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When Rock Was Young

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2000


    'Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit plays a young rock journalist in "Almost Famous." (by Neal Preston/Dreamworks)
"Almost Famous" is a remembrance of bands past, as reconstructed by someone who fancies himself the Proust of rock-and-roll. It takes the rock movie into regions it has never been before: penetrating gazes at truth in character and talent, but at the same time--it's no expose--it evinces a sense of overwhelming sweetness and an abiding faith in the ability of people, including musicians, to do the right thing.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who's had one of the most magical careers of anyone in his generation, reinvents his adventures as a 15-year-old reporter for Rolling Stone on the road with a band on the cusp of mega-success. But despite some charming adventures and some extremely vivid characters, its true narrative is internal: how a nobody kid with talent and ambition, but also a pantsload of doubts, created himself as a professional journalist comfortable in the hottest, fastest track in the world. The boy who left his mom's San Diego bungalow for the first time could not have written "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (both book and screenplay) or directed "Jerry Maguire," but the young man who returned a few weeks later was a sure thing.

Crowe (played in the film under the nom de guerre William Miller by Patrick Fugit) was a precocious child from an intellectual background (his mother, zany yet intense and played by Frances McDormand, was a college professor) who cultivated a passion for the music of his generation. But unlike boys who dreamed of being rock stars, he dreamed of covering rock stars. He wanted to be a critic. His yearning was not to sing it or play it, but to explain it.

Like many a memoir, "Almost Famous" can be legitimately criticized for its stately pace and lack of eagerness to uncover legitimate narrative issues, and perhaps a tad too much self-absorption. It just sort of meanders along for a while, watching as William finds a mentor in an acerbic truth-teller named Lester Bangs (played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman) who edits the rock journal Creem and counsels the star-struck San Diego kid in the realities of the business and the ethics that must underlie it, as well as evincing a fondness for the sort of blunt-instrument Statement of Truth that critics are so fatuously famous for ("Rock is dead, kid; too bad you missed it").

Soon enough, a piece of William's catches the attention of Rolling Stone editors who have no idea that he's a peach-fuzz babyface who looks even younger than he is (and though he's a senior in high school, he's only 15, because he started school early, then skipped a grade). That is: He looks younger than 15. Next thing, he's on the road with Rolling Stone credentials, chronicling the fictitious band Stillwater as it buses around the country; he's also trying to find his moral bearings in a strange new world.

Certain things are clear but also unclear. One is the presence of "band aids," as opposed to groupies. These are teenage girls who travel with the band and presumably provide sexual services, though this is far from obvious. But William doesn't see them as things or even girls; he sees them as people. Thus his most passionate relationship is formed with the self-named Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson), who is young and beautiful and smart and somehow ethereal. She is, or is not, or is sometimes, the road chick of the charismatic Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), but as William soon discovers, it would be a mistake to understand her too easily. Penny has charisma herself, and mystery, and power; she's like the Phoebe Zeitgeist of rock-and-roll, a child-woman who loves the music and what it does, and loves the band, and is somehow of this world but equally not of it. She keeps a part of herself private; you could say the men who have sex with her are child molesters, but she seems to be molesting them as well, while keeping her soul intact. (It's a brilliant performance, by the way, and a sure starmaking turn for Hudson.)

The triangle of William (who loves Penny and admires Russell) and Russell (who sort of loves Penny and likes William) and Penny (who may love Russell and really likes William) is the fundamental drama of the movie. But it is also only one of a series of triangles Crowe conjures as he follows William following Stillwater. There's another among William, the editors of Rolling Stone and the truth. There's one among Russell, lead vocal Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee, always a hoot) and the band itself, over direction. There's one among William, his mother and the future. (She wants his to be safe and stable; he wants his to be dynamic and exciting.) There's one among Russell, Penny and Russell's hometown girl.

Of these, the most compelling is the professional one. William, like any of us who are lucky enough to waste our lives covering a piffling if superheated celeb culture, wants to be above it, but he is enticed by its allure, its coolness. He walks a thin, thin line that has been the ruin of many a poor boy, between the kind of celebrity-serving pap that so much pop-cult coverage is and the search-and-destroy school that hides the writer's rage at being not-cool behind a screen of loud, flatulent truths. In this realm, I was surprised that Crowe is so hard on the vessel of his initial success, Rolling Stone, which he portrays as by turns abusive and indifferent and, in the end, disloyal to its own servant. His glimpses behind the scenes at that legendary publication are not kind to it.

As the movie drifts to a close, never picking up much steam but always delighting, these triangles are mostly resolved, giving the film a sense of completion, of moving on. But the truth is, Crowe isn't so much a storyteller as a milieu-invoker. He's interested not in how things turn out, but in how they were. Unlike a critic, he's interested not in what they meant, but in what they felt like.

He captures something vivid and pulsating and heartfelt: the excitement of being in a very special place at just the right time. Maybe it was a trick of timing: He was there, then. But maybe it's a trick of talent and character: He had the talent to write it and the guts to judge it.

Almost Famous (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for brief nudity, sexual suggestiveness and profanity.


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