THE PRODIGAL SON is always expected to return, but why does he leave? In Cameron Crowe's genial, heartfelt, auto-biographically inspired tale of early '70s rock journalism, William (Patrick Fugit), the lad in question, ostensibly departs 1973 San Diego to pursue his destiny, but it's his mother's smothering, overprotective love that drives him out of the house. Fargo's Frances McDormand amusingly plays his widowed mom as a woman who abhors pop music. She's already alienated his older sister, whose LP collection William inherits and handles with religious devotion. Why the divide? Why does William, the aspiring journalist, embrace precisely that which his mother hates? Crowe doesn't delve into such potentially revealing issues. Instead, Almost Famous is a fondly nostalgic and generally comic memoir—albeit fictionalized—that's content to illustrate, not explain.
written and directed by Cameron Crowe with Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, and Patrick Fugit opens September 15 at Guild 45th, Meridian 16, and Oak Tree
William finds a father figure in the iconoclastic, real-life rock journalist Lester Bangs (a grouchy, puckish Philip Seymour Hoffman), who becomes a Obi Wan-;like mentor to the young scribe. His surrogate sister emerges in the form of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a pixieish groupie following the band, Stillwater, William's been assigned to cover. To the group's brash singer (Jason Lee of Chasing Amy) and saturnine guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup of Jesus' Son), William becomes a little brother and confidante. On the tour bus, he effectively assembles a Partridge Family-like clan to replace his own. Again—why?
Memory does funny things to writers. Crowe doesn't seem to have any scores to settle in his embellished recollections; there are no enemies or bad guys, and everyone—his mother especially—is treated sympathetically. But then, there's no particular requirement that comedy be critical (although it helps). Crowe's got an ear for funny, vernacular dialogue, and his movies are about talk, not action. The grunge sketches and relationship vignettes of Singles worked for precisely that reason. Jerry Maguire hit even bigger for his willingness to project everyday personal subjects—career crises, loyalty, single motherhood—onto the big screen. Famous similarly makes its subject the simple human relationships ordinarily relegated to low-budget indie films.
THEIR RELATIONSHIP with music is what binds the movie's characters into an improvised family. For the blue-collar guys in Stillwater, it's a way out of Detroit—and a way to get on the cover of Rolling Stone. (It's also William's goal to put them there, whether he recognizes it or not.) Yet in depicting an idealized period of pre-corporate rock, Famous warns that the party is about to end, and with it the idealism and purity of this supposedly golden age. "You missed out on rock 'n' roll—it's over," Bangs declares.
Bangs is the crank, of course, and William is the enthusiast. While Bangs will toil and die in obscurity, William—Crowe—goes on to make Oscar-nominated movies. Crowe the director is clearly aware that young William's mere presence in the publicity apparatus of arena rock will contribute to its bloated downfall, but his love for the music remains unchanged. An early sequence nicely captures the excitement of a concert, including the blaring song "Fever Dog" (written by Crowe and wife Nancy Wilson of Heart).
Without many plot twists beyond a suggested William-Penny-Russell love triangle, Famous is largely an episodic road movie and a familiar coming-of-age flick. (Any picture including the perennial clunker "Follow your dream"—ouch—has got some problems.) It raises the eternal, insidious bargain between journalist and subject—access for publicity—as Bangs warns William: "Friendship is the booze that they feed ya." Yet somehow, improbably, friendship prevails, and in its sunny, optimistic spirit, Famous almost convinces that the music from a few short years will outlast the growing pains of an almost forgotten time.