Near-perfect reprise of innocent on the road in modern pastiche of Spinal Tap

Almost Famous | Leicester Square, London
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The Independent Culture

It could have been perfect. In fact, Almost Famous - director Cameron Crowe's autobiographical 1970s-soaked account of a 15-year-old journalist's first assignment for Rolling Stone - almost is.

It could have been perfect. In fact, Almost Famous - director Cameron Crowe's autobiographical 1970s-soaked account of a 15-year-old journalist's first assignment for Rolling Stone - almost is.

The film, last night's well- chosen opener for the 44th London Film Festival (LFF), begins with young William (newcomer Patrick Fugit) being taken on the road by Stillwater, a group of hairy and oh-so-calculatedly loose-limbed rock stars, leaving his mother (the supremely poignant Frances McDormand) issuing only one desperate command: "Don't take drugs!"

But it's the words of his cynical mentor, Lester Bangs, (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that ring loudest in William's sticky-out ears: "Don't try and be their friends." Of course, it's not that easy - these handsome boys treat William as if he's cool - and soon gorgeous, cat-eyed groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is telling him: "You're one of us now."

The irony is that when it comes to the band, Crowe is wonderfully objective, capturing their entirely understandable desire to be treated as golden gods but also their dull-grey vanity and phoney celebration of the "real". And it helps that Jason Lee and Billy Crudup, as spatting frontmen Jeff and Russell, do the Spinal Tap thing to charged perfection.

An argument over the band's new T-shirts (in which Russell features rather more prominently than poor Jeff) is particularly memorable. Wails Jeff: "You were going to be the one with the mystique, remember?" It's when it comes to Crowe's own role that the puff kicks in. A gulping innocent bearing aloft the sword of truth and justice, it's hard to take this boy's life seriously. Did he never do anything bad?

Crowe has always had a sappy streak but, having raised our expectations, it is especially frustrating here. Hudson, for example, is magnetic, implying so much with her childlike hands and instant whip smile (as with her mother, Goldie Hawn, Hudson creates her own back-story). But her lines never allow her to be more than a tart with a heart and she and William's one kiss is positively icky in its implications. Meanwhile, Hoffman's Bangs - one part maverick, two parts smouldering wreck - is too interesting. We want to know more about him.

Expertly edited, deliciously funny and with a soundtrack that is better than sex, Almost Famous nevertheless settles for being adorable rather than great. Lester Bangs belongs in Apocalypse Now. William's unwillingness to be experienced, alas, has more in common with The Wonder Years.

While the LFF still cannot boast the international kudos or glamour of Cannes or Venice, its eclectic selection of films this year - the largest in the history of the festival - has caused a buzz in the capital.

Between last night and the closing in two weeks with the British film Born Romantic from writer-director David Kane, also set in the world of music and dance, the mix includes Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks with Hugh Grant, Mamet's State and Main with Alec Baldwin, and Quills, a film about the Marquis de Sade with Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Michael Caine.

But there is another, less starry but potentially memorable side to the festival - smaller-scale films, including semi-documentaries.

The most notable is Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, Mark Jonathan Harris's documentary of the story of international effort to organise an evacuation of Jewish children from Nazi Germany.

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