If you haven't already sold your soul to rock & roll, Almost Famous should seal the deal. It's pure pleasure. Just don't expect the dark side (Gimme Shelter, Sid and Nancy). Not since A Hard Day's Night has a movie caught the thrumming exuberance of going where the music takes you. Rock journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe, 43, is drawing on his own rock boyhood. Crowe was only fifteen when he deepened his voice to sound older on the phone and hustled an assignment from Rolling Stone. Almost Famous, set in 1973, is loosely based on the formative years Crowe blissfully misspent road-tripping with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Yes and the Allman Brothers.
Crowe has mined the details of his life before, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (book and screenplay) and in three previous films as writer and director: Say Anything (1989), Singles (1992) and the Oscar-nominated Jerry Maguire (1996). But Almost Famous is Crowe's most personal film yet and — no almost about it — his best. His gift for dialogue with sass and spine continues unabated. And his direction, once merely unassuming, has grown gracefully assured. The great cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line) enables Crowe to play loose with the camera — think early Francois Truffaut — while holding to the rule of legendary Crowe mentor Billy Wilder: "Just tell the story." It's an atmosphere in which actors thrive. Almost Famous is as densely populated as a Dickens novel, and there's not an unfelt performance in it.
Patrick Fugit, 17, scores a dazzling debut as Crowe's alter ego, William Miller, an uncool kid from San Diego whose widowed teacher mom, Elaine (a blazingly funny Frances McDormand), won't have demon rock in the house. William's older sister, Anita (the delicious Zooey Deschanel), runs off to become a stewardess to the strains of Simon and Garfunkel's "America." The joke prompts the first of the film's witty musical references; it's a kick to find a movie that uses music as more than sonic wallpaper.
Anita leaves behind a box of rock LPs under her bed that she insists will set her nerdy brother free. Crowe gives that box the illicit allure of an unholy grail. William is soon writing about bands for his school rag and badgering Creem's rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman, making acerbic comic magic out of a sliver of screen time), who lets him cover a Black Sabbath concert.
It's at that concert — Mom has to drive him there — that William meets Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and her pals, Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) and Polexia (Anna Paquin). Don't call them groupies; they're Band Aids ("No sex, just blow jobs — we're here for the music"). William is transfixed by Penny, and why not? Hudson, the daughter of Goldie Hawn, is surefire star material, subtly uncovering the chinks in Penny's party-girl armor.
Penny is fixated on Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the guitarist for Stillwater, a midlevel band about to break through. Befriended by Russell and Penny, William gains access to the rock inner sanctum. Crudup, in a role intended for Brad Pitt, is a fearless actor who shows the cruel streak running under Russell's surface charm. When William gets an assignment to do a cover story on Stillwater for Rolling Stone, Lester warns him that journalists cannot be friends with rockers ("They are trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb"). For the other members of Stillwater — roles filled by actor Jason Lee and musicians John Fedevich and Mark Kozeleck — William is the enemy. Says lead singer Jeff Bebe, played with sly mischief by Lee, "The little shit looks harmless, but he does represent the magazine that trashed 'Layla,' broke up Cream and ripped every album Led Zeppelin ever made." (Ed. note: All true.) Crowe knows that rock and journalism are prime games for opportunists, but his focus here is on true believers. On the tour bus, Penny leads a sing-along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," and Crowe plays it straight. No easy cynicism; no gooey sentiment, either. The film's set pieces — the deflowering of William by the Band Aids, Russell's bad acid trip at a fan's house, a near plane crash in which the band indulges in shocking confessions — are delicate blends of humor and heartbreak. Crowe takes the same pains to dig out the truth in these characters as he does with the music. The fine vintage soundtrack is complemented by original songs for Stillwater, written by Crowe and his wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart. With rock icon Peter Frampton as a consultant, Crowe nails the period. But don't mistake Almost Famous for a candy-assed nostalgia trip. Rock is about youth, defiance, danger and contradictory feelings you can't pin down. Crowe triumphs not by copping an attitude about the industry of cool but by capturing the ravishing thrill of losing your cherry to rock & roll. Almost Famous is a winner because Crowe dares to wear his heart on his sleeve. For this movie at least, he's with the band.