Rock music used to mean more.
If there is anything that writer/director Cameron Crowe manages to convey in his stunning new ode to the "industry of cool," it is that the music world used to be a wondrous and optimistic place before the suits seized control, the drugs took their toll and rock 'n' roll was stacked like CD jewel boxes into unthreatening radio formats.
It's said that the best writing comes from the depth of experience, and Crowe ("Jerry Maguire") proves that throughout "Almost Famous." Based on his own experiences in the early '70s as a reporter for Rolling Stone while just 15 years old, Crowe weaves a tale that is part real events and part fiction, but one that attains a towering level of truthfulness.
Newcomer Patrick Fugit interprets Crowe's experience as William, a San Diego teen with a passion for music. "Listen to (The Who's) 'Tommy' with a candle burning and you will see your entire future," his sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) tells him.
As William plunges into adolescence, he begins writing music reviews that gain some notoriety, much to the chagrin of his intellectual but possessive mother (Frances McDormand), who pictures her bright son going into the law profession.
Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Magnolia") portrays the late Lester Bangs, the editor of Creem magazine who takes William under his wing. "You cannot make friends with the rock stars," Bangs tells the novice reporter. "Friendship is the booze they feed you." It's advice William needs to heed.
Through a fluke connection, Rolling Stone hires William (unaware of his age), and asks him to go on the road with an up-and-coming band named Stillwater. A convincingly mediocre quartet that is like a mix of Bad Company and Grand Funk Railroad (its songs are written by Crowe's wife, Nancy Wilson, guitarist of '70s arena favorites Heart), the band is polarized between its egocentric singer Jeff (Jason Lee) and its lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who is eclipsing the fame of the other members.
Introducing William into the bus-concert-hotel regimen is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a young groupie she calls herself a "band-aid" who is smitten with Russell. "Famous people are just more interesting," Penny says, explaining to William why she drifts from one backstage to the next. The journalist falls in love with her as quickly as he does with the new lifestyle.
"Almost Famous" juggles so many themes that it's a credit to Crowe's vision as a writer that the movie keeps from bursting at its thematic seams. It succeeds as a terrific coming-of-age story, an accurate depiction of the music industry, a treatise on journalism and an affectionate recreation of a time and place (although portraying the tour stop of Topeka as the party capital of the Midwest might be a bit of an overstatement).
This is all the more interesting considering Crowe chooses to scrutinize a period when rock is struggling with making the transition from the creative to the corporate.
As superior as the material is, the film may be remembered most for launching Hudson as a major star. After wallowing in forgettable flicks such as "Gossip" and "200 Cigarettes," Hudson (the daughter of Goldie Hawn) reveals a natural honesty that transcends most other younger actresses. Her smile seems to contain all the wisdom and sanguinity the world has to offer, and Crowe and cinematographer John Toll ("The Thin Red Line") exploit that commodity with lingering closeups.
"Almost Famous" is the best "serious" movie ever made about rock (current re-release "This Is Spinal Tap" still holds the honor of best pure comedy). Crowe's masterstroke also may rekindle an interest in the fading art of rock journalism. And for viewers who remember the hopefulness of the era, they should be grateful.
Rating: **** (R)