Absolutely Fabulous

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NEAL PRESTON--DREAMWORKS

MONA LISAS AND MAD HATTERS: The fictional Stillwater and its groupies make for a wild ride

Does each generation of kids get the music it deserves? No, but it gets the music that defines it. It's in the generational blood. Every joy or pang of growing up has an accompanying sound track. And decades later, car-radio playings of specific songs, good or bad, can be as acute a prod to sweet or rueful memory as Proust's tea cake. For Cameron Crowe, the pastry was named Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Poco. And Crowe didn't just listen to them. He interviewed them.

The '70s were when the machinery of rock-starmaking was perfected. The poet-satyrs onstage and the poet-flacks of the rock press fed off one another voraciously. The artists preened; the authors postured--all to make the cover of Rolling Stone.

What gives Crowe's story poignance is his background as a teenage working journalist. At the age when kids are supposed to be feeling those gonadal guitar jolts for the first time, he was standing backstage during a concert, riding the band bus, eliciting sexual confessions from rock Rimbauds. This was a kid's dream. But to live it--to survive it--Crowe had to be a premature grownup.

Almost Famous has a lot of smart lines, but the best are in Patrick Fugit's face. Fugit, who plays the teen Crowe character, William Miller, has a baby face, creased with dimples and given to grins, but it is stuck on a tall, gawky body. Then he speaks, and he sounds so much older than he looks it's as if his voice had been dubbed by the adult he would become--the adult who became Crowe. Watchful and open, skeptical but not cynical, Fugit manages to embody both the child and the man, the boy who went on the trip and the writer who would remember it and shape it into comic drama.

William lucks into his on-the-road adventure with the rock quartet Stillwater, and is adopted as their chronicler and mascot. At 15 he could be the poster child for a dark odyssey of sexual and pharmacological abuse; his mother could be right when she blurts out, "Rock stars have kidnapped my son." But William and the film are too savvy for that. People use one another here, but genially, and in small doses. On this cross-country trek, everyone is, benignly, lost in poppyland. It's Oz without the wizard.

The typical boy-to-man fable is one of groping in the dark, a child beset by demons, on a road with no signposts. But William isn't clueless; he has too many clues. He is swamped in advice: from his musical mentor, the rebel critic Lester Bangs (another off-kilter, on-target tour de force by Philip Seymour Hoffman); from his muse, the knowing groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, with the soft, curly haired charisma of a Woodstock Botticelli); from Stillwater's lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, who has finally found the movie role to fit his questing intelligence and almost-too-hunky features); and from his protective mom (fierce, nattering Frances McDormand). William's task is to sift all this good, or at least plausible, advice and make his own choices. On the fly, on the road, he's forced into maturity.

Most memory movies (and novels and plays) have a score to settle. When parents are depicted as idiots, teachers as tyrants and classmates as sadists, you can bet the writer feels so much better for taking revenge on the people who made his teen years miserable.

Crowe carries no such grudge. He has warm feelings for all the characters (except the Rolling Stone staff; they come off as naive and capricious, first deciding that an unseen article from an unknown writer should be a cover story, then killing it briefly when the band disputes a few quotes). Crowe likes the rockers, the groupies, the exasperated desk clerk at a rowdy hotel. And dammit, he loves his mom.

That's nice. Better yet, it is good screenwriting: giving each character his reasons, making everyone in the emotional debate charming and compelling, creating fictional people who breathe in a story with an organic life.

One associates this equipoise, this generosity of spirit, with Crowe's mentor, the writer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News), who produced Crowe's Say Anything...and Jerry Maguire. Those early Crowe films, for all their nifty moments, reduced minor figures to stereotypes, skirted believability, settled for easy answers. The new one is a big step up. By recalling (and subtly rouging) the inner adult of his childhood, the Brooks protege becomes his own man.

So Almost Famous is almost fabulous. Oh, all right. The movie's so clever and endearing, you can forget the almost.