With Almost Famous, his first film since 1996's Jerry Maguire, writer-director Cameron Crowe has crafted something far bigger than just autobiography. He's made the first relevant film about rock and roll and the music industry, the first film that lets you in on the secret. Yes, it tells the story of how 15-year-old William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit, wearing innocence like bellbottoms) leaves home and lands a coveted writing assignment for Rolling Stone, covering the rise of would-be stars Stillwater. (The band is an amalgam of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, two bands a teenaged Crowe wrote about for Jann Wenner's once-vital magazine during the early 1970s.) And yes, it's yet another Crowe film in which a young man comes of age and trades his virginity and innocence for a little perspective. Almost Famous picks up where Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything..., Singles, and even Jerry Maguire left off--when children become adults, when lust becomes love, when inspiration becomes faith.
Crowe, however, has made the first film in which the soundtrack is almost more important than anything said in the movie. His is a movie in which Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" heals long-festering wounds between bandmates and friends, in which The Who's "Sparks" propels a boy into manhood, in which Led Zeppelin's "That's The Way" conjures more longing than a dozen pages of dialogue. You don't just watch Almost Famous, you listen to it. You groove on it. (The soundtrack features 17 songs, but the film contains 50--from Joni Mitchell to Black Sabbath, the MC5 to the Raspberries. It's like attending a party at the home of a rock critic who can't wait to play his favorite songs, or at least those that didn't show up on the High Fidelity soundtrack.)
When Anita leaves home at the beginning of the movie, she bequeaths to her little brother (played by a wry, wise Michael Angarano) a stash of vinyl kept beneath her bed. The 10-year-old boy's eyes light up as he peruses the bounty: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, The Who. To an album by The Who, she has affixed a note: "Listen to Tommy with a candle burning, and you will see your entire future." He follows her instructions while 1968 melts into 1973: William has matured--but just barely--and he is now a true believer. Rock and roll is his religion, Creem magazine is his Bible, and rock critic Lester Bangs is his God.
Just as a young Cameron Crowe counted Bangs among his first champions and mentors, the film's Lester (played by a grumpy, grinning Philip Seymour Hoffman) adopts William. Lester does so if only to advise the child before he's corrupted by the music business--"an industry of cool," Lester says, smirking beneath a limp moustache. Lester gives William his first assignment--a thousand words on Black Sabbath for Creem--and dispatches him while insisting William not become friends with the rock stars, who will use and abandon the writer like a groupie with a notepad. But William is too much of a fan to heed Lester's advice: Before long, he's in with the in-crowd. William, a kid who will never be cool in Lester's bleary eyes, suddenly feels cool in the presence of rock stars and their soft female hangers-on (the so-called "band aids," played by the likes of Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk).
Before long, Rolling Stone music editor Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) assigns William a piece: to write 3,000 words about up-and-coming band Stillwater, fronted by singer Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and guitarist Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). But getting close to the band is, at first, impossible. Jeff doesn't trust the baby-faced William ("The enemy--a rock writer") and Russell is always spending his time with the head band aid, a groupie with a broken heart of gold named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, looking and sounding so much like mom Goldie Hawn during her Laugh-In days). But Stillwater, who looks like the Allmans and sounds like Zeppelin, quickly takes to the kid, spilling secrets like cheap wine and herb. "Just make us look cool," Russell begs of William. It doesn't take long for William to discover how impossible a task that is: All rock-and-roll idols melt under the stage's withering spotlight, and Russell, despite his good intentions and good looks, is no different than any of them. He is flawed and fallible. He thinks he's a "golden god," especially when charged on acid, but is nothing more than a sensitive egomaniac.
It is little surprise that Crowe would accurately portray the details of the rock industry: When he was 16, he became a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and spent his teen years circling the world with the likes of Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and David Bowie. He has experienced the venality first-hand: the way tour managers use groupies as gelt in poker games, the tenuous relationships that exist in bands formed by best (hahaha) friends, the way rock critics are suckered into "friendships" with manipulative musicians who crave a little good press. Russell and Jeff don't really like each other--"I'm the frontman," Jeff yells at Russell over a T-shirt photo, in which only Russell is visible, "and you're the guitarist with mystique!"--but they will tolerate and use each other to become famous. Not since Songwriter in 1985 has a film so accurately, if not maniacally, portrayed the sordid details of rock biz: Everyone is willing to trade up, even if it costs them everything on the way down.
Crowe is not so judgmental, perhaps because he has coated his movie in that glossy, quaint haze of nostalgia, which forgives even the most unlikable flaw. (In the end, we can't help but adore Russell, despite his cheating and manipulation.) Clearly, this is the movie Crowe has always wanted to make; it's certainly his most personal--this postcard from the past, this love letter to his days on the private-plane circuit. William is the idealized Cameron: the kid who listens to his mother's just-say-no admonitions, the kid who loses his virginity to three nymphets on the road, the kid who rescues Penny Lane from Russell and his willful disregard. He is sweet, naïve, innocent, and perfect--aghast at the reality of rock and roll. William wants to write a mash note about his favorite band, only to discover they're assholes willing to sell him out when he doesn't give them just what they want. "Friendship is the booze they feed you," Lester warns his young protégé, but he doesn't heed the advice. He swallows, until he drowns in it.
Crowe has made an entire movie based on Led Zeppelin's "Sick Again" from 1975's Physical Graffiti, in which Robert Plant bemoaned the death of the giving, forgiving groupie: "Clutching pages from your teenage dream/In the lobby of the Hotel Paradise," he wailed, a long time ago, "Through the circus of the L.A. queens/How fast you learn the downhill slide." Penny Lane is Crowe's "painted lady in the city of lies"; she, like young William, is the last Real Fan, and she too is ultimately betrayed by her devotion to rock and roll. But William and Penny, children in love with the music if not each other, have too much faith in the beast to let it destroy them. They undoubtedly carry on, hauling out the sad songs on bad days and the fast ones on good days. They grow older, sell their vinyl for CDs, and keep the faith. And in the end, both William Miller and Penny Lane turn into a 43-year-old man named Cameron Crowe.