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A historical marker in more ways than one, American Graffiti perfected a near Pavlovian formula for manufacturing the myth of a generation out of dated pop music and period ephemera. Cameron Crowe's quasi-autobiographical Almost Famous, which is set mainly in the spring of 1973 (a few months before American Graffiti's epochal release), seems to be working to similar effectalthough in a more fashionably starstruck context. American Graffiti's implanted memory aspired to the generic; Almost Famous shows its hero inventing that memory. The scenario demonstrates its creator's preordained success.
As Almost Famous is dedicated to the demographic defined by its sense of having missed the big party of the '60s, Crowe begins by projecting self-righteous counterculture anticommercialism back onto his mother. His alter ego, William, is introduced as the son of a wildly controlling widow (played, with charmless aggression, by Frances McDormand). Supposedly some sort of lefty college professor and professional protestmonger, Mom is sufficiently clueless to imagine Simon and Garfunkel as dangerous apostles of "drugs and sex." Mom's moralizing drives William's big sister out of the house, but before she leaves she bequeaths her LPs to the 11-year-old with the promise that "one day you'll be cool." Cut from 1969 to 1973 when precocious William (Patrick Fugit), a would-be rock critic, wangles his first assignment from Creem editor Lester Bangs (embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a living legend).
No less than Mom, Bangs is an anticommercial loudmouthalbeit of a different type. Thus, the aspiring writer has a crazed, overprotective mother and a distant, wacky mentor who, in preparing to cede the oedipal struggle, wearily informs him that rock is over: "You got here just in time for the death rattle." In fact, rock will provide William with a surrogate family, an education, a few cheap thrills, and a clear career path. The kid can't get backstage to interview Black Sabbath, but thanks to the sympathetic groupie"band-aid" is her preferred termwho calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), he manages to attach himself to the up-and-coming Stillwater, a sort of amalgam of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, led by Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). "I'm the front man and you're the guitarist with mystique," Jeff tells Russell in an amusing contretemps over their respective placements on a promotional T-shirt.
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Despite blathering Jeff's classification of the diminutive, enthusiastic William as "the enemy," Russell realizes that Stillwater (or at least he) can make use of the kid reporter and invites him to join their tour. Almost Famous has been described as a movie about the heroic era of rock criticism, but it has far more to do with establishing the coolness of celebrity journalism. The power of pop is seen from a backstage perspective rather than out front with the fans. William has nothing intelligible to say about Stillwater's music but everything to learn about their lifestyle. It's mere moments before the kid is called by the self-important Ben Fong-Torres and gets upgraded from Creem to Rolling Stone.
Panoramic yet cozy, enthusiastically glib, Almost Famous suggests a universe of interlocking sitcoms. (It might almost be a special two-hour version of The Wonder Years.) In one running gag, Mom keeps calling William's various hotels and compulsively tells her students that "rock stars have kidnapped my son." In another, William seeks midnight advice from the incorruptible Bangs. "I'm always homeI'm uncool," his guru frankly admits. (Hoffman and his character should have been the movie.) Warned by Bangs against imagining that he has become friends with the band, William pursues the elusive interview with rueful Russell as though it were his white whaleeven as Penny shacks up with the star. William is more wide-eyed than usual when he is ravished by three lesser band-aids while Penny looks on in amusement, favoring us with her trademark nose-wrinkle and pretending she possesses the wisdom of the ages.
William enjoys a few other rowdy adventures, tagging along with Russell to a teenage party in Topeka in which the star drops acid and begins proclaiming himself a "golden god." (Another sign of the timesthe Orgy has penetrated deepest Kansas.) Russell jumps off the roof into the pool; I fell off the bus in the next scene, designed to provide the designated moment of communion, with the band and band-aids all singing an Elton John anthem. (It's a generational tastelike flat soda pop.) The partying and careerism get more intense as William pursues his story to Cleveland and finally all the way to New Yorkat which point he receives a phone call from Jann Wenner himself. (The real Wenner has a cameo here just as he did in Jerry Maguire. What does it say about Crowe's directorial personality that his trademark is the presence of a powerful erstwhile employer?)
"It's not about money, it's about playing music and turning people on," the members of Stillwater keep telling each other en route to the cover of Rolling Stone. Almost Famous is a movie that defuses its own bad conscience. As suggested by Jerry Maguire, Crowe's specialty is the principled sellout. Almost Famous experiments with a variety of potential endings, most of them involving some sort of betrayal, before settling on the most positive alternative. You keep waiting for William to become disillusioned and he never is.