September 18, 2000 12:00 PM

Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Patrick Fugit, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Featured attraction

Fifteen-year-old William Miller, the hero of this terrific comedy drama, is a journalistic prodigy. At an age when most kids are still learning to write a topic sentence, he is on the road reporting on a rock band for Rolling Stone. Which is what really happened back in 1973 to writer-director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), who has turned (and slightly fictionalized) his own story about coming of age at the end of the Age of Aquarius into the best, most appealing movie of his already noteworthy career (his output includes Say Anything…and Singles).

What makes Almost Famous so engaging and ultimately rewarding is that it isn’t merely the tale of a boy reporter getting the story behind the music. The film is really about William (Fugit, a talented newcomer with a keen, wide-open gaze) coming to terms with the complexities and contradictions of the people around him. This group includes his loving mother (McDormand), a widowed college professor who frets about her son’s safety in rock’s drug-filled world; Russell Hammond (Crudup), the band’s charismatic lead guitarist; Penny Lane (Hudson, who’s Goldie Hawn’s daughter), a 16-year-old groupie who is sleeping with Russell; and Lester Bangs (Hoffman), a real-life rock scribe (Bangs died in 1982) who becomes William’s mentor, just as he was Crowe’s. Bangs cautions William against becoming too friendly with his subjects because a true journalist must always be “honest and unmerciful” in his writing.

In dramatizing his past, Crowe heeds the call for honesty but shows mercy and much humor. He likes his characters, even when they are being selfish, self-destructive or deceitful and, in the end, so do we. It is Crowe’s compassion, as well as the superb performances he has elicited from McDormand, Crudup and Hudson–who signals with her radiant turn here that she’s ready for major stardom–that makes this trip back to the ’70s such an enjoyable ride. (R) Bottom Line: Almost perfect

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