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Backstage pass

Almost Famous an engaging rock critic fable

Opens Sept. 15

When John Cusack's character in High Fidelity identified his ideal possible job as a rock journalist circa 1975-79, Cameron Crowe's ears must have been burning. Crowe, who directed Cusack in Say Anything, started out as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s, and in his new film Almost Famous he offers a rose-colored reminiscence of his coming of age. Suffused with period nostalgia and unabashed adoration of rock 'n' roll, Almost Famous thoroughly romanticizes music journalism and the vibe of the early 1970s, and why not? If Woody Allen can mythologize 1930s broadcast culture in Radio Days, there's no reason why Crowe shouldn't craft an equally loving look at the more recent past. You don't have to share the characters' ideals about the transcendent power of music to believe their sincerity, especially given Crowe's appealingly affectionate touch throughout.

Crowe's surrogate here is Billy Miller (Patrick Fugit), a high school senior and aspiring writer who's only 15 years old. The ticket stubs and rock keepsakes overflowing from his desk drawer speak volumes about his obsessions, but his smothering mother (Frances McDormand) opposes pop music as "the poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex."

Billy gets taken under the wing of the late, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who rumbles that rock is dying and gives sage advice like, "Be honest and unmerciful. Do not make friends with the rock stars." Billy lucks into an assignment from Rolling Stone's editors (who have no idea of his real age) to cover the tour of the hardworking, midlevel band Stillwater, inspired by Crowe's youthful experiences with Led Zeppelin and the Eagles.

For Billy, the story provides an all-access backstage pass to the grubby, glitzy world of musicians, a place of strange and exotic rules. Stillwater singer Jeff (Jason Lee) and restless guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) are at turns hostile, oblivious and chummy. The female hangers-on have their own pecking order described by Penny Lane (Goldie Hawn's daughter Kate Hudson), a nymphet from Billy's hometown. She and her pals (including Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk) are not groupies but "Band-Aids," young ladies who support the musicians but won't have sex with them. "Only blowjobs," Penny says, disingenuously.

The cub reporter's wide-eyed earnestness helps make him the mascot for the tour, and Crowe inflates the importance of the article to nearly the stuff of fable, a one-time shot for both Billy and the band. Billy is welcomed into Stillwater's pre-show huddles, privy to unguarded meetings and even deflowered by a gaggle of groupies. (A friend of mine who actually writes for Rolling Stone says that on tour in real life, you're lucky if a musician remembers your name after being reminded by the publicist to say good-bye.)

Crowe hews closely to the sights and sounds of the era, having enlisted Peter Frampton to consult and provide a cameo as a road manager. Stillwater's episodes on tour, like Russell's near-electrocution from a bad mic or a squabble over who looks best on their first T-shirt, cover similar terrain as This Is Spinal Tap, but they still ring amusingly true. Billy must grow up fast just as Stillwater tries adjusting to the big time, trading their beloved tour bus for a jet and their longtime manager for a sharp-talking record exec ("Saturday Night Live's" Jimmy Fallon).

As in Jesus' Son, Crudup gives a performance that's a study in effortlessness, commanding attention without seeming to work for it. His ease fittingly suits Russell's unapproachability, as he withholds a crucial interview from Billy and his heart from Penny. Plus he's funny, offering a hilariously addled turn while partying with fans in Topeka. Jason Lee is letter perfect as Stillwater's charismatic frontman, mellow and mercurial in a purely '70s way, and it's a shame the film doesn't show more of the band in concert.

Lest we forget, Crowe's Jerry Maguire gave us Jonathan Lipnicki and "Show me the money!" and Almost Famous can go for the cutes as well. The film has so many close-ups on Fugit and Hudson with perky, crinkly cornered smiles, it's as though the director's working overtime to sell us on how adorable they are. They make an admittedly likable pair but prove limited in their technique, reacting to scenes in repetitive ways.

Fortunately Hoffman's Bangs provides caustic reality checks, none more telling than the observation that, at heart, critics are uncool compared to musicians. Irony lurks at the edges of the film, as in remarks that Mick Jagger won't be trying to rock when he's 50, or mention of new technology that can transmit text "at only 18 minutes per page." The subtlest dig of all is Jeff's remark that Rolling Stone "doesn't just put anyone with one hit on the cover." The times they have a-changed.

Almost Famous finds life on the road more of a floating party than a highway to hell, but Billy and Penny each learn the hard way that the music industry doesn't obey the music's message: Billy's graduation ceremony is intercut with another character's overdose. Don't mistake Almost Famous for a documentary about music journalism, but enjoy its groovy depiction of both a rock writer and the rock industry before they lost their innocence.