By Greg Kot, Tribune rock critic (copyright Chicago Tribune) Sept. 27, 2000
As the aspiring journalist with the tape recorder approaches, the members of the band Stillwater sneer with contempt. Here he comes, one of them hisses, ''the enemy.''
But young William Miller is not yet the enemy. In Cameron Crowe's big wet kiss to rock 'n' roll, ''Almost Famous,'' Miller (actor Patrick Fugit) is an awe-struck fan. He gains entree to Stillwater's world of backstage trysts, hotel-room parties and groupie entourages by complimenting the band's songwriting and musicianship. The young reporter seduces the mythical band (modeled after groups that Crowe once profiled such as Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers and the Eagles) just as his access to the band's inner world seduces him. Miller gets his first big cover story in Rolling Stone as Stillwater become bigger stars. They in turn introduce him to a side of rock 'n' roll that he would never experience from his seat in the concert hall. On the surface it's an idealized version of a relationship that, as Crowe's movie makes clear, is never quite so symbiotic.
The story, based on Crowe's improbable emergence as a teen rock critic with Rolling Stone in 1973, is a coming-of-age tale that takes its cues from the albums that shaped the director's worldview. Many people, from Bruce Springsteen to Crowe himself, have said rock 'n' roll has changed their lives. Now Crowe has made a movie that allows him to say ''thanks,'' and it's not exactly a warts-and-all dissection of one of the most corrupt, immoral, artist-unfriendly industries in the entertainment world. Instead, it is a reminder about why writers and fans such as Crowe and bands like Stillwater want to enter that world in the first place.
In one of the movie's smallest but most lovingly orchestrated scenes, Crowe shows Miller as his younger self slowly flipping through a stack of albums just bequeathed to him by his older sister. As he gazes upon Bob Dylan's ''Blonde on Blonde,'' Jimi Hendrix's ''Axis: Bold as Love'' and Big Brother and the Holding Company's ''Cheap Thrills,'' I couldn't help but envy him in that moment, on the doorstep of something bigger than himself.
It's no coincidence that the first step on Crowe's journey, the first album in his sister's cardboard box, is the Beach Boys' ''Pet Sounds''--Tip No. 1 that this a movie about a rock critic made by a rock critic. More than 30 years after its creation, ''Pet Sounds'' remains the Holy Grail of albums for many of us who write about rock for a living, in no small measure because it so acutely expresses that bittersweet transition from youth to adulthood.
To anyone who has heard and loved ''Pet Sounds,'' it becomes the tonal center of the movie, even though it is never actually heard or seen after that opening scene. But its bittersweet emotional palette is surely the guiding force of this movie, the glue for its multiple plot lines as the characters unravel the myth and mystery of an art form that at one heady moment in each of their young lives took their breath away and beckoned them, Pied Piper-like, to follow.
Crowe hedges his bets because, of course, this is Hollywood. To carry the narrative along, and perhaps to ensure that the movie will have an audience beyond hard-core music geeks, he has created a somewhat predictable rock-era version of the love triangle, with Miller competing with the charismatic but self-centered Stillwater guitarist, Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup) for the affections of the groupie-with-the-heart-of-gold, Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson). But it's a smokescreen for a less-obvious love triangle, involving the band, its fans and the press, and it is in the resolution of that conflicted series of relationships where Crowe's true message emerges.
One of the key secondary characters in the movie is the late rock critic Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who was the young Crowe's real-life mentor. Bangs was notorious for the way he skewered rock's sacred cows and championed reviled bands such as Black Sabbath and the Stooges. In a key early scene, he advises a wide-eyed William Miller to be ''honest and unmerciful'' when writing about rock stars, to be skeptical of the world he is about to enter, to understand that the musicians who invite him into their hotel suites and tour buses aren't doing it to be friendly, but to use the journalist to advance their careers. Yet, despite Bangs' advice, Miller approaches his first assignment with an understandable sense of awe; he has been invited into the inner-circle of a band on the rise, an opportunity to visit with the musicians he idolizes, people who seem to stand just a little taller than the rest of us.
Stillwater guitarist Hammond embodies that viewpoint in a later scene. ''I am a golden god,'' he shouts with drug-fueled hubris from a rooftop, literally towering over his flock of worshipers. Below him is Miller, who by now has begun to see his subjects for what they are: flawed human beings like the rest of us who happen to have a gift for making music. While he is among the fans looking up at Miller, he is not of the fans; he is learning that he has a different set of allegiances: to the editors of Rolling Stone magazine, and ultimately, to the magazine's readers.
''I'm not sweet, and you should know that about me,'' Miller admonishes Penny Lane at one point. ''I am the enemy.''
But it's never as simple as that. In the course of getting the story, Miller can't help but befriend the band members, is deflowered by their groupies, and becomes privy to secrets they haven't even shared with one another. In some ways he becomes more of a fan than when he started; he's now like a fifth member of the band, huddling with them before they go on stage and accompanying them everywhere. When it comes time to write the Stillwater story, it is difficult not to believe that he has somehow become compromised, that his allegiances have shifted, that his duty to be ''honest and unmerciful'' has been corrupted.
And Crowe's movie argues that it's all for the better. He suggests that it's not only okay for the critic to be a fan, but that the music demands it. And he has a point, even though every bone in my journalistic anatomy argues against it.
As someone whose writerly aspirations were fired by the lessons of Watergate-- the adversarial doggedness of the press in ferreting out truth, no matter how much scorn that may bring upon the person entrusted with delivering the news-- I understand the need for maintaining a certain dispassionate distance from the subjects one must write about. But the line between journalist and fan often becomes blurred in the world so well re- created in Crowe's movie. In the course of interviewing a particularly ingratiating rock star, whether it's Kurt Cobain or Bono, one can't help but develop a rapport or intimacy that sometimes goes beyond simple professionalism. In interviews, I get to ask questions that often don't get asked by anyone else in the musician's life, and sometimes become privy to details that even their friends might not know. I am welcomed into their world, and these glimpses of a recording session, these late-night conversations in a bar or hotel room, become tiny seductions that chip away at objectivity.
For me, the small triumph of ''Almost Grown'' is how it portrays that essential uneasiness between journalist and fan, Bangs' brutality vs. Crowe's sweetness, and the need for any journalist not to choose between one or the other. In the end, that conflict should never be resolved, that uneasiness should color every story a music journalist writes. It's a balancing act between professional duty and personal passion that should prevail from the day an assignment is accepted to the moment when the story is filed. When one impulse is allowed to overwhelm the other, the readers lose.