March 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Almost Famous is the tale of a 15-year-old rock journalist who latches on to a slow-witted band of second-tier ’70s sludge-rockers, lucks into a prestigious magazine assignment, falls in love with a luminous tart, and navigates increasingly confounding quandaries of journalistic ethics and parental supervision. It’s also, of course, the true tale of writer director Cameron Crowe, whose early career as a teenage Rolling Stone writer provided both the film’s inspiration and foundation.

Fortunately, the film is equally shaped by Crowe’s experience as a music fan, which saves it from the ’70s kitsch and coming-of-age clichés that might have doomed a less musically savvy movie. As William Miller’s (Patrick Fugit) sister announces at one point, ”This song [Simon & Garfunkel’s ”America”] explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess,” and Crowe, too, lets great pop songs do a lot of the work for him. Take the now (almost) famous ”Tiny Dancer” tour bus sing along, which is meant to suggest that a nomadic pack of rock hedonists is really no different from a nice suburban family, or a brief interlude in which ”band-aid” Penny Lane (the Oscar-nominated Kate Hudson) twirls around an empty concert venue like a dying ember while Cat Stevens’ ”The Wind” purrs on the soundtrack.

Expressed in words, this stuff is hopelessly cheeseball; in song, it feels like truth. After all, this is what good pop music does — it opens you up to real feelings you’d ordinarily dismiss as embarrassing or simplistic. With Almost Famous, Crowe serves a two-hour feast of corny notions about love, belonging, and honesty, all made palatable when heard through the filter of classic rock & roll tunes, and the result is as sappily, wonderfully poetic as an Elton John ballad.

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