Rated R - Running Time: 2:02 - Released 9/15/00

From writer/director Cameron Crowe of Jerry Maguire fame comes Almost Famous, a reverential period piece about American rock 'n' roll in the early '70s. Almost Famous is disorganized, it meanders, it is not cost-efficient . . . but neither is the world of rock, or at least it wasn't back then, when American pop music was still lingering in the throes of peace and love, before making the transition to disco, sex, and unbridled commercialism. Crowe's piece on the loss of innocence is messy, just like the loss of innocence. But it has heart.

There are no major stars in this movie. The main part is William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a young kid from San Diego, bright for his years, who wants to be a rock journalist. After getting a job for Lester Bangs of Creem magazine (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he shows such talent that he gets hired by Rolling Stone to follow an up-and-coming new band called Stillwater on its tour and get an interview with lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). William's mother (Frances McDormand), who has already lost her daughter (Zooey Deschanel) to the rock revolution, has major qualms about this assignment, but she doesn't want to damage her relationship with William, so she lets him go, under the conditions that he does not take drugs, have sex, or miss more than one test in school, and calls her every day to check in.

Soon William is crisscrossing the nation with the band, witnessing sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll first hand, and trying desperately to convince Russell to give him that interview. Although he is often referred to as "the enemy" by the band members, especially lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), they grow to like him and treat him as one of the gang. Another one of that gang is a groupie and Russell's part-time girlfriend who calls herself "Penny Lane" (Kate Hudson). As the tour continues, William begins to develop feelings for Penny, and it causes him great stress to see how devoted she is to Russell, especially when Russell's wife shows up at one of the concerts. Though William's experiences with Stillwater make it difficult for him to remain objective in his writing, he is counseled by Lester to be "honest and unmerciful." While juggling his feelings for Penny and witnessing some ugly confrontations between Jeff and Russell, he is under constant pressure to produce his article, do right by his new friends, and phone home.

Firstly it must be said that 17-year-old Fugit shows much promise in his feature film debut. This is an awesomely large role; he's on screen for most of the film's 122 minutes, and though this part doesn't call for much emotional depth, he is believable and likable throughout, portraying the 15-year-old William with enough geekiness to make the point but enough charm to win our sympathy. Fugit is not supposed to look cool in this movie, and he doesn't try to, but he gives William the integrity that causes his mother, Lester, Penny, and the band members to love him and want to be his friends.

Another major strength of this movie is Crowe's ability to reproduce the atmosphere of 1973 America so well, in and out of the rock 'n' roll setting. It was amusing to see so many background elements that wouldn't have to have been there, like the period labels and logos for things like Genessee beer, Eastern Airlines, and Milton Bradley's Parcheesi game. Not to mention the tabloid newspaper format for Rolling Stone, unlike its slick magazine look of today. One feels completely wrapped up in the period, with these references made not for the purpose of drawing attention to themselves, but merely as background to our lives, like they were.

In addition to Fugit's fine performance with his huge part, Hudson also shines as Penny. Her smile and manner are so engaging; she doesn't make up unnecessary stereotypical attributes for her character. The same may be said for Crudup as Russell, Lee as Jeff, and McDormand as William's mother. These characters are portrayed as real people, not cardboard cutouts of what they're supposed to represent. None of the characters are perfectly good or bad; they all have strengths and weaknesses as we all do. This ensemble realism must be attributed in part to writer/director Crowe as well as the skill of his actors. Although Almost Famous has sloppy elements, it is a good show, perhaps because of that very sloppiness. Crowe doesn't paint an idealistic picture of rock in the early '70s, he paints a real one. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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