It would be hard, or at least foolhardy, to make a movie about a rock & roll band in which the members didn’t lock horns over some petty ego trip. In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s terrifically authentic and heartfelt portrait of a Midwestern rock band on the verge of stardom in 1973, the writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Say Anything … comes up with what may be the definitive scene of backstage squabbling. The argument is all about promotional T-shirts. They’ve just arrived in a box, and Russell (Billy Crudup), the mustached glamour-boy lead guitarist of Stillwater (they’re like a fusion of Foghat and Lynyrd Skynyrd), is featured on the logo a bit too … prominently. Jeff (Jason Lee), the group’s lead singer, is apoplectic, but he can’t bring himself to confess what’s really on his mind: that he’s jealous that Russell is the sexy one. And so the argument erupts into a fury of ritual non-articulation, all of it staged by Crowe with a rich, funny, observant edge.
A little later, we see Stillwater, along with their roadies and groupies, riding on a tour bus as Elton John’s ”Tiny Dancer” plays on the tape player. To our amazement, everyone on the bus, even the rivalrous band members, begins to sing along. It’s a casual epiphany of rock rapture, and it crystallizes the moment when the youth-culture ”community” was falling apart yet everyone was trying — naively, touchingly — to hold it together.
Almost Famous is built around a lovely absurdity. Crowe, who based the film on his formative experiences as a teenage rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, shows us the drugged-out, laid-back, groupie-hopping adventures of Stillwater as taken in through the eyes of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old overachiever from San Diego who has landed a freelance assignment from Rolling Stone to do an article on the band. The members of Stillwater have wives and girlfriends, but the tour is their playpen, their floating air castle. William, with his tousled mop top and schoolboy cherub’s face, is like a worldly-wise Danny Partridge, and the central irony is almost too obvious: This rosy-cheeked kid, who looks barely old enough to have had his first orgasm, has been plugged into a slovenly den of sin — the perpetual, take-it-easy party/hangover of the early ’70s.
The joke, however, soon ripens. William, who was skipped ahead two grades by his adoringly strict, college-prof mom (Frances McDormand), has a mind that’s years ahead of his body. He’s canny and ambitious, with feelers — an Apollonian straight arrow surveying a Dionysian landscape of childish, pleasure-seeking freaks. In spirit, he’s the oldest adult on the bus.
The early ’70s remain a hazy era in American pop memory, because they were defined by their indefinition — caught between the counterculture and official culture, between the moment when a guy with a guitar who guzzled Jack Daniel’s and slept with a parade of adoring teenage chicklets was seen as part of a ”movement” or simply as a strutting glam whore getting his rocks off. Almost Famous taps the era’s contradictory glories: its druggy myopia and sleaze, but also its freedom.
William gets drawn into journalistic orbit by Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the legendary rock critic, who warns him that the music’s untamed spirit is already dying. Bangs may be an outsider, a puritanical misfit (he prides himself on being ”uncool”), but he’s the only one who grasps the big picture — that the revolution has given way to an omnivorous marketing machine, one that invites writers to make ”friends” with stars as a way of co-opting them. William, amid the Stillwater entourage, develops an unrequited crush on Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a fan who sleeps with Russell and convinces herself that he loves her back. Hudson makes this angel-child groupie a girl who seeks power through sex, only to confront the sorrowful truth of what she’s trading away.
Almost Famous has a lingering, indulgent rhythm that emerges from the flow of the era but results in some structural awkwardness (especially in the final third). Yet the performances by Crudup, Hudson, Lee, McDormand, Hoffman, and newcomer Fugit have a beautiful, unforced naturalism, and the movie is laced with memorable moments: Russell the heartland rock god threatening to jump off a roof during a messianic acid trip; a slick new manager making his pitch to take over the band, his mercenary cynicism only a beat away from Stillwater’s own desire to be on the cover of Rolling Stone; and the band on stage, performing with exuberant shamelessness — the last time, perhaps, that boogie-down male rock stars could truly believe that the world belonged to them.
William, desperate to nail the story, keeps trying to land a sit-down interview with Russell. It never quite comes off, but what he ultimately realizes is that the swirl of life around him is the story. That was the early ’70s, all right: an era that found its purpose in having no purpose. Crowe, staying close to his memories, has gotten it, for perhaps the first time, onto the screen. A-