It would be hard, or at least foolhardy, to make a movie about a rock & roll band in which the members didn't lock horns over some petty ego trip. In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's terrifically authentic and heartfelt portrait of a Midwestern rock band on the verge of stardom in 1973, the writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Say Anything ... comes up with what may be the definitive scene of backstage squabbling. The argument is all about promotional T-shirts. They've just arrived in a box, and Russell (Billy Crudup), the mustached glamour-boy lead guitarist of Stillwater (they're like a fusion of Foghat and Lynyrd Skynyrd), is featured on the logo a bit too ... prominently. Jeff (Jason Lee), the group's lead singer, is apoplectic, but he can't bring himself to confess what's really on his mind: that he's jealous that Russell is the sexy one. And so the argument erupts into a fury of ritual non-articulation, all of it staged by Crowe with a rich, funny, observant edge.
A little later, we see Stillwater, along with their roadies and groupies, riding on a tour bus as Elton John's ''Tiny Dancer'' plays on the tape player. To our amazement, everyone on the bus, even the rivalrous band members, begins to sing along. It's a casual epiphany of rock rapture, and it crystallizes the moment when the youth-culture ''community'' was falling apart yet everyone was trying naively, touchingly to hold it together.
Almost Famous is built around a lovely absurdity. Crowe, who based the film on his formative experiences as a teenage rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, shows us the drugged-out, laid-back, groupie-hopping adventures of Stillwater as taken in through the eyes of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old overachiever from San Diego who has landed a freelance assignment from Rolling Stone to do an article on the band. The members of Stillwater have wives and girlfriends, but the tour is their playpen, their floating air castle. William, with his tousled mop top and schoolboy cherub's face, is like a worldly-wise Danny Partridge, and the central irony is almost too obvious: This rosy-cheeked kid, who looks barely old enough to have had his first orgasm, has been plugged into a slovenly den of sin the perpetual, take-it-easy party/hangover of the early '70s.
The joke, however, soon ripens. William, who was skipped ahead two grades by his adoringly strict, college-prof mom (Frances McDormand), has a mind that's years ahead of his body. He's canny and ambitious, with feelers an Apollonian straight arrow surveying a Dionysian landscape of childish, pleasure-seeking freaks. In spirit, he's the oldest adult on the bus.
The early '70s remain a hazy era in American pop memory, because they were defined by their indefinition caught between the counterculture and official culture, between the moment when a guy with a guitar who guzzled Jack Daniel's and slept with a parade of adoring teenage chicklets was seen as part of a ''movement'' or simply as a strutting glam whore getting his rocks off. Almost Famous taps the era's contradictory glories: its druggy myopia and sleaze, but also its freedom.