**** out of ****
September 28, 2001
BY ADAM KEMPENAAR
Near the end of High Fidelity, soul-searching record store owner Rob Gordon (John Cusack) reveals his "Top Five Dream Jobs." No. 1: Journalist for Rolling Stone, 1976-1979.
William Miller (Patrick Fugit), the 15-year-old main character in Cameron Crowe's remarkable new film, Almost Famous, just misses the cut -- the movie is set in 1973. However, we shouldn't quibble over minor details. I can't recall exactly what I was doing at age 15, but I'm pretty sure you won't find it on anybody's Top Five list.
For fans of Crowe's previous work, William is a familiar character. Like Tom Cruise's sports-agent-with-a-conscience in Jerry Maguire and Say Anything's Lloyd Dobbler, William is somewhat of an outcast -- the one person of character and integrity in a world full of phonies.
Assigned to cover the fictional rock band Stillwater for Rolling Stone (they don't know he's 15), William leaves his overprotective mother, played brilliantly by Frances McDormand (Fargo), and sets out on the road. As you might expect, he encounters plenty of sex and drugs to go along with the rock 'n' roll. But the clichés end there. Almost Famous is much more than a simple nostalgia trip. It's a story about the loss of innocence -- a young man's coming-of age at a time when the music business is becoming more important than the music.
Appropriately, Crowe's cast is an impressive ensemble of future stars. As William, newcomer Fugit says the most when saying nothing at all. His expressions and gestures speak volumes, which is as much a testament to Fugit's acting ability as it is to Crowe's skills as a writer and director.
In a role originally intended for Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup (Jesus' Son) projects just the right mixture of rock star destructiveness and charm as the talented but conflicted lead-guitarist Russell Hammond. Kate Hudson (200 Cigarettes) shines as the philosophical groupie Penny Lane, who becomes the object of William's affection. And Philip Seymour Hoffman (Magnolia) turns in another complex, albeit brief, performance as William's mentor, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. "We are uncool," he tells William, explaining the difference between journalists and rock stars.
My only criticism of Almost Famous is that everything comes together so neatly in the end. The conflicts are resolved too cleanly, almost as if Crowe was afraid to leave his audience with anything but smiles on their faces. But this is a minor complaint about the movie Film Comment magazine calls "the best movie ever about the rock 'n' roll life."
After all, Crowe should know. The movie is based on his own adolescent experiences covering such bands as the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin as a writer for Rolling Stone. By exploring his own past, Crowe has produced his finest film to date, and one of the best films of the year.