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'Almost Famous'

Like a Rolling Stone: 'Almost Famous' captures Cameron Crowe's early days on the rock 'n' roll beat

Friday, September 22, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

I don't know exactly when rock 'n' roll lost its innocence. Cameron Crowe points out some of the signposts in his movie "Almost Famous," a sweet and bighearted tribute to the people and the music he covered as a teen-age rock writer on tour with some of the seminal bands of the 1970s.

'Almost Famous'

RATING: R, for language, drug content and brief nudity

STARRING: Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit

DIRECTOR: Cameron Crowe


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 1/2 stars

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Unlike Don McLean, who declared in his song "American Pie" that Buddy Holly's death marked "the day the music died," Crowe's passion never soured into disillusionment.

Sure, disc jockeys went to jail for taking payola to plug records. Radio stations censored Mick Jagger when he urged, "Let's spend the night together." Bob Dylan made rock an instrument of political protest, Vietnam gave it a cause and drugs helped create the lifestyle. Then came heavy metal, synthesizers, disco, punk, MTV, gangsta rap, corporate sponsorship, boy bands and teen divas.

But the audience changed, too. How could the music be as pure as when we were teen-agers and the songs reflected our nervous energy, our naive hopes and our chaotic temperaments?

"Almost Famous" reminds us what it felt like with a combination of factual verisimilitude and emotional honesty that transcends its nostalgic glaze. Yet it doesn't tarnish writer-director Crowe's fond memories of people seeking a place to belong and the love of a makeshift family. The exhilaration of the music drew them together and served as an excuse for the foibles that might tear them apart.

Newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the Crowe character, here named William Miller. His overcautious mother (Frances McDormand) has worked hard to expand his intellectual horizons yet protect him from pernicious influences. But when William's older sister (Zooey Deschanel) rebels and gives him her forbidden stash of rock albums, the die is cast.

William meets the legendary rock writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who counsels him not to get too close to his subjects. Don't let them become your friends, he says. Don't compromise your objectivity.

But how can a 15-year-old kid resist when Rolling Stone magazine (they think he's much older) offers him an assignment to go on tour with the up-and-coming band Stillwater? The band sees him as the enemy, although they'd love being on the cover of the magazine. Their attention proves seductive, and so does Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), leader of a group of camp followers who resent being called groupies. They prefer to be known as Band Aids.

It seems inevitable that William will lose his innocence, both psychologically and sexually. But as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that he isn't alone.

Penny builds her own illusion by convincing herself that she's there for the music and that lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) really loves her. Russell thinks he's more talented than the rest of the band, an attitude that will lead to turmoil. But the real threat arises when Stillwater starts doing well enough to attract the big-money sharks.

That's when rock was corrupted, according to Crowe -- when the family was forced to turn into a business. Ultimately, each of the characters must face some ugly truths. Yet the power of the music -- and of the family -- wins out in the end. For Crowe at least, rock 'n' roll will never die.

For all of its dramatic moments, "Almost Famous" generally maintains a tone of amiable good humor. As Elton John might have sung, it remembers when rock was fun. Some of Crowe's better one-liners also put things in perspective. Urging Stillwater to think about the future, someone says that the Rolling Stones certainly aren't going to be still playing rock 'n' roll by the time they turn 50.

The story takes place at a time when many cast members hadn't been born yet. But they get into the spirit of the piece quite well. Fugit literally plays William as a wide-eyed waif, yet in the end he sees things the most clearly. Hudson radiates guileless charm, a real teen angel. Crudup is solid, although I wish he had been just a bit more charismatic, and Jason Lee as Stillwater's lead singer is an effective foil.

But the adults do their best to steal the show. Hoffman provides the movie's soul in his brief scenes, counseling William as a kind of lonely voice who knows what he has given up in order to remain undefiled -- there are all kinds of virgins in this film.

McDormand gives the movie its heart in a fabulous performance. Most of the actresses in Hollywood would have turned William's mother into a cliche or a joke. Only someone of McDormand's talent could meld all of the character's facets into a recognizably real person -- overbearingly protective but utterly well-meaning, embarrassingly clueless about some things but worldly wise about others, stern and stubborn but warm and loving. Don't be surprised if the role puts McDormand in line for another Academy Award.

Only a few scenes in the movie played false to me, notably a moment-of-truth confrontation aboard an airplane that feels much too much like a plot device. There's also a bit of contrivance in the resolution. But Crowe's vision is so strong that the movie couldn't really end any other way.

"Almost Famous" earns its place in the sun.

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