"This song explains why I'm leaving home and becoming a stewardess," says Anita Miller (Zooey Deschanel) to her well-meaning, overbearing mother, as the soundtrack begins to swell with the low hums of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Just a few seconds earlier, Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) had insisted she wouldn't allow such filth in her house -- "They're on pot," she grumbles, staring at the black-and-white cover of Simon and Garfunkel's 1968 album Bookends. But now, Elaine sits in front of the hi-fi, transfixed by the somber, pleading music bleeding from the speakers. "I've gone to look for America," Simon pleads on Anita's behalf, giving voice to a teenage girl in a suburban San Diego household where rock & roll is off limits.
We are as mesmerized as Elaine is. The audience is on that Greyhound bound for Pittsburgh; we're barreling down the highway with one last cigarette in a crumpled pack, in search of a better anywhere. We're caught up in the song's promise, and in the promise of all good rock & roll that incites us to realize there's something grand and glorious outside our doorstep. Our hearts are, in an instant, broken and quickly repaired: We've gone to look for America, and pity those who make it no farther than the driveway.
With Almost Famous, his first film since Jerry Maguire (1996), writer-director Cameron Crowe has crafted the first relevant film about rock & roll and the music industry, the first film that lets you in on the secret. Yes, it tells the autobiographical story of how 15-year-old William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit) leaves home and lands a coveted writing assignment for Rolling Stone, covering the rise of would-be stars Stillwater. (The band is an amalgam of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers, two bands a teenage Crowe wrote about for Jann Wenner's once-vital magazine during the early 1970s.) And yes, it's yet another Crowe film in which a young man comes of age and trades his virginity and innocence for a little perspective. Almost Famous picks up where Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Singles and even Jerry Maguire left off -- when children become adults, when lust becomes love, when inspiration becomes faith.
Crowe, however, has made the first film in which the soundtrack is almost more important than anything said in the movie: Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" heals long-festering wounds between bandmates and friends; the Who's "Sparks" propels a boy into manhood; and Led Zeppelin's "That's the Way" conjures more longing than a dozen pages of dialogue. You don't just watch Almost Famous, you listen to it. You groove on it. (The soundtrack features 17 songs, but the film contains 50 -- from Joni Mitchell to Black Sabbath, from the MC5 to the Raspberries. It's like attending a party at the home of a rock critic who can't wait to play his favorite cuts, or at least those that didn't show up on the High Fidelity soundtrack.)
When Anita flees home at the beginning of the movie, she bequeaths to her little brother (played by a wry, wise Michael Angarano) her stash of vinyl kept beneath her bed. The eyes of the 10-year-old boy light up as he peruses the bounty: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones. To an album by the Who she has affixed a note: "Listen to Tommy with a candle burning, and you will see your entire future." He follows her instructions, and 1968 melts into 1973: William has matured -- just barely -- and he is now a true believer. Rock & roll is his religion, Creem magazine is his bible and rock critic Lester Bangs is his god.
Just as a young Cameron Crowe counted Bangs among his first champions and mentors, the film's Lester (played by a grumpy, grinning Philip Seymour Hoffman) adopts William. Lester does so if only to advise the child before he's corrupted by the music business -- "an industry of cool," he says, smirking beneath a limp mustache. Lester gives William his first assignment, a 1,000-word piece on Black Sabbath for Creem, and dispatches him while insisting William not become friends with the rock stars, but William is too much of a fan to heed Lester's advice: Before long, he's in with the in-crowd. William, a kid who will never be cool in Lester's bleary eyes, suddenly feels cool in the presence of rock stars and their soft female hangers-on (the so-called band aids, played by the likes of Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk).
Before long, Rolling Stone music editor Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) assigns William to write 3,000 words about up-and-coming band Stillwater, fronted by singer Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and guitarist Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). But getting close to the band is, at first, impossible. Jeff doesn't trust the baby-faced William ("The enemy -- a rock writer") and Russell is always spending his time with the head band aid, a groupie named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, looking and sounding like mom Goldie Hawn during her Laugh-In days). But Stillwater, who look like the Allmans and sound like Zeppelin, quickly take to the kid, spilling their secrets. "Just make us look cool," Russell begs of William. It doesn't take long for William to discover how impossible a task that is: All rock & roll idols melt under the stage's withering spotlight, and Russell, despite his good intentions and good looks, is no different. He is flawed and fallible. He thinks he's a "golden god," especially when charged on acid, but is nothing more than a sensitive egomaniac.
It is little surprising that Crowe would accurately portray the details of the rock industry: When he was 16, he became a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and spent his teen years circling the world with stars like Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and David Bowie. He has experienced the venality firsthand: the way tour managers use groupies as gelt in poker games, the tenuous relationships that exist in bands formed by "best" friends, the way rock critics are suckered into "friendships" with manipulative musicians who crave a little good press. Russell and Jeff don't really like each other -- "I'm the frontman," Jeff yells at Russell over a T-shirt photo in which only Russell is visible, "and you're the guitarist with mystique!" -- but they will tolerate and use each other to become famous. Not since Songwriter in 1985 has a film so accurately, if not maniacally, portrayed the sordid details of rock biz: Everyone is willing to trade up, even if it costs them everything on the way down.
Crowe is not so judgmental, perhaps because he has coated his movie in that glossy, quaint haze of nostalgia that forgives even the most unlikable flaw. (In the end, we can't help but adore Russell, despite his cheating and manipulation.) Clearly this is the movie Crowe has always wanted to make; it's certainly his most personal -- a postcard from the past, a love letter to his days on the private-plane circuit. William is the idealized Cameron: the kid who listens to his mother's just-say-no admonitions, the kid who loses his virginity to three nymphets on the road, the kid who rescues Penny Lane from Russell and his willful disregard. He is sweet, naïve, innocent and perfect -- aghast at the reality of rock & roll. William wants to write a mash note about his favorite band, only to discover they're assholes willing to sell him out when he doesn't give them just what they want. "Friendship is the booze they feed you," Lester warns his young protégé, but William doesn't heed the advice. He swallows until he drowns in it.
Crowe has made an entire movie based on Led Zeppelin's "Sick Again" from 1975's Physical Graffiti, in which Robert Plant bemoaned the death of the giving, forgiving groupie: "Clutching pages from your teenage dream/In the lobby of the Hotel Paradise," he wailed, a long time ago, "Through the circus of the LA queens/How fast you learn the downhill slide." Penny Lane is Crowe's "painted lady in the city of lies"; she, like young William, is the last Real Fan, and she, too, is ultimately betrayed by her devotion to rock & roll. But William and Penny, children in love with the music if not each other, have too much faith in the beast to let it destroy them. They undoubtedly carry on, hauling out the sad songs on bad days and the fast ones on good days. They grow older, sell their vinyl for CDs, and keep the faith. And in the end, both William Miller and Penny Lane turn into a 42-year-old named Cameron Crowe.