Back in high school, I knew this girl named Pam who, right after her boyfriend, Ricky, broke up with her, sent him a 10-page love letter consisting entirely of song titles. Moved beyond words, Ricky conveyed that he'd changed his mind and wanted to get back together with Pam by calling her on the phone and playing Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" through the receiver. Alas, Pam had since changed her mind, whipping off another 10-page letter consisting entirely of song titles--not exactly love songs this time. But you know what? These two lovebirds got back together after all. Ricky must have felt that anybody who'd gone to all that trouble was worth holding on to. And Pam must have felt...well, I don't know what Pam felt exactly, perhaps that she was running out of song titles and better cool it for a while. If I ever meet writer-director Cameron Crowe, I'll have to tell him that story, because it has everything Crowe holds near and dear to his heart: the seismic shifts of teen emotion, the use of pop and rock music to help one negotiate those seismic shifts and the inevitably safe landing on the far side of the crevasse. Crowe, who's been gradually working his way up the height-and-weight charts with Say Anything, Singles and Jerry Maguire, returns to the halcyon days of his own youth with Almost Famous, a largely autobiographical comedy-drama about a kid who writes cover stories for Rolling Stone magazine before he's old enough to vote or shave or tell the difference between seduction and betrayal. A coming-of-age rock 'n' road movie set in 1973, Almost Famous is a Cinderella story for pubescent rock fans (of all ages), most of whom will spend their entire lives as pumpkins. Not Crowe, whose alter ego, William (newcomer Patrick Fugit), has a series of fairy godmothers/fathers bonking him over the head with their magic wands. First and foremost is his actual mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), a college professor who skipped her son ahead two years in school, setting up a lifetime of precocity. Then there's his sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who, when she runs away from home to become a stewardess, bequeaths her record collection to William, setting up his love for rock 'n' roll. And then there's the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), who shows William the ropes and encourages him not to hang himself with them. And, finally, there's Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the Platonic ideal of a groupie, with her blue-tinted glasses and Botticelli hair and overall aura of cool. She teaches William about love. It's all a little too pat, as if Crowe can't help but see his life in terms of genre. But he's always had a knack for wrenching genuine emotion out of genre devices, and it doesn't abandon him here. "This explains so much," William says when his mom reveals that he's not one but two years younger than he thought he was--a funny/sad moment that has us pulling for the tyro. As does the moment when Bangs, while welcoming William to the ranks of professional rock critics, reveals that he's arrived too late; rock music is finito. "You got here just in time for the death rattle," Bangs says, and William responds the way any of us would have responded at his age and in his position: "Well, at least I'm here for that." Set on the cusp between rock as one big happy family and rock as one big unhappy industry, Almost Famous is about what it's like when the bad old days are your good old days. It's also about the differences between being a fan and a critic, a groupie and a muse, a child and an adult, an observer and a participant. When William gets the kind of phone call from Rolling Stone that most writers only dream about, he hits the road with an up-and-coming band called Stillwater. It's their "Almost Famous" tour, and they're a little concerned about the role William will play in that fame. The lead singer (Jason Lee) keeps referring to him as "the enemy" before pontificating mindlessly into William's microphone (shades of Spinal Tap). But the group's handsome lead guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup), is both warier and craftier. Though friendly, he keeps William at arm's length, allowing the scribe to be swept up into the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll of a band on the run. And when he finally does allow William to get within spitting distance, he only has one thing to say to him: "Just make us look cool." The movie has a thing about coolness. "One day, you'll be cool," William's sister promises him early on. "I've met you, and you're not cool," Bangs tells him much later. In between is William's search for who he is and who he wants to be. And if Crowe sometimes seems to be patting himself on the back for the decisions he made, he also seems to be kicking himself in the butt for having been such a dork. "Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song?" William solemnly asks Russell in one of his myriad attempts to get an interview going. The thing is, even when Crowe kicks himself in the butt, it has this way of seeming like he's patting himself on the back. He's too affectionate toward his former self, and that gives the movie a self-congratulatory air, as if it were Crowe's mash note to himself. He might have been a lot more critical. In 1990's Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, Robert Draper described young Crowe as "a gangly, long-haired West Hollywood rendition of Beaver Cleaver," then went on to suggest that Crowe's "lack of critical edge" was the very reason the magazine wanted him. By 1973, Rolling Stone had gathered some moss, to say the least. Veteran writers weren't interested in groups like Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers or the Eagles, and the groups weren't interested in the veteran writers, having been burned by them in the past. Enter Crowe, a cherub with honeysuckle in his hair who, even after he'd been around the block a few times, "remained a fan, speaking no ill of his favorites," according to Draper. And not just any fan. Crowe "embodied all the traits of mid-'70s American rock," Draper writes, "amiable, inoffensive and enormously successful."
Those adjectives describe Crowe's movie career as well, but what they leave out are his acute powers of observation, his eye for detail, his embracing of life. Almost Famous is filled with little moments that set up bigger moments--tiny little moments like when three groupies, bent on deflowering William, come after him while one of them chants "Opie must die." Or when William, while watching Penny Lane get her stomach pumped in the next room, can't help but crack a smile, so blinded is he by love (and deafened by Stevie Wonder crooning "My Cherie Amour" on the soundtrack). Blinded by love himself, Crowe set out to make the Boogie Nights of '70s rock and came back with something a lot closer to That Thing You Do--amiable, inoffensive. He showed signs of greatness in Say Anything and the first half of Jerry Maguire, but for him to achieve that greatness in the future, Opie may have to die.