*Almost Famous (R)
Director Cameron Crowe's autobiographical film venture turns out to be an endearing coming-of-age tale, and an accurate period piece depicting the drugged-out dreaminess of the 1973 rock scene when everyone felt beautiful and full of what it takes to be great.
The director of Jerry Maguire and Say Anything, as most everyone must know by now given the film's high-profile media status, was something of a teenage wunderkind, a budding journalist who, at age 15, covered the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Who for Rolling Stone magazine. Dubbed William Miller in the film and played by likable newcomer Patrick Fugit, Crowe as a teenager is depicted as a quiet observer, a brainy outsider and protg of legendary rock critic Lester Bang (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gives him his first assignment -- $35 for 1,000 words on Black Sabbath.
William's fondness for rock 'n' roll is one of the better, more subtle sentiments given life in the film. When his older sister Anita, wonderfully played by woozy Zooey Duschanel, leaves home to escape their mother and to become a stewardess, she leaves William her record collection, advising him to "listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you'll see your entire future." Their eccentric widowed mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), a fervent opponent of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and, apparently, anything commercial or synthetic, is painfully conflicted when she allows William to follow his dream by hitting the road with rock band Stillwater on their "Almost Famous" tour. It's William's inaugural assignment for Rolling Stone, and he is immediately torn between his growing friendship with the band and the need to be "honest and unmerciful," as advised by Bang.
Complicating matters is groupie Penny Lane, an ethereal beauty played by Kate Hudson. Penny is the kind of girl rock stars write love songs about before disposing of them in anticipation of the next tour. William falls in love with her and sees the band, partly, through her starstruck eyes.
The bulk of the film follows Stillwater, William, Penny, the rest of the groupies and the stage crew across America in search of fame and glory. The backstage scenes reveal hilarious ego trips, like when Stillwater lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee, Chasing Amy) rips into his best friend/musical rival, lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) because the band's T-shirts place Russell upfront and Jeff in the fading background. "I'm the front man and you're the guitarist with mystique!" he shrieks.
McDormand anchors the film as the ever vigilant mother at home, admonishing William and band members over the phone not to do drugs and announcing to unsuspecting hotel bellhops, "Rock stars have kidnapped my son!" And stealing the show, as usual, is Hoffman. As Lester Bang, he takes William under his wing, carefully pointing out the difference between the cool people, whose beauty will fade, and the two of them. When William calls in the middle of the night and sounds surprised that Bang is at home, Bang dolefully replies, "I'm always home -- I'm uncool."
Almost Famous is well-scripted, meticulously cast, skillfully acted, and best of all it has a beating heart that explains the strange end of the classic rock era with empathy, humor and grace.