Long before Cameron Crowe made Cuba Gooding, Jr. a star in "Jerry Maguire", introduced the world to Pearl Jam in "Singles", made his directorial debut with the precocious high-school drama "Say Anything", and wrote both the best-selling novel and screenplay for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High", the talented writer/director/producer was a teenage rock 'n roll critic. At the age of 15, Crowe's first career as a journalist was already in full swing, writing articles for Creem, The Los Angeles Times, and Playboy. By the age of 16, he had joined the staff of Rolling Stone magazine, where he worked his way up to associate editor by profiling many of the influential rock artists of the time, such as David Bowie, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton.
So it should come as no surprise that Crowe's latest film, "Almost Famous", detailing the coming of age of a teenage rock critic on the road, is little more than a thinly-veiled autobiography of his own formative years. Humorous, touching, and even inspirational, it is evident that Crowe put a lot of effort into crafting "Almost Famous". With strict attention paid to both the minutiae of the music world as well as the emotional truths uncovered by its Crowe-surrogate hero, "Almost Famous" is an extraordinary film that is easily ranks among the year's best.
Standing in for Crowe at the age of 15 is Patrick Fugit, who plays William Miller, a smart kid who seems terminally 'uncool'. His college professor mother (Frances McDormand, seen recently in "The Wonder Boys") knows that he is special and destined for great things, and goes out of her way to protect him from the corrupting influences of the world, which include sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. Unfortunately, her fanatical efforts drive everyone up the wall, including William's older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who runs off to become an airline stewardess. However, before she leaves, Anita bequeaths her record collection to William, kicking off his rock journalism career.
At first, William writes album reviews for his school newspaper, but he quickly graduates to Creem magazine when he meets its editor, the late legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman of "Magnolia"), who eventually becomes a mentor to the budding journalist. As his first assignment, he is asked to interview Black Sabbath backstage. Unfortunately, after being dropped off at the concert hall by his "Don't do drugs!"-shouting mother, he finds himself shut-out by the overzealous security. Fortunately, he earns the sympathy of Black Sabbath's opening act, a fictional band called Stillwater, and is invited by lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, who voiced Ashitaka in "Princess Mononoke") to hang out with them.
Though the members of Stillwater are skeptical of the rock critic within their midst, they soon warm up to the earnest and hard-working kid. William also comes to know three self-proclaimed 'band-aids', who trade sex for life in the fast lane: Penny Lane (Kate Hudson of "200 Cigarettes"), Polexia (Anna Paquin of "X-Men"), and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk of "American History X"). During the course of the evening, he becomes most attached to Penny, who acts as his informal tour guide into the wild world of rock stars.
Not long after, William receives an offer from Rolling Stone to write a feature article on Stillwater, which involves an all-expense-paid trip to follow the band around on tour. Though his mother is dead-set against it, William gladly takes the opportunity and sets off on a bus headed for the American southwest. Along the way, William sees the pervasive hypocrisy of the music industry first-hand while learning some harsh lessons in life.
Like all of Crowe's films, "Almost Famous" is more than just an evening's entertaining diversion. With a script rich in subtext, there's a lot more at work beneath the surface in this film. Like the intriguing thematic triumvirate of love, loyalty, and idealism presented in "Jerry Maguire", "Almost Famous" subtly tackles the idea of honesty through its principal characters. William, as the smart and sincere rock critic, learns first-hand the difference between what people will say in an interview and how they behave. On the flip-side, Penny and Russell are two self-destructive characters who are blinded by their own rose-colored delusions, unable to be honest to themselves and those around them. For these two, William is the catalyst that helps them confront their own faults and failings. One memorable scene has Penny putting up a brave face as she comes to understand her true place in Russell's world, while another key scene has Russell finally coming to grips with what William must report on in his Rolling Stone article. Conversely, William's relationships with Penny and Russell help him understand that speaking the truth, no matter how hurtful, is the most important thing he can do, as both a journalist, and a friend. Through their shared experience, they are able to navigate through the facetious and sometimes fraudulent world in which they inhabit.
In addition to Crowe's witty and heartfelt writing, "Almost Famous" is rife with splendid performances. Fugit is credible as the keen yet emotionally-naive protagonist, and it is difficult not to empathize with him as his character experiences the euphoria of being in the 'cool crowd' for the very first time, is berated by his editors for missed deadlines, and experiences the heart-breaking realities of life on the road.
Hudson also delivers a breakthrough performance as Penny, whose laissez-faire attitude masks the wounded psyche of a deeply-troubled young woman. Crudup is likable as the leader of the band, and he easily switches gears to match the complexities of his character, from his larger-than-life public persona to his reserved demeanor in his dealings with William. McDormand is priceless as William's mother and manages to steal a number of scenes, such as when her character chastises Russell over the phone over the welfare of her son, while Hoffman brings the right amount of world-weary cynicism in his portrayal of Lester Bangs (apparently, Crowe was so moved by Hoffman's portrayal that he thought the actor had managed to channel the spirit of his late mentor). The only sore point in terms of the cast would be Paquin-- fans of this gifted young actress will find her criminally underused in this otherwise flawless film.
In a year when Hollywood seems to be churning out juvenile gross-out comedies ("Scary Movie") or uninspired genre offerings ("Gone in 60 Seconds"), it's refreshing to see a film that actually has something to say. Fans of Cameron Crowe who have been long anticipating his next film will not be disappointed by "Almost Famous", and non-fans will certainly develop an appreciation for his skill as a filmmaker. "Almost Famous" is almost perfect in its conception, intention, and execution, and not only does it offer some serious competition to "Jerry Maguire" as Crowe's best film, but it also could be the best film of the year.