A review requested by John, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Almost Famous of the year 2000 is surely the Cameron Crowest of Cameron Crowe films. Not just because it’s also the most baldly autobiographical of Cameron Crowe films, though I suspect that fact informs everything else that is true of the film. There’s a strong current of observed reality suffusing it; there’s a wealth of detail in the way people talk and think within the movie, the attitudes they hold and the society in which they move that has a rich, thick feeling of authenticity. Crowe’s screenplay and his direction mix finely-honed reporting skills (it is, after all, about a time in his life when he was a journalist) with an unapologetic lacquer of happy nostalgia, looking back to a time that was neither more innocent nor more promising but keenly remembering what it felt like to think that everything was innocent and promising. And because of all this, it is a film that treats all of its characters as wonderful old friends, people to be forgiven all their mistakes and celebrated for even their smallest triumphs. It is, as much as anything else I can name, a movie that loves its characters with the most ebullient love, each and every single one of them, even when they’re acting at their worst: it is the most generous kind of storytelling, and that is Crowe’s strongest and most characteristic mode.

Whether this is an entirely good thing isn’t clear. Without Almost Famous, it’s quite impossible to imagine Elizabethtown, a film of almost radioactive sweetness and guileless affection for its characters and scenario - I film whose absolute refusal to judge or show even the tiniest measure of cynicism I find awfully endearing, though in the most artless and barbarically clumsy way. Almost Famous isn’t that: it’s a far steadier and more thoughtful piece of filmmaking (I would suggest that it is, in fact, the clear high water mark of Crowe’s CV), if only for the nuance of the way it uses its wall-to-wall classic rock soundtrack as a signpost for character development, rather than the crude nostalgia-baiting of most films that rely on music to do the heavy lifting of authenticating a time period and insisting on the audience’s feelings (Forrest Gump, you shameless hussy).

Is it, though, a gloppy wad of sentimentality? Maybe. Kind of. There is a fine needle to thread here, and not at all moments does Almost Famous thread it - for every scene that's a sturdy piece of observed wisdom about coming of age as a human male, a critical thinker, and a lover of the transporting power of music, there's another that's pure cheese. There are moments that are both of these things at once, including what I'm inclined to think of as the movie's signature scene and probably my favorite moment in all of Crowe: a bus full of tired rockstars, groupies, and teenage journalists joining in, one by one, to sing along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer". It's hokey and sweet and honest, aggressive and demanding in its appeal to the naïve belief that a song has that kind of unifying, uplifting power. Which of course it does: there are probably not many things that every single adult in the developed world has experienced, but I'm willing to bet that a pleasant sing-along with friends is one of them.

Whatever universal feeling come out of the film are generated from one of the most thoroughly specific scenarios ever to support a coming-of-age film: riffing on Crowe's own life experience, Almost Famous centers on the weeks in 1973 that 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) spent touring with the fictional band Stillwater after having lucked (and lied) his way into an assignment to write a 3000-word story about the band for Rolling Stone. The minimal plot that follows finds him swooning with fannish delight at the band's soulful leader guiatarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), with only his good sense for journalism leading him to discover that even very good-natured people can be selfish users and egocentrists. But mostly, it's a hangout movie, in which a slice of early-'70s rock culture parades by a guileless kid and reveal some measure of themselves to him. And this is where the writer-director's peaceable humanism explodes, showing a deep forgiveness and affection for his characters, who even at their shittiest are never really judged by the movie (Jason Lee as generally irritated singer Jeff Bebe is the closest the film has to a spoilsport, and even he never seems particularly unreasonable). There's also the quiet-unto-laconic performances he teases out of a cast that seems even more impressive 15 years on than it did in 2000, when people like Zooey Deschanel, Jay Baruchel, Rainn Wilson have turned into, if not household names, at least That Guys of the first order. These are reasonable, soft people, with even the angriest ones - Lee, Frances McDormand as William's overprotective mother who constantly caves into him to avoid driving him off - tending towards smallish, level-head demonstrations of rage and impatience.

The film tries to do two things at once: present these people as 15-year-old William/Crowe would have seen them (thus the firebreathing but always comforting mother, or the spectral presentation of Kate Hudson's breakthrough role of Penny Lane, teenage earth mother and philosophical groupie who represents exactly the kind of world-altering Feminine Life Force that Crowe would later turn into a hollow nightmare with Elizabethtown, the film for which critic Nathan Rabin coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl", only in this case always distinctly too aware of how the boy hero sees her to get within her grasp), and also as fortysomething Crowe, far smarter than his teenage alter-ego, understands them to actually be. Generally speaking, Almost Famous is best when it keeps this perfectly balanced, or errs on the side of adult wisdom; too much youthful innocence is bad for the teeth. It's probably why all of the film's best moments after the "Tiny Dancer" scene are the handful of appearances of Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock writing god Lester Bangs, giving what I think can be uncontroversially counted as the film's clear standout performance, not least because he's the only character who plainly knows more than William in every one of his appearances. When he drops his prickly, sometimes antagonist nuggets of wisdom, Hoffman represents the exact kind of clear-eyed, brutally unromantic perspective that the whole arc of Almost Famous generally moves towards, but he does it without sacrificing Crowe's basic decency. The iconic "we're uncool" scene gets to be iconic in no small part because of Hoffman's rich friendliness in delivering blunt truths, sugarcoating nothing from a position of complete respect and love: the closest the film comes to openly having Adult Crowe sit Boy Crowe down and explain what the next 27 years are going to bring.

This register of clarity saves the film from its indulgences (which include a 162-minute director's cut that transparently wants nothing more than to add time for Crowe to linger with the characters and music he loves; an even more generous, humanist statement than the 122-minute theatrical version, but it's here that we really take the exit ramp to Elizabethtown), which certainly include the generalised Baby Boomer conviction that this particular music really mattered; every generation believes that of their music, of course, and every generation is equally wrong, but 1973 is right at the end of the era that the media at large has generally been willing to play along with (full disclosure: I'm actually a huge fan of all the music on this film's soundtrack - I can only imagine how enervating it must be to anyone who can't claim the same thing - but I was born late enough for the Boomers to have already revealed themselves to be full of shit). And the uncritical attention given to the beatific, hushed expressions of late-hippie thought (but what isn't given uncritical attention in Almost Famous?) does leave the film a little stranded in its writer's reveries.

There's always something to pull it back (and that's actually the shape of William's development throughout the movie: be captivated by indulgence, then pull back; so perhaps it's meant ironically): the steady drumbeat editing by Joe Hutshing and Saar Klein, the crisp and uncharacteristically domesticated (which is not to imply that it's bad) cinematography by John Toll, or simply the uncommon humanness of the characters. It's a screenplay-driven film, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but Crowe-the-director knows when to have his collaborators stop babying Crowe-the-writer. And the movie that emerges as a result is, despite its lumps, awfully lovable: beyond question my favorite of the filmmaker's career, albeit one that I like less now (almost inevitably) than when I first saw it at the dangerously impressionable age of 19. If Almost Famous teaches us anything, though, it's that we're all capable of surviving what we do as idiot teens, and then to look backwards at our shapeless young selves with affection and forgiveness. And in a movie full of nice thoughts, I wonder if that might be the nicest.