Just a handful of rock 'n' roll movies have gotten it right. Only A Hard Day's Night and Velvet Goldmine come to mind. But here's another one to add to the list. And let's get something straight right from the get-go. There's a really weird rumor going around that Almost Famous in some way resembles This Is Spinal Tap, and that if you didn't like Spinal Tap you won't like Almost Famous. Balderdash! Both films are about music and musicians, but that's about it. And while we're on the subject, if you didn't like Spinal Tap, your sense of humor needs a little tuning up.
Almost Famous is the based-on-legend story of writer/director Cameron Crowe's (Jerry Maguire) early years of working on the fringes of show business. In real life, he started writing for rock magazines -- first Creem, then Rolling Stone -- at the age of 15. He joined the staff of Rolling Stone as a "veteran writer" at 16. In the film, Crowe's alter ego William Miller (newcomer Patrick Fugit) is growing up in San Diego in 1969, under the strict rule of a terribly square and overprotective mom (another in a string of fabulous performances by Frances McDormand) and a restless, inquisitive older sister (Zooey Deschanel).
Turned on to rock music by his sister, William is immediately bitten by the bug, and just a couple years down the line, begins writing critiques of the stuff he likes and sending them to the legendary -- and many feel the first -- rock critic and founder of Creem, Lester Bangs (perfectly pegged by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Taken under the wing of Bangs, who likes him for his innocence or maybe for the promise he sees in him, he's given an important piece of advice: Be honest and unmerciful.
With a number of stories published in Creem under his belt, William's work is noticed by Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres (a slightly uneven portrayal by Terry Chen), who hires him, sight unseen, over the phone in 1973 to do an up close and personal piece on the (fictional) mid-level band, Stillwater.
And there are the two legs the film stands on: the fact that this young, inexperienced writer is suddenly thrown into the raucous world of a rock band on tour, and that no one at the magazine knows he's only a kid.
Both of those subjects, as well as most of the events and certifiably oddball people he meets on his cross-country whirlwind of a bus trip -- and later a plane trip -- are terrifically related by Crowe, who did indeed live a good part of this lifestyle for a few years in the mid '70s. His presentations of the groupies -- they prefer calling themselves "band-aides" -- and of the dramas played out backstage are delivered both with good humor and a dose of reality that only someone who was there could express in this way. Crowe has said in recent interviews that although Stillwater never existed, if he had to pick a real band they reminded him of, it would be the Eagles.
The film also pauses from time to time to look at the worry going through Mom's mind as she waits by the phone back at home, wondering what her little boy is experiencing with all of these supposedly drugged-out, sexed-up hippies. But not to worry, the film is much more light than serious. There's a wonderful phone conversation between mom and the outgoing, self-centered, supposed leader of the band, Russell (Billy Crudup, one of those chameleon actors who will most likely get quite a bit of positive notice for what he does here), that successfully crosses into both moods.
Fugit doesn't show much of an acting range, but then his part simply calls for him to wear a wide-eyed look on his face as he's taking in all these new experiences. But both Crudup and Jason Lee, playing lead guitarist and lead singer, respectively, are absolutely convincing as real rock stars. And Kate Hudson is right on the mark in a multi-layered performance as Penny Lane, the most popular of the band-aides.
The only part of the film that doesn't sit exactly right is toward the end when some problems between William and the folks who make decisions at Rolling Stone arise over story content and the fine art of fact checking. The scene, which is an integral part of the story, isn't developed enough, and is kind of glossed over with an easy way out approach in the script.
But let's hear it for music supervisor Danny Bramson, who has filled this film with a stunning selection of sounds from the glorious history of rock. Sure, there's the usual: the Who, Hendrix, Led Zep, the Chipmunks. But anyone who has the insight to include the rarely heard tune "Dear Jill," by the sorely unsung band Blodwyn Pig, hey, there's a guy who knows his rock 'n' roll.