One of the persistent clichés in profiles on celebrities is the writer's self-indulgent attempt to set the scene, opening an article with trivial details about staring wistfully out a hotel window with John Cusack or sharing a pillow with Jewel. Anything, it seems, to avoid simply talking about the subject's work and what might make it exciting. As a young journalist for Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe profiled many rock icons from the '70s, and his ambitious, semi-autobiographical Almost Famous isn't immune to some of the same pitfalls. While vivid, deeply felt, and fitfully exhilarating, it unfolds like a misshapen magazine piece, swirling with interesting peripheral details that never quite snap into hard focus. Part of the problem is that Crowe's loose, episodic style works best when he has a strong personality to drive the story, as he did with Cusack in Say Anything… or Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. His ensemble piece Singles, for all its intermittent charms, seems rudderless by comparison. As Crowe's alter ego in Almost Famous, 15-year-old Patrick Fugit is a passive observer to the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, a starry-eyed innocent who's affected far more often than he affects. Just as he struggles to make sense of everything going on around him, so does the film. After some freelance work in his native San Diego—home of his mentor, legendary music critic Lester Bangs, played by habitual scene-stealer Philip Seymour Hoffman—Fugit is assigned by Rolling Stone to write about an up-and-coming band called Stillwater. Against the protestations of overprotective mother Frances McDormand, Fugit goes on tour with the group during a volatile time when its middling lead singer (Jason Lee) is losing the spotlight to electrifying guitarist Billy Crudup. Fugit is befriended by Kate Hudson, a whimsical groupie (or "band-aid," as she prefers to be called) blinded by her intense devotion to Crudup and his music. In its best moments, Almost Famous taps into the immediacy of a great rock song, the soaring mini-epiphanies that could lead Crowe (or anyone) to helpless, lifelong addiction. Perhaps because the nature of touring is so ambling and listless, the behind-the-scenes relationships never really gel, leaving Crowe to insert a pair of desperately contrived crises to spike up the third act. Still, as a well-thumbed collection of scrapbook vignettes, Almost Famous is a wounded, heartfelt triumph.
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