It's hard not to like "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's cheerful semi-autobiographical movie about a young journalist writing his first cover story for Rolling Stone. The movie is disarmingly sweet, a picaresque journey through the wilds of rock and roll during the 1970s, after idealism died at Altamont but before rock went entirely corporate.
Patrick Fugit turns in an appealingly bland performance as William, Crowe's alter-ego, who at 15 is assigned by Rolling Stone to go on tour with an emerging band called Stillwater. The kid had been writing for the scrappier Creem magazine - whose legendary editor Lester Bangs is portrayed with uncanny cantankerousness by Philip Seymour Hoffman - and is unprepared for the swirl of fame, money and high stakes he's entering into. He's also unprepared for the way a charismatic subject can manipulate a fawning reporter: The band calls William "the Enemy" when they first meet him, but he seems unaware that they continue to use the title increasingly ironically. Simultaneously seduced by a groupie named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and Stillwater's foxy lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), William learns - from Tempe to Topeka and beyond - that falling in love with your subject is OK while you're reporting, just as long as you get a divorce when you write.
"Almost Famous" is probably the most wholesome movie about rock and roll ever produced; despite its R rating this is a film even the FTC could love, one in which the language is beyond reproach, drugs are used only occasionally and sex is merely suggested. The film also features two fantastic performances, one by Hoffman as the irascible Bangs and the other by Frances McDormand, who plays William's worried mother with bemused intelligence, and has an extraordinary scene with Crudup in which they manage to create more sparks over the telephone than anyone else does in a one-on-one scene.
As mild-mannered entertainment there's nothing objectionable about "Almost Famous" - except that it's so mild-mannered. Crowe has rounded off rock's rough edges, reducing it to as spotless and benign a world as the Emerald City, thereby denuding it of the power that ostensibly attracted him to it in the first place. (An example is when the Detroit-based Stillwater breaks into a sing-along version of "Tiny Dancer" on the tour bus. Picture Iggy Pop doing the same thing and you get an idea of how discordant that seems.)
"Almost Famous" has the sentiment and sweetness of a good coming-of-age movie but lacks the drive and pulse that makes for a great rock and roll movie. And there's also the subtler problem that Crowe is too much of an insider to convey the tension that ignites the story's core. He went on to do the "I'm-hanging-with-them-and-you're-not" celebrity journalism for which Rolling Stone became famous, married a rock star and now is churning out the kind of Hollywood product that Bangs would have (one hopes) abhorred.
The "industry of cool" that Bangs bemoans at the beginning of the movie is the milieu Crowe is most comfortable in and, one suspects, the one he was striving to join all along. As churlish as it seems to criticize a movie for being too nice, you get the sense after watching "Almost Famous" that Crowe knows far more than he's telling. He isn't the Enemy after all, and that's too bad.
Starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frances McDormand
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Rated R (language, drug content and brief nudity)
Running time 120 minutes
Released by Dreamworks Pictures
Sun score ** 1/2