Depending on when you walk in, Almost Famous is either a coming-of-age drama, a love story, an often funny but sometimes painful look at the bonds of family, or a celebration of the glorious, liberating intoxication of rock & roll. And what's most remarkable about Cameron Crowe's fourth (and best) film is that it covers all these bases with equal skill, and an amiable, sure-footed grace. Crowe has made no secret that this film was based closely on his own experiences as a teenage rock journalist, and he certainly knows the nooks and crannies of life on the road in the 1970s; from the backstage rituals to the endless rounds of hotel parties, the film never hits a false note as it follows Stillwater's steady rise to fame. But more importantly, Crowe knows how to draw characters, and what could have easily been a collection of two-dimensional stereotypes emerges instead as an ensemble of credible, flesh-and-blood people. Elaine (Frances McDormand), the mother who dislikes and distrusts rock & roll, isn't a narrow-minded harridan, but an intelligent and socially progressive woman who doesn't want to see her children fall into a destructive adolescent conformity. The "band-aides," most notably Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), aren't fame-obsessed sexual predators, but devoted fans who have their own way of showing their loyalty to the musicians whose work means so much to them. And 15-year-old William (Patrick Fugit) isn't some youth lost in rock & roll Babylon, but a kid jazzed at living out his dreams and going on his first great adventure, while remaining smart (and grounded) enough to see both the peaks and valleys of the life he's capturing in words. One of Crowe's strongest suits has always been his ability to draw fine performances from his actors, and that's hardly failed him here. Newcomer Patrick Fugit is a marvel of boyish wonder and mature-beyond-his-years perception as William, Frances McDormand does an Oscar-worthy turn as his mother Elaine, Billy Crudup and Jason Lee are superb as the battling frontmen of Stillwater, Kate Hudson delivers a star-making, thoroughly charming performance as Penny, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb in an all-too-brief appearance as gonzo rock journalist (and part-time mentor to William) Lester Bangs. And Crowe's strong, clear, but unobtrusive visual sense, as well as his superlative ear for pop music, serve this material splendidly. If Almost Famous has a flaw, it's the noticeable upshift in the rhythm of its last act, which feels like an attempt to rush the film to its conclusion. But if the worst thing you can say about Almost Famous is that you wish it had been a bit longer, it says a lot about how thoroughly pleasurable a film it really is.
by Mark Deming review