With Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe has made a hugely entertaining, nearly pitch-perfect film about rock & roll and the moment when, at the age of 15, he began writing professionally about bands the rest of us only dreamed about from inside adolescence. The story of an innocent coming of awkward, untimely age, the film shimmers with the irresistible pleasures that define Hollywood at its best — it’s polished like glass, funny, knowing and bright, and filled with characters whose lives are invariably sexier and more purposeful than our own. A dedicated student of Hollywood, Crowe has an instinct for pop entertainment and for what the audience wants, and while the film is only his fourth as a director, it feels as if a lifetime of movie-love has been poured into every gesture and word. It was movie- and audience-love both that made Jerry Maguire his biggest critical and financial success to date, and if that film was finally as corrupt as it was seductive, so what?
An impeccably wrought lie that dazzles as brightly as its star‘s bicuspids, Jerry Maguire pulled off the near-impossible trick of being the very thing it’s about: a sellout movie about a sellout. (More than either Wag the Dog or Primary Colors, it stands as the defining film of the Clinton years.) Almost Famous is the mirror image of that lie, and while it occasionally falters in the telling of its own untruths, it‘s more self-aware and honest than Jerry Maguire, and so close to greatness that it throws a new light on its writer-director. Crowe no longer fits the profile of the studio hire who forfeited his quirks and his skepticism in order to make Tom Cruise look good. The guy who swapped the spooky, urgent romanticism of Say Anything. . . for the thudding whimsies of Singles, then boosted his career with Jerry Maguire’s calculating charms, turns out to be more than a master of finessed intimacies, a pop-music savant with unforced show-business timing. The entertainer turns out to be a filmmaker of ideas.
If Jerry Maguire is about embracing the lies we tell about ourselves and the world, Almost Famous is about admitting they‘re lies and embracing them anyway, with a resigned, melancholic sigh. Set in the early 1970s, it closely tracks Crowe’s own experiences as a pubescent rock critic who learned that the roads to both art and adulthood are paved with compromise. The director‘s alter ego is William Miller (initially played by Michael Angarano, then by Patrick Fugit), a wide-eyed, slightly stunned-looking kid who, while tucked into the family station wagon one day, is horrified to learn that he’s actually 11, not 13. (”This explains so much!“ he wails.) His mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), has skipped William two grades for the same reason she serves soy cutlets and bans rock music from the house: to shelter her kids from mediocrity. A radical individualist who dispenses mothering like castor oil, in heaping spoonfuls with no refined sugar, Elaine wants her children to follow their own course. ”Who needs a crowd?“ she asks with poignant sincerity, oblivious to the fact that when you‘re a kid, and most other times too, all you really want is to fit in.
Elaine drives away her daughter, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), but before the 18-year-old splits she bequeaths two indispensable gifts on her brother, a stash of rock albums and the promise that one day he’ll be cool. Crowe, who wrote the screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which, in turn, was based on his nonfiction book), has a gift for mining the dramas of everyday life, especially the sort we unleash whenever we want a little extra attention. He‘s particularly good at capturing the self-aggrandizement of youth: When Anita announces her plans to run away and become a stewardess, it’s with the dramatic flourish of Scarlett O‘Hara’s twilight ode to a turnip. William is quieter than his sister — an observer, not a performer. He‘s a great listener, a talent that will serve him enormously as a music critic (and later, of course, as a screenwriter), allowing him to slip almost unnoticed, and with an all-access pass, into the pleasure dome of 1970s rock & roll.
Almost Famous traces William’s journey backstage through his involvement with a band called Stillwater and its omnipresent groupies, who, with their spring-action legs, make literal the choice faced by every critic who spends time in the field: To fuck the talent or not? Although the film is about pleasure — about the joys of guitar licks as well as those of underage flesh — its more resonant themes are seduction and seduction‘s partner in crime, betrayal. William starts following Stillwater on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine. As the tour evolves, then devolves, so too do his relationships with both the band’s lead guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup), and the guitarist‘s sometime girlfriend, a practiced sycophant named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). William falls for both, but as with his affair with Rolling Stone, they’re alliances fraught with the most subtle of dangers. Or, as Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) says of William and the band, doing his part as the film‘s anarchic moral conscience: ”Oh, no! You didn’t become friends with them?“
William meets Bangs, a onetime editor of Creem, when he‘s already under the spell of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and all the other swinging dicks of rock. He wants to write, and turns to Bangs, the unlikeliest of mentors. A pasty Buddha in a black leather jacket, his whine dragging like a whipped dog, Bangs advises his well-scrubbed protege to be ”honest and unmerciful,“ counsel that echoes throughout the film, working an insistent counterpoint to the more obvious story about a fan boy and his idol. Bangs’ status as a critical legend was shaped as much by his grotesque excesses — booze, pills, NyQuil — as by his ferocious, take-no-prisoners ideas on rock and its industry, ideas that seem more radical with the passing of each MTV award show. He makes a strange guru for the fresh-faced William and an even stranger guiding light for the adult filmmaker who wrote the line ”You had me at ‘Hello.’“ But it‘s Bangs who saves Almost Famous from being Jerry Maguire, which in many other ways it recalls, including a denouement so egregiously phony it literally ends on a smiling face.
Like William, Crowe didn’t fully follow Bangs‘ advice; you get the sense that no matter how honest he might be, he just doesn’t have the heart to be unmerciful. That characterized him as a journalist, and it has also defined, and limited, him as a filmmaker — until now, his movies have been unfailingly nice (even his visual style seems overly polite), which is why they‘ve also been more enjoyable than essential. Almost Famous isn’t buffed to the high-gloss perfection of Jerry Maguire, and this works both against and for the film. Although he‘s good with actors — McDormand and Seymour are predictably vivid — Crowe has a less than ideal trio heading up his cast. Fugit is a suitable blank slate, but he doesn’t have the chops for his big emotional moment, and a confrontation between William and Penny Lane nearly blows the final act. Crudup is likable but far too tame to be anybody‘s rock & roll wet dream — there’s no whiff of erotic danger, as there is when Brad Pitt, for whom Crowe originally wrote the part, slithers around Fight Club like Iggy Pop, sacrificing himself on the altar of our insatiable desire.
For her part, Hudson makes a regrettably bland groupie (she‘s inherited her looks from Goldie Hawn, but none of her mother’s lunatic charm), although she does star in one of the film‘s best scenes, a scene that offers a key to the film as well as a brilliant coda. It comes after countless miles of road and endless rounds of hotel agonies, as an OD’ing Penny Lane gets a tube stuffed down her throat. As she begins vomiting up a Quaalude-and-booze cocktail, William dreamily stares at her, the sounds of ”My Cherie Amour“ muffling her gags. William is looking at one thing, the music is telling him something else — and what he‘s choosing to believe isn’t the truth before him but the music, a beautiful lie in which love is eternal and the girl is always as lovely as a summer day. Like much great art, Almost Famous is about the search for some glimmer of authentic meaning. Everyone searches differently. Lester Bangs took a swan dive into the gutter and died at the age of 33. Cameron Crowe wrote for slick magazines and studios. He kept living, no doubt very comfortably, but as it so happens, he never did stop listening to Bangs‘ voice, which is why, on his fourth try as a director, he’s gotten it right.