“Almost Famous” comes to screens at the end of a somewhat disappointing movie summer, breathing Oscar-buzz, heartfelt seriousness back into cinemas that spent recent months showcasing morphing mutants and cars that crash. Some four years after the highly successful release of 1996’s “Jerry Maguire,” director Cameron Crowe offers up an autobiographical film with a sentimental nostalgia for youth and rock ‘n’ roll, revisiting his precocious teenage years following rock-bands as a writer for Rolling Stone. “Almost Famous” is relentlessly moving, undoubtedly one of the year’s best movies so far, as an ensemble depiction of rock stars on the road. While the boy-to-man placed at the movie’s heart–Crowe’s own pubescent-self–leaves “Almost Famous” lacking a complex center at its core, the film’s amazing framing of what happens when music, fame, and sex collide is finally profoundly affecting.
Crowe starts his film in the early 70’s days inside his childhood home, offering himself up in the character of William Miller (early and briefly played by Michæl Angarano, and then as a teen for the film’s length, by Patrick Fugit), a peace-loving music-lover adrift in the chaos of his family. His intensely complex single-mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), is a hyper-opinionated teacher, one whose conflation of challenging obsessions range from anti-commercialism to anti-rock’n’roll. William’s sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), soon fleesthe overwhelming specter of the house, with a boyfriend and a job as a stewardess as her excuse, leaving behind a rock-record collection that soon takes over the mind of William.
Transfixed by the transcendent escapism of rock music, William adopts the notoriously acerbic music critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his mentor, and begins writing about rock for Creem magazine. He starts out banging at the back-stage door in an unsuccessful attempt to interview Black Sabbath, but ends up being adopted by the (fictitious) rock-band, Stillwater. William soon leaves home on tour with Stillwater, having at fifteen gotten a gig profiling the band for Rolling Stone by impersonating someone older over the phone. Taken into their debauched collective of rock-god ego and super-sexy groupies, William’s connections are as uber-fan to Stillwater’s gifted guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and groupie to the queen of the teen groupies, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
Almost Famous–written, as well as directed, by Crowe–offers its greatest gifts through William’s eyes as he grows up throughout America with the band. The euphoric heights of Stillwater members’ as they play on stage and the great depths of the groupies who float from band to band for sex are richly and beautiful captured in moving performances and the characters’ revealingly succinct dialogue. As Stillwater’s lead singer, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), struggles with the complications of his own growing fame, Bangs grapples with how to be both a critic and a fan of what you love, and Penny Lane reaches out for connection in a subculture that renders it virtually impossible. Through Crowe’s William, we ride along in the middle of a movie world more multi-layered than what we’ve seen on film in a long time, going beyond rock to dissect the grander themes of love, desire, and suffering.
Progressively, the harshness of what’s really behind the music becomes the greater focus of “Almost Famous,” when the band’s growing almost famous status means the relationship between people and what they love threatens to turn distorted and misshapen. Elaine is terrified she’s losing her son to rock ‘n’ roll, Russell is seduced by his own growing sense of grandiosity, and Penny garners only distance from the object of her desire, Russell, in the midst of her own spiraling insecurities. William, himself, loses his virginity but longs for Penny who yearns for Russell. Here, one would expect from William a growingly tangled internal web as he struggles to simultaneously idolize and accurately portray through words what he has witnessed that has so moved him. But, unfortunately, Crowe endows his own writerly subject–Stillwater and its women–with more true tension and complexity than his own recreated self. We experience little of William as a precocious writer, but instead get a secondary, smiling performance of a boy who seems only to want to watch things happen around him. We are, finally, left without a critical, complicated eye at the center of the storm through which to see things more fully.
Regardless, “Almost Famous” is still an essential movie, if at least as a great relief to the kind of superficial flash-and-pop we were subjected to all summer and at best to rediscover what a great new world a brilliantly rendered ensemble cast can create. Crudup’s performance alone–startling in its ability to straddle both subtlety and profundity–is Oscar-talk worthy, and Hudson does a graceful job of personifying the purity of music’s muse. Other amazing acts include Lee’s unlikely transformation to rock star, Deschanel’s carefully angry sister role, and McDormand’s flawless depiction of a most startlingly unusual mother. “Almost Famous” is, in the end, far better than almost good enough.