veals his sentimentality: Innocence andrnniceness do not redeem; virtue does, andrnvirtue requires honing on the grindingrnwheel of hard experience. Betty mayrnlearn she’s not in Kansas anymore, butrnthis hardly equips her to defeat wickedrnwitches and save cowardly lions. LaButernis a talented fdmmaker, but he needs torntake some time off to ingest a healthyrndose of Nathaniel Hawthorne, still ourrnfinest critic of sentimental innocencernand obsessive puritanism.rnCameron Crowe’s Almost Famous isrnalso compromised by sentimentality, butrnnot as damagingly. It unreels like a mordantrnvalentine sent to his younger self,rnthe wunderkind who began writing musicrncriticism for national rock magazinesrnwhen he was 15. One only wishes hisrnmordancy weren’t so muted by his nostalgia.rnHe has a deeply troubling story torntell; unfortunately, it’s glazed over with arncoating of candy-colored dreaminess.rnThe larger portion of his audience—thernvery portion most in need of disturbancern—will be left happily undisturbed.rnAn appropriately owl-faced PatrickrnFugit plays William Miller, Crowe’s alterrnego, an intellectually precocious kid whornis also remarkably innocent. We firstrnmeet him as an 11-year-old in San Diego.rnIt’s 1969, and he’s walking home with hisrnmother (Frances McDormand) from arnscreening of To Kill a Mocking Bird, discussingrnthe film’s moral implications.rnWhen they arrive home, Mrs. Miller discoversrna real moral issue. Her 18-year-oldrndaughter has brought a forbidden Simonrnand Garfunkel album into the house.rnWhen the girl asks her what’s wrong withrnit, Mrs. Miller points to the cover photo.rn”Look,” she says, indicating the singers’rneyes. “They’re on drugs!” Distraught,rnthe daughter screams back, “You’re destroyingrnour adolescence!” The motherrnquietly replies, “Adolescence is a marketingrntool.” The audience at the screeningrnI attended laughed mockingly at this.rnBut as delivered by McDormand, it’s perhapsrnthe film’s most incisive observation.rnThe commercial exploitation of the adolescentrnhas bedevilled our society sincernWorld War II. Still, one can understandrnthe laughter. As written, the mother’srnrole straddles a dramatic fence. Is she arnfigure of ridicule or the film’s moralrnvoice? Perhaps Crowe wants it both waysrnin order to suggest how helpless adultsrnare before the juggernaut of popular culture.rnStill, in this case, I’d prefer a performancernthat sacrificed some subtlety in orderrnto make unmistakable the cogency ofrnMrs. Miller’s arguments. To his credit,rnCrowe tellingly supports her a few minutesrnlater when the soundtiack features arnSimon and Garfunkel ditty about thernpleasures of smoking. The lyrics are sornambiguous that we can’t tell whether it’srntobacco the boys are hymning or somethingrna tad stronger.rnThe film is filled with such having-itboth-rnways moments. It’s as if Crowerncan’t make up his mind about the moralrnimplications of his youthful experiences.rnOn one matter, however, he is resolved.rnIn the I960’s, America’s popular culturernarrived at a fateful crossroads: WhilernHarper Lee’s inspiring morality talernplayed at the Bijou, on the stereo atrnhome, callow boys were baying for instantrngratification. We were at a prettyrnpass, and today it’s clear we went thernwrong way.rnIt’s this pass William must negotiate asrnthe film moves ahead four years to 1973.rnAfter writing some short pieces on rockrnmusic for his hero Lester Bangs, editor ofrnCreem magazine, he’s tapped sight unseenrnby Rolling Stone to cover an uj>andcomingrnband called Stillwater. The namernseems aptiy chosen. Rot collects underrnstanding water; as a fictional representativernof the rock industry, this group fairlyrnstinks with fetid self-indulgence.rnLike practically all the children of ourrnnation, only from a much closer vantagernpoint, the wide-eyed William learns farrnmore than any youngster should aboutrnsexual exploitation, drug use, and casualrnbetiayal while traveling with these moralrnimbeciles. The band is composed of babyrnboomers, bred to a sickly amalgam ofrnmegalomaniacal self-righteousness andrnwanton hedonism. When a journalistrnasks the lead singer what he likes aboutrnbeing in rock ‘n’ roll, he answers withrnwhat has obviously become his mantricrnformula: “It’s not about money and popularity;rnit’s a lifestyle. One of us is goingrnto save the world.” Then he adds with arnleer, “And the chicks are great.” Theirrnsalvation consists of groupies, orgies,rndrugs, and —of course —the sheer unremittingrndin of electionic amplificationrnthat conveniently drowns out all chancernof sustained reflection and any lingeringrnqualms of conscience. In their gospel,rnonly the road of excess can lead to thernpalace of wisdom. William finds all thisrnexciting; What 15-year-old boy wouldn’t?rnAt the same time, he’s disturbed by howrnthe 30-ish band members take advantagernof girls no older than himselfrnTo assuage his misgivings, the 16-yearoldrnleader of Stillwater’s groupies. PennyrnLane (Kate Hudson) takes pains to assurernWilliam they don’t feel used at all. “I alwaysrntell the girls, never take it seriously.rnIf you don’t take it seriously, you’ll neverrnget hurt.” It’s a moment made all thernchillier by the cute manner in which thisrnwaif wrinkles her nose as she delivers herrnsermon on no-fault sexuality.rnTime and again, Crowe underlinesrnthe destructive delusions of his charactersrnand the culture they helped create. Inrnone concert scene, faulty wiring connectingrnhis instrument to its amplifiers nearlyrnelectrocutes Stillwater’s lead guitaristrnRussell (Billy Crudup). The momentrnsymbolically reveals the destructive naturernof rock itself After all, it’s the genre’srnreliance on technology that is largely responsiblernfor killing off any real musicalrntalent that might have developed. Whatrndiscipline does it take to bang out chordsrnon an electric guitar? Crank up the volumernto ear-splitting levels, and you don’trnhave to worry about anything else. It’s allrnso easy.rnOne of the film’s most telling momentsrnoccurs when William finds himselfrnwith the band on a plane hired byrntheir new high-powered agent, a slick operatorrnwho has promised them big-timernsuccess. They get caught in a thunderstorm;rnas the plane shivers and bucks uncontrollably,rneveryone on board becomesrnconvinced that this is the end. The agentrnfalls into remorse and compulsively confessesrnto a hit-and-run accident. Yearsrnago on a dark Vermont road, he wasrnspeeding to his next engagement whenrnhe hit a man full force with his car. Insteadrnof stopping to see whether the unfortimaternfellow was alive or dead, he justrnkept going, never looking back. “I stillrnsee his face after all these years,” he wails.rnWhen the plane manages to land safely,rnno one says anything more about it; thernconfession nevertheless lingers in ourrnminds. It seems to me a perfect metaphorrnof how our commercially manufacturedrnpopular culture treats its public.rnAmerican entertainment executives whorncertainly know better have been on a hitand-rnrun course for 50 years, mowingrndown the lives of millions of kids withrnsalacious, vicious, and depraved musicrnand movies. They’ve never looked backrnin their rush to the bank. But, as PennyrnLane counsels, if we don’t take it seriously,rnwe won’t be hurt. Or will we?rnIf Crowe is easier on these people thanrnhe should be, at least he’s raised the rightrnquestions. crn48/CHRONlCLESrnrnrn