By AMY NICHOLSON
By ALAN SCHERSTUHL
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By STEPHANIE ZACHAREK
By R. Scott Moxley
William meets Bangs, a onetime editor of Creem, when he's already under the spell of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and all the other swinging dicks of rock. He wants to write, and he turns to Bangs, the unlikeliest of mentors. A pasty Buddha in a black-leather jacket, his whine dragging like a whipped dog, Bangs advises his well-scrubbed protégé to be "honest and unmerciful," counsel that echoes throughout the film, working an insistent counterpoint to the more obvious story about a fan boy and his idol. Bangs' status as a critical legend was shaped as much by his grotesque excesses—booze, pills, NyQuil—as by his ferocious, take-no-prisoners ideas on rock and its industry, ideas that seem more radical with the passing of each MTV award show. He makes a strange guru for the fresh-faced William and an even stranger guiding light for the adult filmmaker who wrote the line "You had me at 'Hello.'" But it's Bangs who saves Almost Famous from being Jerry Maguire, which in many other ways it recalls, including a denouement so egregiously phony it literally ends on a smiling face.
Like William, Crowe didn't fully follow Bangs' advice; you get the sense that no matter how honest he might be, he just doesn't have the heart to be unmerciful. That characterized him as a journalist, and it has also defined—and limited—him as a filmmaker; until now, his movies have been unfailingly nice (even his visual style seems overly polite), which is why they've also been more enjoyable than essential. Almost Famous isn't buffed to the high-gloss perfection of Jerry Maguire, and this works both against and for the film. Although he's good with actors—McDormand and Seymour are predictably vivid—Crowe has a less-than-ideal trio heading up his cast. Fugit is a suitable blank slate, but he doesn't have the chops for his big emotional moment, and a confrontation between William and Penny Lane nearly blows the final act. Crudup is likable but far too tame to be anybody's rock & roll wet dream—there's no whiff of erotic danger, as there is when Brad Pitt, for whom Crowe originally wrote the part, slithers around Fight Clublike Iggy Pop, sacrificing himself on the altar of our insatiable desire.
For her part, Hudson makes a regrettably bland groupie (she's inherited her looks from Goldie Hawn, but none of her mother's lunatic charm), although she does star in one of the film's best scenes, a scene that offers a key to the film as well as a brilliant coda. It comes after countless miles of road and endless rounds of hotel agonies, as an OD'ing Penny Lane gets a tube stuffed down her throat. As she begins vomiting up a Quaalude-and-booze cocktail, William dreamily stares at her, the sounds of "My Cherie Amour" muffling her gags. William is looking at one thing, the music is telling him something else—and what he's choosing to believe isn't the truth before him but the music, a beautiful lie in which love is eternal and the girl is always as lovely as a summer day. Like much great art, Almost Famous is about the search for some glimmer of authentic meaning. Everyone searches differently. Lester Bangs took a swan dive into the gutter and died at the age of 33. Cameron Crowe wrote for slick magazines and studios. He kept living, no doubt very comfortably, but as it so happens, he never did stop listening to Bangs' voice, which is why, on his fourth try as a director, he has gotten it right.
Almost Famous was Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe; Produced by Ian Bryce and Lisa Stewart; and Stars Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup and Kate Hudson. Now playing countywide.
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