"Almost Famous" is writer-director Cameron Crowe's love letter to his youth, which is a charming idea -- we all should do it -- but, like most love letters, is better in the thought than in the execution.
The year is 1973, the place San Diego. Young Cameron -- here called William Miller (Patrick Fugit) -- after being skipped two years in elementary school and therefore been hounded by his classmates as a retard -- is now fifteen, has finally reached puberty, fallen in love with rock music, and now writes a rock & roll column for the school paper. He also sends pieces to Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), editor of Creem, the alternative rock magazine. One day Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone, not knowing William's real age, calls him to ask for a piece on a band called Stillwater (made up for the film as a composite of midlevel rock bands of the early seventies -- we meet them on the night they supposedly open for Black Sabbath).
The film takes us along with William on the band's bus tour across the country, as he tries to find the balance point between independent journalist of integrity and fellow-traveler to a band that's as rife with love, lust and conflict as any other group of performers. He's taken under the wing of the band's traveling groupies (they call themselves the Band-Aids), led by the beautiful Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who even manage to tell his mother in a phone call, "Don't worry -- he's still a virgin. We're looking out for him."
And his mother is a piece of work. Played by Frances McDormand as a misguided, overprotective virago who nevertheless has a heart full of love, she comes across in the film as a cartoon caricature rather than a human being.
The farther we get into the group's trip and William's learning curve, the less Crowe seems able to find and share anything worthwhile about his characters. Stillwater's leader, Russell (Billy Crudup) keeps William, and the audience, at arm's length. Always threatening to open up and speak frankly, he keeps postponing the moment. And each time we see more clearly that there's really nothing there. William follows him around with a tape recorder and microphone, but never gets to hear anything. It could be said that that's the point, but it's also the difference between real life and real art. We already know that most people, rock musicians or bricklayers or lawyers, don't have much to say. It's the job of the artist to make them worth our investment of time and emotion.
All the right things do happen to William: he lives out every adolescent's dream trip through a world full of, well, sex, drugs, and rock & roll, he finally gets laid, though not by Penny, he saves her from a suicide attempt, he lives through an airplane crisis in which the band members reveal their darkest secrets, and -- finally -- he gets to see his Rolling Stone story in print. The problem is that we just don't care, because Crowe hasn't given us anything or anybody to seriously care about.
His worst offense is William, his own youth-as-hero. William as a character is an empty vessel. He has no personality, we never know what he's thinking about, or what he's feeling. Fugit the actor has an inexpressive face and a monotonous voice that seems to be coming from a recorded track somewhere inside him. We wonder, why all the fuss? The film seems like an exercise in self-congratulation, an ego trip for Crowe, who's done much better in the past ("Jerry Maguire").
One last thought: Stillwater's music, a pastiche created for the film by Peter Frampton and Crowe, is something less than mediocre, certainly less than any decent band with a following and a reputation that year would have made. And Crowe has done it a great disservice by loading his soundtrack with music by the truly great bands and singers of the era, inviting comparisons that Stillwater can't begin to meet.