s portrayed as being obsessively protective of William, it is done in primarily positive tones: she’s a sympathetic smotherer. She fears trouble with her vulnerable child let loose in the wicked world of rock and roll. That trouble appears in the lovely form of groupie (or “Band Aid”), Penny Lane. Penny proves to be a source of turmoil for both William and Russell, but also a source of inspiration.

The script of Almost Famous is very well written, but has a few minor flaws. The film garners a few quick laughs from a handful of anachronistic ’70s jokes, which, although humorous, jar the audience out of the spell created by the remainder of the film. This highlights a problem the film has in balancing an honestly autobiographical tone on one hand, and a satirical Spinal Tap-esque tone on the other. At one moment the film builds a substantial sense of earnest truthfulness, and then it blows it all away for a quick gag.

That said, the dialogue is solidly written, and the interplay between the characters is priceless. In particular, Cameron Crowe gifts the talented actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, with several choice speeches for his role as Lester Bangs, founder of the rock magazine, Creem, and mentor to young William.

Fugit is remarkably passive throughout the film, as he is primarily a sounding board for the other characters. However, the remainder of the cast has energy to spare. Crudup and Lee are vivid as the two distinct Stillwater members. But the true breakout star here is Kate Hudson, who creates a poignant portrait of a young woman who feels the need to cloak herself in the proximity of fame. The seduction of the rock-and-roll lifestyle blinds her to the point that she loses her own identity. Hudson is perfect as the flawed angel…the object of unrequited love, who in turn wastes her love on an unworthy subject.

There is a genuine love of rock and roll on display in Almost Famous. Like the proximity of fame, this love can be quickly seductive, and despite some minor flaws, the film emerges like a breakout superstar with a number one hit. Rock on.

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