In the not-too-distant future, scientists will discover that a strange, psychic link existed between David Fincher and Cameron Crowe. It'll finally be revealed that Fincher was offloading all his happy thoughts about bunnies and laughing children to Crowe before making dark epics like Se7en and Fight Club. In turn, Crowe was channelling that positive energy into the warm, comforting and rose-tinted spectacle that is Almost Famous.
Yet Crowe's walking a tightrope here. In telling this semi-autobiographical tale, he's not only trying to convey his passion for `70s rock giants like Led Zeppelin and The Who to an audience raised on `80s pop and `90s dance. He also has to do so without it all appearing like some glorified vanity project. Thankfully, he's succeeded, resulting in not only a glowing, effectively realised tribute to both the era and the music, but also a beautifully crafted coming-of-age drama.
Still, it would be hard to fail with an ensemble like this. Crowe was always on to a winner, with proven talents like Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And even the younger members in the cast shine, bringing a subtle naturalism to their roles. As guitarist Russell Hammond, Billy Crudup proves he's among Hollywood's brightest rising stars, never making the character feel like a fret-fiddlingstereotype. Similarly, Jason Lee plays Stillwater's lead singer with the right blend of egotism and bubbling jealousy, realising that most of the band's fame is due to his more talented colleague.
But it's the relative newcomers who carry the bulk of the running time, and they take the weight without it ever burdening their performances. Playing William as a nervous, babbling - and undeniably bright - fan, Patrick Fugit's own inexperience fuels his turn, and he's able to hold attention without resorting to overplaying. He faces stiff competition from Goldie Hawn-offspring Kate Hudson, who lights up scenes with a twitch of a smile, and who plays up the naïvety buried beneath Penny's world-weary shell.
True, there are moments which involve a little too much heavy-handed feelgood emotional chain-pulling. One or two (especially a jarring and claustrophobic chunk of catharsis near the end) bear the unmistakable whiff of cheese, and hold Almost Famous back from true greatness. But don't let that put you off: the good material far outshines the cornier moments, and you'll only be glad you went on this particular road trip of self-discovery.
A love story for both characters and director, Almost Famous hits just about every right note.It's not merely for those after a dose of nostalgia and has the right balance of laughs, tension and drama to make it a superior coming-of-ager.