The music-crazed hero of Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" can't quite believe his luck. Here he is, all of 15 years old, on the road with the rock-and-roll band Stillwater, and Rolling Stone is paying him good money to write about it. (The magazine doesn't know how old he is: when it calls, he lowers his voice to disguise his youth.) Nervous, excited, grateful and confused, William (Patrick Fugit) is torn between being a fan and being a journalist. "Just make us look cool," says the very cool lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). On the other hand, William can't get the words of his cranky mentor, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), out of his head: "You can't make friends with rock stars. These people are not your friends!" Making matters even more complicated (and embarrassing) are the phone messages his worried, protective mother (Frances McDormand) keeps leaving as she tracks his progress across the country: "Don't do drugs!"
This is not a predicament many 15-year-olds in the year 1973 found themselves in. But Crowe, the director of "Jerry Maguire" and the author of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," knows whereof he speaks. At the same tender age he was a rock critic for Creem and Rolling Stone, covering the likes of Led Zeppelin and Neil Young. And like his fictional alter ego, he had a fretting but supportive mom back in San Diego, freaked that the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock and roll was about to devour her son.
In "Almost Famous," his most personal film, Crowe looks back at that pivotal moment in his life and transforms it into a delightful coming-of-age comedy. Though acid is dropped, groupies are bartered like poker chips and rock-star egos flare like fireworks, what comes through is the relative innocence of that era. Rock and roll had not yet totally succumbed to the corporate spirit. There's a sweetness that suffuses the film, a quality that belongs both to the filmmaker and to his alter ego William, through whose brainy but awed eyes we are looking. William pines for a groupie called Penny Lane, who's played by Goldie Hawn's daughter, Kate Hudson. "I'm not sweet!" he yells at her. "I'm dark and mysterious."
"Almost Famous" is sunny, poignant and often hilarious. After a grim, overhyped summer, it's a rush to encounter a movie that actually makes you feel good. There are ways in which Crowe could have gone deeper inside William's head: we don't really feel the weight on his journalist's conscience as he vacillates between betraying the band's confidence and caving in to their seduction. And the ending ties up everything too neatly; the truth had to be more messy. Crowe has to be careful that his benevolence doesn't tip over into compulsive people-pleasing.
The movie doesn't have the safety net of plot to fall back on. Character-driven, it relies on chemistry, camaraderie, a sharp eye for detail and good casting. Fugit, a Salt Lake City boy with a few TV credits to his name, is a real find. If he'd played too cute, the whole movie could have gone soggy. But there's a canny, self-protective quality under his wide-eyed ardor that makes him believable as a pint-size journalist. Crudup sketches a shrewd portrait of a rising star whose narcissism threatens to overwhelm his genuine love of music. (He gets to play a wonderful LSD flip-out scene at a Topeka, Kans., party.) As his rival, the band's lead singer who feels the spotlight shifting away from him, Jason Lee nails his part with just the right snarl of rock-star petulance.
Playing the self-described "Band-Aid" Penny Lane, who is hopelessly hung up on the married Crudup, Hudson radiates a tough-tender bravado. (The character is loosely based on an 18-year-old who was part of a groupie cadre known as the Flying Garter Girls.) In the small but crucial role of outsider rock critic Bangs, Hoffman does wonders. He gives us the rock purist's raging righteousness and a glimpse of the wounded nerd underneath. Bangs warns William that their kind can never be cool like the guys they are writing about. (Crowe once considered calling his movie "The Uncool.") "Be honest and unmerciful," Bangs exhorts his disciple, who has a hard time with the latter. In "Almost Famous," writer-director Crowe is still contending with the dueling voices in his head, and he still can't bring himself to take the harsh road. His movie gives off the warm glow of mercy.