Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous -- the writer/director's first film since 1996's Jerry Maguire -- tallies up its first simple yet thoroughly inspired moment just seconds into the film, during the opening credits. In a cute conceit connected to the story's protagonist, a 15-year-old aspiring music journalist, we see a hand scrawling out the cast on a yellow pad with a pencil. Among those names is "Frances McDormand," which the writer initially spells "Francis" before quickly erasing the error and flicking away the powdered rubber. Not a line of dialogue had been spoken, and already I was hooked. To crib a line from Crowe's last film, Almost Famous had me at hello.
Crowe has helmed only four films in his career -- Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire and now Almost Famous -- but I'm tempted to call him America's most effortlessly gifted film-maker. He scores again with his semi-autobiographical tale of William Miller (newcomer Patrick Fugit), a precociously talented San Diego youth with dreams of writing for national rock and roll magazines circa 1973. His enthusiasm lands him an assignment for Rolling Stone to write about up-and-coming rock band Stillwater, led by guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). Against the better judgment of his over-protective mother (McDormand), William heads out on a cross-country tour with Stillwater. There he learns about "band-aids" like Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) who lend inspiration to their favorite musicians, and about the sex and drugs side of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. He also learns that it's hard to be a journalist while you also a 15-year-old kid who wants nothing more than to be thought cool by the members of a rock band.
There's nothing particularly profound about a coming-of-age story with a rock 'n' roll backdrop, nor does there need to be. Crowe isn't a "statement" kind of guy, and it doesn't seem to hurt his films in the least. Almost Famous simply drops us into the world of rock in the early '70s, and lets us observe through William's wide eyes. And it's a splendidly rendered world, from the acerbic observations on the death of rock 'n' roll from William's mentor, Creem magazine editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to the hotel room parties full of the requisite mood-altering substances. Like Crowe's other films, this one seems to amble along in no particular hurry to get anywhere, giving the characters lots of room to maneuver, yet never feels unfocused or uninvolving. Occasionally the loose structure gets in the way, as it does when Crowe fails to provide enough foundation for Stillwater's burgeoning popularity either through their music or through their performances. Far more often, the moment-to-moment experience is too enjoyable for anyone to notice.
In large part, that moment-to-moment pleasure comes from Crowe's uncanny ability to direct actors. As he has in his previous films, he puts together a solid cast and makes magic. McDormand, though she remains a too-mannered performer at times, is still entertaining as William's intense mother; Fugit is likeable and innocent in a way that's never bland; Hoffman is yet again is so good you just want to throttle Hollywood for not allowing him to be a star. And then there's the luminous Kate Hudson (and "luminous" is not entirely metaphorical; she should hire John Toll to photograph her for the rest of her life). Like William, Penny only fools herself into thinking it's ever about the music; though she creates herself as a sort of muse, she's just looking to fill an empty space with rock 'n' roll's mythology of freedom. Penny is the story's anchor, and Hudson's facial expressions are so perfect they're heartbreaking.
As deftly as Crowe handles his story, there are still occasional missteps. A broadly played scene during a bumpy flight on the band's private jet veers into sillines
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