Rock-a-Bye Baby

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, set mostly in 1973, is a blissfully sweet coming-of-age movie in which everyone, young and less young, comes of age. William Miller (Patrick Fugit), the 15-year-old budding rock journalist, is the film’s centerpiece, and he’s a wide-eyed munchkin savant, a cherub in the Dionysian circus of rock and roll. He’s so virginal he’s comic; roving groupies take one look at him and can’t wait to deflower him en masse, for the sport of it. On assignment to cover the touring up-and-coming Led Zeppelin-ish band Stillwater for Rolling Stone, William becomes its unofficial mascot. Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the lead guitarist, has the requisite hippie Jesus look, and he sees in William not only an acolyte but, as the relationship deepens, a musical soul mate as well. What unites these two is the ecstasy of knowing just how deep-down good rock music can make you feel. A teenage rock journalist in the seventies before writing the book Fast Times at Ridgemont High and getting into movies, Crowe still feels this ecstasy in his bones, which is why his movie looks vibrantly alive instead of shimmering with that phony nostalgic haze common to period films set in that era. But Crowe is also honest enough to recognize how intricately bound our feelings for rock are to our zig-zag attitudes about sex and pomp and rebellion and cool. It’s the rock lifestyle as much as rock itself that is being celebrated here.

Crowe sprinkles a pinch of powdered sugar on that lifestyle, but this approach is preferable to being subjected to the usual litany of overdoses and whoring. He does indeed bring some of this material into the movie, just enough to make us feel its sting, but he’s not trying for an exposé. (What’s left to expose, anyway?) His movie is like a souvenir of personal memories that have been candied by time. Crowe’s films, especially his first two as a writer-director, Say Anything … and Singles, have always displayed an unyielding affection and longing for family, and what he finds in the rock world of Almost Famous is the greatest of extended families, an orgy of companionship. William’s single mom, Elaine (Frances McDormand), who thinks rock and roll is a doomy siren’s call, is the Mother Courage of the piece. She’s already driven away William’s sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who bequeaths her record collection to her brother. Then, for the first time in his life, William also leaves home, to follow Stillwater. Elaine is a monster but a very human one; in her own Gorgon-like way she cares deeply about her son, and she’s certainly not wrong to worry about the drugs and the sex. But her defiance, which exhibits a comically overheated, rock-stars-have-kidnapped-my-son paranoia, is partly what eggs him on, and she knows it. William may be a cherub, but he’s also a chip off the old block. His errantry is a backhanded tribute to his mom’s mettle.

Early on, William acquires a mentor, the rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who may be the best character actor in America). It is Bangs, with his gonzo’s radar, who immediately perceives what lies ahead for the boy. “You cannot make friends with the rock stars,” he tells him. “Friendship is the booze they feed you.” And yet friendship is what William craves even more than reputation, even more than music. Crowe doesn’t take a hard-line attitude toward all this: The movie is saying that some things are more important than journalism, at least to the journalist. The puff and glitz that some writers churn out may be murderous to their profession, but castigating those writers is not what this movie is about. Who can fault William for “getting too close” to his subject? Almost Famous isn’t about the making of a great rock scribe (which Lester Bangs emphatically was). It’s about how rock and roll messes you up and brings you into a new relation with yourself. Besides, William manages to deliver the goods: His story on Stillwater for Rolling Stone, which both he and the band at first regard as a betrayal, is an uncensored tribute to their shared spree.

Crowe brings out the emotional levels in William’s odyssey. The boy’s almost palpable need for a father figure is fulfilled by the yin and yang of Lester and Russell. Somehow William manages to reconcile himself to both. Usually in movies it’s the rock stars who are mythologized, but here it is Lester the critic who gets the Yoda treatment, dispensing sage, scurrilous pensées over the phone from his platter-clogged apartment. Crowe, who recently published a book of his affectionate, wide-eyed interviews with his directing hero Billy Wilder, has an affinity for tenderizing deep-dish cynics and outlaws: the Lester Bangs of this movie is a cautionary guru who understands the rot and corruption of rock but still loves it for its charge and its disposability; Russell Hammond assumes, uneasily, the role of rock satyr. A gifted guitarist, he seems slightly baffled by the writhings of his audience.

Russell may possess the onstage swagger of a star, but he looks to the uplifted gaze of William to validate his cool. And he really loves music. In the most serenely satisfying moment in the movie, Russell threatens to leave the band after repeated clashes with the thin-skinned lead singer (Jason Lee). He’s brought back into the fold when the group, aboard their touring bus, joins in singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” tentatively at first and finally at full throttle. Suddenly all is right with the world. It’s both a fantasy and a validation of how music can banish every bit of badness from your life.

Crowe knows how to bring out the youthful ardor in his actors. Patrick Fugit has the most difficult role, because William is essentially an observer, a peacemaker. (As a writer-director, Crowe is a peacemaker, too; he likes to bring people together.) William is the still center, or off-center, of every scene in which he appears, but his recessiveness is intensely inquiring and likeable. Kate Hudson, playing Russell’s chief groupie, Penny Lane, is a swirl of concupiscence in faux-fur-collared coats and lace tank tops. Hudson brings out the preternatural womanliness and pathos in this girl, who can’t be much older than William; she’s wised-up already, and her baby fat is becoming hard-edged. Billy Crudup has been dubbed a star-in-waiting for so long that this film, which will surely make him one, seems almost like a coronation. His performance may resemble a loose-limbed frolic, but it’s also feral and intuitive and carries within it the remembered essence of every celebrated and not-so-celebrated rocker from that pivotal era. Crudup understands Russell’s complicated position in William’s life, which is why the final reconciliation between the two is such a beautifully conceived finale. It’s just a simple grace note of a scene, but, like the entire movie, it has the soft emotional resonance of a long-held chord.

Rock-a-Bye Baby