It's tempting to speculate that "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's semiautobiographical film about a teen-age rock journalist, is drawing enthusiastic advance notices for the most obvious of reasons: In dramatizing his own life on the road with the Allman Brothers, Yes and the Eagles during the early 1970s, Crowe offers a vision that's totally in sync with the fond recollections of anyone (critics included) who came of age during the same period.
Yes, Crowe has a built-in audience for his fourth directorial outing (his first since 1996's much-loved "Jerry Maguire"). And he happily exploits their memories to bring his relatively routine story and characters to life. But the director-writer's latest is also as smart, funny, insightful and absorbing as any of his previous films -- if not more so. It's also the best pop-culture picture since last year's High Fidelity and one of the best rock & roll movies ever.
Though the film is built on material that's as familiar to Crowe as his own journals, he doesn't opt for emotional manipulation or cold calculation. Even those not attracted to rock will likely leave the exuberant-then-wistful "Almost Famous" with a feeling for the power and beauty of the music as celebrated on the soundtrack via cuts by the Allmans, Iggy and the Stooges, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Elton John and others.
Those are among the artists whose albums are bequeathed to brainy, nerdy, 15-year-old William Miller (terrific newcomer Patrick Fugit) by his big sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), when she leaves their middle-class San Diego neighborhood to escape the clutches of an over-protective college-professor mom (Frances McDormand) and begin a new life with her boyfriend in San Francisco. The box full of classic recordings is meant as an escape plan for her brother, a gift of music that's sure to set William free. His awakening to the sound -- and the culture -- is shown in a sequence that rings true to anyone who underwent a similar conversion.
The aspiring writer finds the perfect outlet in rock & roll bands, and lands a Creem magazine assignment from Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman, perfectly cast), a real-life music writer who was as notorious for his self-indulgent screeds as for his eventually fatal vices. Bangs preaches to the kid that the co-opting of rock & roll by corporate powers has already done much to dilute the art of the genre. Undaunted, William forges ahead, reviewing a Black Sabbath concert, meeting vivacious groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and forming an on-again, off-again friendship with several members of a Southern-tinted hard-rock outfit called Stillwater.
Russell Hammond, the group's talented, eccentric guitarist, is played by Billy Crudup (Jesus' Son, The Hi-Lo Country) with just the right mixture of bravado, sexiness, cruelty and quiet, private pain. It's the kind of performance that deserves to be noticed come awards time. So do Crowe, his supporting cast members and the picture itself. "Almost Famous" -- a loopy coming-of-age tale punctuated with swirling concert sequences and offstage scenes that feel like real-life anecdotes -- amounts to a long, strange, funny and slightly dark road trip. It's one trek we're eager to take again as soon as it's over.