Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe’s semiautobiographical, coming-of-age snapshot of the early 70s is about the spirit of rock & roll, and the real and surrogate family ties within its backstage arena. It’s funny, affecting, and smart.

Almost Famous is a paean not only to a bygone musical era, but to all the women Crowe loved and looked up to, and who loved him back — especially his overprotective mom.  As a psychology professor and a single mom, Frances McDormand is suitably strong and protective of 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit).  We and the film absorb her warmheartedness, sensing that her son’s affectionate nature is indeed her legacy.

We smile at William’s benign endurance in the hurried transition to adulthood. As the cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, he profiles an up-and-coming midlevel band, Stillwater. He misses a lot of school in the process, and he learns a lot about responsibility.

It’s 1973, and William pinballs between his mom and his older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel). When she moves out of the house, his sister leaves him a cache of LPs. At first he hides it so as not to incur his mom’s rock-appalled wrath.  Soon, though, the rock bug bites, and William tags his mentor, the late Lester Bangs (a wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), now-defunct Creem magazine’s resident sage, for any word he can get.

He lucks out. Bangs assigns William a thousand-word review of the local Black Sabbath concert for thirty-five bucks. Parting words? “Be honest and unmerciful.”

Warning him not to take drugs, Mom drops him off, and William is thrust rapidly into a road trek with Stillwater and their “band-aid” groupies — which becomes a rock & roll mill. As the tour escalates, he gets a call from Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres. Unaware of the kid’s age, Torres hires him to profile the band on the basis of William’s articles for school.

Stillwater gains greater and greater success, and Crowe details acutely their growing commercialization. As singer Jeff Bebe, Jason Lee’s performance feels particularly lived-in, and everyone fits the bill quite nicely, beady garb and all.

Occasionally getting counsel from Mom and Bangs via long distance, William falls for a groupie, the bright, soulful Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). She’s linked to the band’s married guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) who, by turns sunny and swarthy, is caught in a spotlight tug of war with frontman Bebe.

Almost Famous is a bit too eager to please.  It’s overly cute — like William with his knapsack, bowl haircut, and puckish face; and the conclusion is pat and predictable. But for me this begs the question. I delight in the valentine that Crowe shares with us.

I really like this movie.

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