In his rock ballad "Music," John Miles sings: "To live without my music / would be impossible to do. / In this world of troubles, / my music pulls me through." For the Baby Boom generation, pop music — especially rock — was a passport to an alternate world of adventure and desire. Cameron Crowe's immensely appealing semi-autobiographical film reveals this phenomenon.

In 1969, Elaine (Frances McDormand), a single parent and college professor, is waging a crusade against rock music and other aspects of the "counterculture" in her San Diego household. But she's not having much success. The music has already captivated Anita (Zooey Deschanel), her independent 18-year-old daughter, and she passes on her prized collection of albums to her little brother William just before she leaves home to become a stewardess.

In 1973, William (Patrick Fugit) is 15 and a rock freak totally caught up in the pop music scene and already writing his own reviews. He meets Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a spaced-out rock critic and editor of Creem Magazine who believes that the counterculture revolution is over and now it's just corporate greed pulling the strings. He gives the wide-eyed William an assignment to cover a Black Sabbath concert, advising him to always be "honest and unmerciful" in his writing. He should avoid trying to be friends with band members because they'll then expect you to give them a rave review.

William gets the chance to test out this advice when Rolling Stone Magazine pays him to cover the tour of Stillwater, an up-and-coming rock band. Although his zealous mother doesn't hold her son back, she sends him constant messages: "Don't do drugs." The pint-sized journalist is taken under the wings of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), one of several groupies who call themselves Band Aids. She is a true believer in rock. She wants to draw out the best in all the performers she meets. Her infatuation with Russell (Billy Crudup), Stillwater's lead guitarist, is total. William falls under his spell as well, much to the consternation of Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), the band's lead singer who feels threatened by all the attention given Russell.

Writer and director Cameron Crowe demonstrated in Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire that he has a knack for creating well-cast, character-driven movies. This one is no exception to that rule. In his first intense exposure to the dark and seamy side of the rock world, William is a little taken aback. He's appalled by the squabbles between Jeff and Russell and is especially shocked when the latter gets stoned out of his mind on LSD at a house party of adoring fans in Topeka, Kansas. William develops a crush on Penny and then is deeply hurt by the cruel way she is treated by Russell.

This endearing coming-of-age drama conveys the important role rock music has played in the lives of millions of youth — helping pull them through one of the most confusing and event-filled stages of life. Equally important to William's development as a person is his mother's love and vision. Frances McDormand is a contender for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her touching and often hilarious portrait of Elaine. She bequeaths to her beloved son the moral grounding to weather the storms of adolescence. In the end, William finds his voice and a vocation to be himself.