Cameron Crowe loves rock 'n' roll, no doubt about it. But, like pornography or a batter's strike zone, rock 'n' roll means lots of different things to lots of different people. To Crowe (and maybe to you--what do I know?), it means the Eagles and Peter Frampton and Yes and the whole bloated corporate rock aristocracy bequeathed unto a generation that came into its allowances post-hippie and pre-punk while retaining immunity to the charms of black music. In short, the era in which rock 'n' roll came to mean, basically, Rock Stars.
And that, of course, is why Crowe's storied teenage stint at Rolling Stone was so successful. He shone with unconditional adolescent love in first flush for the records his older and wiser colleagues panned--and, more importantly, for the people who made those records. (He even married one of 'em: Nancy Wilson of Heart.) And as anyone who has skated across the enthusiastic surface of Crowe's writing can attest, some of those stars don't seem like such bad guys after all. All of which is very sweet--and, for those of us who don't happen to be rock stars or their pals, it's very much beside the point.
Which could also be said of Almost Famous. Crowe's paean to his younger self begins promisingly, with alter ego William Miller (Patrick Fugit) being groomed for greatness by his adoring yet puritanical mom (salvaged impossibly from caricature by Frances McDormand). But William's sister can't take the stifling environment and sets off for the freedom of stewardess-ship, playing Simon and Garfunkel's "America" to explain why she has got to leave. "One day," she tells William meaningfully, "you'll be cool." (Whereas critics, William's pal Lester Bangs later proclaims in a fit of Romilar resentment, are inherently "uncool.") Cut to young William flipping through his sister's record collection, endowing these ordinary chunks of vinyl with the talismanic power that every music lover has felt.
Next thing you know, William is palling around with Lester Bangs, who sends him off to review a Black Sabbath show with a stern warning: "You cannot make friends with the rock stars." It's clear that William will not follow this advice once the mysteries of "access" are dangled before his 15-year-old eyes. Alas, the doorman dispatches him ignominiously to the top of the arena ramp to wait with the groupies--or "band aids," as their leader Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) hoitily dubs her crew, fibbing that they stop at blowjobs. Another fan craving access to the famous, William commiserates with these girls and ponders his place on the star-fan continuum.
Fortunately for his pride, William is soon in good with the struggling road band Stillwater, particularly guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup). The story that follows is loosely based on Crowe's own adventures with Led Zeppelin, though the fictionalization offers three advantages over the truth. Stillwater are Americans, so you can understand what they're saying. They're not real, so Crowe can make stuff up. And they don't have a history, as do Page and Plant et al., of allegedly ramming a mudshark into the nether regions of young ladies.
Along the way, Crowe's cornball tendencies appear most endearing when it comes to recontextualizing music. I know, a busload of rockers singing along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" by way of reconciling their differences sounds like tripe. But have you ever tasted a well-prepared dish of tripe? Yum. As with the farewell of William's sister, such instances force you to rehear these songs through the experience of the characters. As such, they make a greater case for music of dubious quality than all Crowe's collected rock writings.
But that scene is also irritatingly programmatic. Almost Famous's comic moments are too canny. Crowe the pro knows too well what works and what's funny, and so his script borders on glib, particularly when it reaches for dramatic significance.
"You're too sweet for rock 'n' roll," Penny tells William in one of those Crowe-perfect, quotable moments. Naturally, our hero demurs, spluttering about a dark side never to materialize on film. And the director similarly splutters with his script, protesting (as he has done before) that he is not too sweet for tragicomedy. (As usual, Crowe creates a few speed bumps in the road by toying with his leading ladies' plumbing: Having already covered miscarriage in Singles and abortion in Fast Times, here he uses a stomach pump to grisly effect.)
But in the end, everything works out. William disobeys his moralistic mother without having to rebel against her. And like Jerry Maguire and Rod Tidwell before them, William and Russell learn that the commitment to doing one's job and establishing friendships with men aren't mutually exclusive propositions. And the rest of us learn that groupies and celebrity journalists aren't necessarily bad or stupid people. Neither are rock stars. Or sports agents. Or hotshot directors who get to film scenes (all true, of course) of their 15-year-old selves being giddily molested in hotel rooms. I'm convinced, Cameron. But so what?
"Famous people are just more interesting," Penny tells William at one point, justifying her groupiedom. And as much as Crowe tries to resist this proposition, he can't. He's a starfucker. Again, Almost Famous implies no moral judgment--which is maybe another way of saying that Crowe/William is just too pure a fan. But in fandom, as in romance, unconditional love is never the best policy. That's why smart rock 'n' roll fans grow critical defenses as they mature. They learn that they make the music as much as their idols--and they often understand it better, too.
And yet, unto the end, William is convinced that his story will not be complete unless Russell shares with him the Secret of Rock. Who'd trust a mere critic to discern the true meaning behind the artist's music? Certainly not this critic-turned-artist behind the camera.
It reminds me of a story that a teacher friend of mine told me about discussing poetry with her ninth grade class. "Why don't we just ask the author what it means?" one student asked. The teacher smiled a little at this naive approach to lit crit. "We can't. He's dead." The kid's face dropped in horror. "Then I guess we'll never know what it means."
Almost Famous starts Friday at area theaters.