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Almost Poignant

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2000


    'Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit plays a young rock journalist in "Almost Famous." (by Neal Preston/DreamWorks)
Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," a near-autobiography of his adolescent years as a rock journalist, riffs with charm for long, enjoyable periods. This is wonderful stuff, as far as it goes. But, like some of those overextended guitar solos from the '70s, the riffing loses sight of the song.

Crowe's alter-ego, in this '70s-set story, is star-struck 15-year-old William (Patrick Fugit), who gets a rock fan's dream assignment: to follow a touring band named Stillwater and write about the experience for Rolling Stone magazine. Dropping out of school with the tight-lipped blessing of his overprotective, religious mother (Frances McDormand), William joins the traveling circus of musicians and hangers-on.

Stillwater, still on the cusp of stardom (their "Almost Famous" tour and William's meta-celeb status inform the title), is already falling apart. Singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) are battling each other for the role of front man.

But they have no complaints in the groupie department. Their every need is indulged, courtesy of three gals known as the "band aids," who follow the band from gig to gig – and hotel room to hotel room.

William latches onto this dysfunctional family immediately, barely maintaining telephone contact with his fussy, worried mother. He also becomes infatuated with Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), one of the band aids, who is Russell's on-call girlfriend.

William takes notes. And the longer he stays on tour, the more the performers trust him. Clearly, we are on course for a rock journalist dilemma: When you hang out with stars who take you in and make you feel as cool as they are, should you expose their wanton excesses or write an airbrushed account that pleases your adopted friends?

This is not the most compelling moral struggle in the world, unless you happen to work in the trade. And William's wide-eyed coming of age doesn't raise the bar much higher.

Rather than widen his perspective to include such big-picture items as (for instance) the evolution of rock music or America's tumultuous zeitgeist of that period or the clumsiness of young love or even the maturation of his artistry, the writer-director of "Jerry Maguire" remains stuck on his own nostalgia.

William's reverence for Penny Lane, whose blond tresses are constantly haloed in golden goddess backlighting, is a case in point. She's meant to define his life, embody his new lifestyle and somehow light a candle in our hearts, too. But neither Hudson nor the character Crowe has scripted for her is up to the task. And William's rapture never evolves beyond a high-school obsession.

What a shame things should fall short, given how many enjoyable moments can be found.

I'll never forget the scene in which an acid-stoned Russell, egged on by a party full of fans, climbs onto a rooftop, declares himself a "Golden God" and leaps into the swimming pool below. And as the real-life Creem journalist Lester Bangs, William's savvy mentor, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a jaded joy. He gets to spout some of the movie's more ironic lines.

"If you think Mick Jagger's going to be out playing a rock-and-roller at 50, you're sadly mistaken," he assures William.

The savviness – or perhaps just the age – it takes to appreciate this joke may also affect your enjoyment. There's a scene in which Stillwater and friends, riding in a tour bus, suddenly sing along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," which is playing over the radio.

This is meant to be a scene of unabashed innocence, as everyone forgets their petty differences and simply enjoys the sensation of being a sing-along fan. But it's very hard to see these long-haired kids as products of the 1970s instead of dressed up actors from the Seattle-Starbucks era.

I couldn't help wondering how many of these performers had to buy a CD copy of the song and study it for the first time. But then again, we are so deep in the sampling age, in which advertisers regularly raid the work of John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Steppenwolf and others to sell everything from cars to Snickers bars, this thought was laughingly stale. Maybe I should have just lightened up and sung along. Hey, it's never too late. Here we go: "Blue jean babee, L.A. lady . . ."

ALMOST FAMOUS (R, 120 minutes) - Contains nudity, sexual scenes, obscenity and drug use.


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