William Miller is a 15-year-old aspiring music writer in the 1970s. Given the dream assignment of going on the road with band Stillwater for a Rolling Stone feature, he embarks on the trip with enthusiasm, much to the chagrin of his mother. Once on the road, he finds his life changing forever.
God bless Brad Pitt. His last minute decision not to play the leader of fictional band Stillwater made way here for the genuinely almost famous Billy Crudup, and ensured the story of writer/director Cameron Crowe's adolescent affair with rock is a manifesto for misfits rather than an advertisement for charisma. At its centre is an unknown 15-year-old (Patrick Fugit) and not a superstar. This is how it should be. The senior writer says to the kid, "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." Not an image that would survive proximity to Brad.
Crowe shot his own script based on his adventures as a teenage rock writer in the era of The Allman Brothers, Lynrd Skynyrd and The Eagles. His film is a thank you to those who made him: his perplexed mother, played by Frances McDormand; the late rock critic Lester Bangs; depicted with an inch too much charm by the majestic Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Penny Lane, the tender spirit at the head of the swaggering army of groupies (or 'band aids' as they are preferred), following the denim infantry as they scale the heights of the nascent rock industry.
It's a good-hearted film and sentimental with it: a busload of longhairs singing along with Elton John's Tiny Dancer; a rock god turning up on a young writer's doorstep; a boy gently deflowered by three groupies; a farcical crisis on a plane. Crowe gets away with it because he doesn't try to be smart; he catches every detail perfectly (the brilliant opening montage, the sleeping band shots modelled after old Rolling Stone picks, the kid attempting to compose his first review by flashlight as the band play) and lets the music as rich and off-centre as The Beach Boys' Feel Flows and The Allmans' One Way Out take the strain.
It's the most convincing account yet of what rock and roll felt like to the people backstage as it turned from a movement into a career. Those who were there will love the detail. Those who weren't, well, they'll wish they had been.