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AS THE CROW FLIES

It may be possible to dislike "Almost Famous" but I honestly don't see how. I haven't heard of a soul yet who feels that way. Cameron Crowe's first film since "Jerry Maguire" is, at the very least, as purely likable as a film can be.

To many, it's far more than that. The people who love this movie love it to pieces. The movie of the year thus far, to hear some tell it. You have no idea how much I wish I were one of them.

Don't get me wrong. I like it. It's virtually a requisite for being a human being in the rock era to feel that way. Love is another matter. To those who love it, it's virtually a portrait of their adolescent yearnings.

It's Crowe's semi-autobiographical story of his very real adolescence as a peach-fuzz journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. He graduated from advance concert pieces on Jethro Tull for a San Diego alternative rag called The Door ("As you may have gathered by now, Ian Anderson is a genius," etc. etc.) to going out on the road with the Allman Brothers at the grand old age of 16. (Crowe's lead paragraph verbatim from his Allman Brothers road piece in Rolling Stone: "In which a rock 'n' roll band from Dixie struggles in dreary motels, six-session-a-night grinds and a $48,000 debt, then a couple years later plays to sell-out crowds for $100,000 a night. . . . all the while riding shotfun??? to death." He was, to put it mildly, a journalistic prodigy.)

This is as pure a piece of romantic nostalgia as you'll find for what's now called Classic Rock (i.e. the radio format that captured rock when it was more successfully marketed to teenagers than any other music in history up to that moment).

At a press conference at the Toronto Film Festival, Crowe - who looks like an aging rock journalist, not a filmmaker - said that he discovered through music (i.e. rock 'n' roll; he doesn't mean Bach or Ellington or Indonesian Gamelon music) that thing teenagers most desperately need to discover: that there were others "out there" who felt about things exactly as he did.

In his fictionalized version of his life, he becomes 15-year-old William (Patrick Fugit), whose rebellious older sister leaves home, bequeaths him her rock records and sets him on the course that changes his life. He falls in love with what he hears in his bedroom. He wants to write about it. He solicits advice from Creem editor Lester Bangs, the great, antic, word-flinging rock critic of the time (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Backstage at a Black Sabbath concert, this goofy, sweet-faced little twerp with a banjo-sized tape recorder tries to get access for an interview with the band. The gang of groupies (they call themselves "Band Aids") outside the arena takes pity on him, especially their lovely leader who calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, who is, in life, Goldie Hawn's daughter). Even more important, so does the talented guitarist for the opening act, a bunch that calls itself Stillwater.

Penny Lane is the guitar star's road girl and, just by being a goofy, lovable kid, William has stumbled into the kind of total access that older rock journalists might kick, scratch and crawl for.

So it's a love story - about William and "music," William and Penny Lane (on whom he has a major teenage crush), William and a life so far beyond his bedroom in suburban Utah that his joy makes him a kick for everyone to have around.

Here are two things that make "Almost Famous" so irresistibly likable:

1. William's worried mother. She's played by the wonderful Frances McDormand. She's not a clueless harridan raving about the evils of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but, in fact, a very sophisticated woman - a college professor - who knows a thing or two about the very real evils of sex, drugs and the rock 'n' roll life. But she also knows that if she forecloses on her son's emerging talent and unbridled passion she risks losing him forever. He's essentially a good kid and she trusts that his goodness and good sense will prevail.

In one of the most delightful scenes in the film, the swaggering guitarist (Billy Crudup) in full star confidence suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of a phone receiver talking to the mother of the kid who has virtually become the band's journalistic mascot. She warns him that if anything untoward happens to her son while he's on the band bus, she'll haunt the rocker for life.

In a flash, the confident, adored laughing rocker suddenly changes to a chastened, "weirded out" brother figure. All because of contact with a woman who isn't just a mother but the principle of motherhood writ large.

He knows she means exactly what she says. If anything too raunchy happens to William, she will indeed haunt him to the end of her born days.

2. The groupies. Crowe, bless him, knows that the essential difference between starry-eyed fame-mongering groupies and starry-eyed, fame-mongering journalists is negligible. He is such a sensitive, generous man that he has made abused heroes of the groupies everyone else turns into dirty jokes - especially Penny Lane who is funny, warm, bright and exists only to serve right up to the inevitable moment when mistreatment of her turns into her being discarded outright.

After writing and directing one of the most-loved films of the past decade in "Jerry Maguire," Crowe is still very much a hero-worshiping writer. His 373-page "Conversations with Wilder" last year was a book that interviewed the great Billy Wilder - director of "Some Like It Hot," "Double Indemnity" and "Stalag 17" - and took him through his whole career. It begins with Crowe happily bending down to tie the shoelaces that the 93-year-old director himself can no longer bend down to tie.

That's one of the things I don't love about "Almost Famous" the way its worshipers do. What no one seems to have noticed, thus far, is how much this movie owes to Billy Wilder's Academy Award winning "The Apartment," a movie about a poor corporate schlimiehl (Jack Lemmon) who's hopelessly in love with an elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) who is used sexually by one of the corporate bosses (Fred MacMurray) until he discards her at the first opportunity.

There's something a little sappy and false about "The Apartment" and there is about this movie even more so.

This is a movie by a guy who - ask him - thinks Peter Frampton is the soul of rock 'n' roll. This is not a movie by a guy who, like some of us, values rock most for its ability to cut through the crud and the sentimentality to come up with something disturbingly tough and direct (Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Bob Seger in his prime, the Clash).

This, then, is a hopelessly romantic and sweet and sanitized view of big '70s stadium rock. Some of the band's ego-strife makes it in some nicely satiric scenes but very little of the sweat, sex and drug use. Almost all of that is done very discreetly behind closed doors, so as not to frighten anyone's parents.

It's a movie made by a grown man still in love with his past, a man who has smoothed off most of its edges in memory.

Before his own excesses did him in, his idol and early patron Lester Bangs once wrote "there's a popular idea that the flirtation with chaos is something you must grow out of, but I believe that while you shouldn't hang on to your adolescence like it was a state of grace, you should leave yourself the latitude to go berserk from time to time."

In "Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe has held on to his adolescence far too long as if it were a state of grace - and has given himself no latitude whatsoever to go a little berserk in his own movie.

Instead of his own rock-worshiping past, I wish he'd made a movie about the rock-worshiping Lester Bangs, a man who gave himself all the latitude in the world and, as a consequence, died from his excesses at the age of 33.

Bangs' was by no means a better life than Cameron Crowe's. But as likable as Crowe's is, I think it would have made a better story.

Movie Review

Almost Famous ***

Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical comedy/drama about a teen rock writer. Written and directed by Crowe. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

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