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"Almost Famous," Cameron Crowe's coming-of-age tale, rocks. 

Stairway to '70s Heaven

Witty and wry, "Almost Famous" is a hard-rock love letter to the '70s. Seen through the eyes of writer-director Cameron Crowe's alter ego, a wide-eyed, 15-year-old named William Miller, this coming-of-age tale is a delight from the first frame to the last. But the fun of "Almost Famous" isn't just the '70s music; it's the musicians, the hangers-on, the believers, the naysayers and William's mom.

Crowe's fans won't be surprised that his latest effort focuses on music, which he skillfully employs in all his films to express a character's current emotional state or sneak a peek into his soul. Remember John Cusack in "Say Anything," lifting that boombox to the sky outside Ione Skye's bedroom window? Or Tom Cruise racing down the highway in "Jerry Maguire," abusing the FM-tuner in search of a song to suit his mood?

Now Crowe serves up "Almost Famous," a movie not only dedicated to the love of music, but also loosely based on his own experiences as a teen rock 'n' roll writer. And the character's soul he chooses ultimately to bare is his own.

"Almost Famous" begins with a telling prologue. There's a battle brewing in the Miller family. William's older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) and his philosophy professor mom, Elaine (the incomparable Frances McDormand), are waging the universal parent-child war of independence. Shouting classic Crowe-style dialogue, Anita explains the problem succinctly, "I'm a yes person, and you are trying to raise us in a no environment." With that stinging pronouncement, Anita flounces out of the family. But before she leaves, she bequeaths her record collection to William. That single gesture changes his life forever.

Four years later, William (fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit) is a full-fledged novitiate at the altar of rock. His unabashed enthusiasm not only has him acquiring "Creem" magazine's legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his mentor, but also lands him a dream free-lance assignment with "Rolling Stone." His job? Writing about the semiobscure rock band Stillwater as it heads out on its "almost famous" tour.

With mom Elaine's fears about "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" ringing in his ears and Bangs' warnings about needing to maintain a critical distance from his subjects, our cherubic-faced teen enters the inner circle. While he struggles to keep his objectivity, his presence adds to the tensions and jealousies between Stillwater's flamboyant lead guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudrup), and the overshadowed lead zinger, Jeff (Jason Lee). William also falls hard for the band's lead groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who takes him under her wing. But Penny loves Russell, even though he has an off-the-road steady. Watching Penny's willing exploitation forms one of William's two moral dilemmas. The other, of course, is the difficulty of remaining a tough journalist once you become intimate with the people you are to write about.

The movie shows off Crowe's uncanny knack at pulling rounded, full-bodied performances from the entire cast. Hoffman is nothing short of terrific as Bangs; Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk are his equal as two groupies who don't share Penny's need for love; and Crudrup is great as the charismatic Russell. While Fugit's sweet William aptly captures the necessary wistful innocence as a spectator at rock's banquet, he's not one of "Almost Famous'" standouts. That accolade goes to McDormand and Hudson. McDormand's mom could easily have been the villain of the movie. Instead, Crowe and McDormand turn her into a charming, intelligent, free-thinking woman who celebrates Christmas in September to protest the rank commercialism of the holiday. But we also never forget she's a mother.

Hudson, whose sole claim to fame before "Almost Famous" was being Goldie Hawn's daughter, delivers a breakout performance as Penny Lane. As the self-styled lead "band aide" — a term she prefers to groupie — Hudson's Lane mixes equal parts of sexuality with innocence. She's a survivor, but never quite as tough as we think.

Hard to beat for its sheer exuberance and feel-good fun, "Almost Famous" is an almost flawless movie. My one wish? That Crowe hadn't slapped on such a pat ending. But his desire to bring all the story elements to a nice conclusion is forgivable. While not quite on par with "Say Anything" or "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" is one of this very lean year's best. As much fun to recall as it is to watch, "Almost Famous" rocks.

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