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Friday, March 16, 2001


Cinnamon girls are forever

There have been a lot of odes to the '70s on film lately, but director Cameron Crowe ("Say Anything," "Jerry McGuire") certainly has a unique tale to tell. As a 15-year-old rock journalist for music magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone, Crowe spent his formative years in the mid-'70s on tour with stadium rock bands such as the Eagles and Led Zeppelin, immersed in the world of backstage bacchanalia and hotel-room hedonism.

Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous"

As a document of such a decadent era, Crowe's semi-autobiographical film "Almost Famous" may seem strangely sweet, a world where decadence knows no casualties, where groupies act as muses, and where even rock-star-size egos can come down to earth. This may seem like rose-colored nostalgia on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and you'll be surprised what you find. "Almost Famous" is such a brilliant send-up of the inanities of rock 'n' roll touring (the best this side of "Spinal Tap"), that you can almost miss the heartbreak and bittersweet doubt at the film's core.

Crowe's tale starts with the assumption that in 1973, for a 15-year-old stuck in the corduroy 'burbs and suffering through high school, a needle in a vinyl groove still had the power to change one's life. Like a pilgrim drawn to Mecca, Crowe's baby-faced protagonist, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), goes off in search of the source, and is both delighted and dispirited by what he finds.

For William, it all seems so simple: There's the music (bands like The Who, Joni Mitchell, Dylan and Hendrix), and his fan-boy love of it, which he pursues through music journalism. But in doing so, he finds himself navigating a minefield of torn allegiances and emotions. First there's his over-protective college-professor mom (Frances McDormand), yelling "Don't do drugs!" as he lines up with the Sabbath fans.

Then there's his mentor, Creem editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), warning him that his writing must be "honest and unmerciful." But Bangs also seems a tad bitter at being left out of the party, at recognizing that his speed-freak tastes were diverging away from pop culture.

William finds a kindred spirit in radiant "band-aid" Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), whose love of music equals his own and who kindly offers him an "in" into the back corridors of the rock aristocracy. She sees herself as a Muse who nurtures the music, not another star-struck groupie. Penny fails to realize how tenuous her position is, though, and it's ultimately up to William to clue her in.

Yet no relationship is as daunting as the one with the cusp-of-stardom blues-rock band that William follows on the road, Stillwater (fictional, but largely based on Led Zeppelin). Suspicious of the press, the band -- especially guitar-hero Russell (Bill Crudup) -- refuse to give interviews, but eventually warm to the innocent-looking William, asking him simply to "make us look cool." But William has been warned by Bangs, "You can't make friends with rock stars; then it just becomes an industry of cool."

William has a dilemma: Does he write what he sees, a band full of mediocre talents and raging egos, squabbling about the tour T-shirts and leering at high-school girls? Or does he write what they'd like and reward them for their friendship? Further complicating matters is the fact that William falls big-time for Penny, and is crushed to learn that -- despite her "I'm not a groupie" protestations -- she's sleeping with Russell.

Crowe gets many things about the milieu right: Best is that sensation of trying to act cool when you're clueless, a feeling we all have, but one that's more acute when you're a prefacial-hair teen virgin surrounded by bearded, libido-driven rockers, draped in diaphanous groupies with names like Polexia Aphrodisia.

The film's best jokes home in on the band's self-aggrandizing nature, like when loud-mouth Jason Lee, Stillwater's self-styled sex-god singer, defines rock as "a voice that says, 'Here I am, and f**k you if you don't understand me' . . . and the chicks are great."

Crowe, however, is smart enough to know that a good onscreen joke lies in the framing as much as the words. The best example is when William, off at a fan's house party, calls the band's manager with an S.O.S. after Russell imbibes a cupful of acid-spiked beer. "How do you know when it's kicked in?" he asks in distress. Cut to Russell on the roof of the house bellowing, "I'm a golden god!"

Yet amid all the jokes, Crowe never resorts to caricature. In any other film, McDormand's mom would be a cartoon prude, but here she's allowed depth. Sure, she's overly concerned and hectoring (she even thinks Simon and Garfunkel are depraved dope fiends), but she also truly cares about her kids. After alienating her daughter, she resolves to be less strict with William, indulging his interest in rock, even as she fears its influence on him ("Diminished brain cells thrown away like confetti").

"Almost Famous" is less a broad-stroked paean to a bygone era than a specific remembrance of first loves, both musically and romantically. Crowe's alter-ego in the film gets close enough to his groupie crush only to know what he's missing, while his career in music journalism takes off just in time to catch that dispiriting moment when rock music morphed from a youth movement into an industry. (A change mirrored most accurately in Rolling Stone, which sold out long before the word "yuppie" was coined.)

Underneath the real affection Crowe has for these people and the good times they shared lies a lingering doubt about the supposed camaraderie of the tour, that everyone's playing a part. As John Lennon put it, "Nothing is real." William's feelings for Penny and the music, however, were all too real. More than two decades down the road, it's clear they still ring true with joy and hurt.

"Almost Famous" (Japanese title: "Ano Koro Peni Rein To") opens March 17 at Hibiya Scalaza and Cinema Qualite in Shinjuku.

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