Oh, what a lovely film. I was almost hugging myself while I watched it. "Almost Famous" is funny and touching in so many different ways. It's the story of a 15-year-old kid, smart and terrifyingly earnest, who through luck and pluck gets assigned by Rolling Stone magazine to do a profile of a rising rock band. The magazine has no idea he's 15. Clutching his pencil and his notebook like talismans, phoning a veteran critic for advice, he plunges into the experience that will make and shape him. It's as if Huckleberry Finn came back to life in the 1970s, and instead of taking a raft down the Mississippi, got on the bus with the band.
The kid is named William Miller in the movie; he's played by Patrick Fugit as a boy shaped by the fierce values of his mother, who drives him to the concert that will change his life, and drops him off with the mantra "Don't do drugs!" The character and the story are based on the life of Cameron Crowe, the film's writer-director, who indeed was a teenage Rolling Stone writer, and who knows how lucky he was. Crowe grew up to write and direct "Say Anything" (1989), one of the best movies ever made about teenagers; in this movie, he surpasses himself.
The movie is not just about William Miller. It's about the time, and the band, and the early 1970s, when idealism collided with commerce. The band he hooks up with is named Stillwater. He talks his way backstage in San Diego by knowing the band members' names and hurling accurate compliments at them as they hurry into the arena. William wins the sympathy of Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the guitarist, who lets him in. Backstage, he meets his guide to this new world, a girl who says her name is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). She is not a groupie, she explains indignantly, but a Band Aide. She is, of course, a groupie but has so much theory about her role, it's almost as if sex for her is a philosophical exercise.
William's mom, Elaine (Frances McDormand), is a college professor who believes in vegetarianism, progressive politics and the corrupting influence of rock music. Banning the rock albums of her older daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel), she holds up an album cover and asks her to look at the telltale signs in Simon and Garfunkel's eyes: "Pot!" Anita leaves, bequeathing her albums to William, who finds a note in one of them: "This song explains why I'm leaving home to become a stewardess." Its lyrics are: "I walked out to look for America." That's what William does. He intends to be away from school for only a few days. But as Russell and the rest of Stillwater grow accustomed to his presence, he finds himself on the bus and driving far into the Southwest. Along the way, he observes the tension between Russell and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), the lead singer, who thinks Russell is getting more attention than his role definition deserves: "I'm the lead singer, and you're the guitarist with mystique." William has two guardian angels to watch over him. One is Penny Lane, who is almost as young as he is, but lies about her age. William loves her, or thinks he does, but she loves Russell, or says she does, and William admires Russell, too, and Russell maintains a reserve that makes it hard to know what he thinks. He has the scowl and the facial hair of a rock star, but is still only in his early 20s, and one of the best moments in the movie comes when William's mom lectures him over the phone about the dangers to her son: "Do I make myself clear?" "Yes, ma'am," he says, reverting to childhood.
William's other angel is the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), then the editor of Creem: "So you're the kid who's been sending me those articles from your school paper." He ignores the kid's age, trusts his talent and shares his credo: "Be honest and unmerciful." During moments of crisis on the road, William calls Bangs for advice.
Lester Bangs was a real person, and so are Ben Fong-Torres and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, played by look-alike actors. The movie's sense of time and place is so acute it's possible to believe Stillwater was a real band. As William watches, the band members get a hit record, a hotshot producer tries to take over from the guy who's always managed them, they switch from a bus to an airplane, and there are ego wars, not least when a T-shirt photo places Russell in the foreground and has the other band members out of focus (there's a little "This Is Spinal Tap" here).
"Almost Famous" is about the world of rock, but it's not a rock film, it's a coming-of-age film, about an idealistic kid who sees the real world, witnesses its cruelties and heartbreaks, and yet finds much room for hope. The Penny Lane character is written with particular delicacy, as she tries to justify her existence and explain her values (in a milieu that seems to have none). It breaks William's heart to see how the married Russell mistreats her. But Penny denies being hurt. Kate Hudson has one scene so well-acted, it takes her character to another level. William tells her, "He sold you to Humble Pie for 50 bucks and a case of beer." Watch the silence, the brave smile, the tear and the precise spin she puts on the words, "What kind of beer?" It's not an easy laugh. It's a whole world of insight.
What thrums beneath "Almost Famous" is Cameron Crowe's gratitude. His William Miller is not an alienated bore, but a kid who had the good fortune to have a wonderful mother and great sister, to meet the right rock star in Russell (there would have been wrong ones), and to have the kind of love for Penny Lane that will arm him for the future and give him a deeper understanding of the mysteries of women. Looking at William--earnestly grasping his tape recorder, trying to get an interview, desperately going to Bangs for advice, terrified as Ben Fong-Torres rails about deadlines, crushed when it looks as if his story will be rejected--we know we're looking at a kid who has the right stuff and will go far. Someday he might even direct a movie like "Almost Famous." Note: Why did they give an R rating to a movie perfect for teenagers?
Music, as we have been studying all semester, has the power to transcend boundaries and to give shape and meaning to human existence. A few songs come to mind: “We Are The World,” which was played in class and was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in 1985 to help raise funds to fight famine in Africa, Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer,” which is a song of hope and struggle, Sylvia Robinson’s “Pillow Talk,” a song which Alice Echols asserts was seminal in women’s sexual liberation, or Nirvana’s “It Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which profoundly captures youthful angst in the 1990s are all powerful examples of how music is more than just the sum of notes and spaces. In other words, music is bigger than the music. Many insights about society and politics can be revealed if one approaches the study of music from a cultural perspective.
Cameron’s Crow movie “Almost Famous,” which he both wrote and directed is first and foremost an homage to rock “n” roll. But that is just one way to appreciate the film. Another way is to examine the social and cultural forces that helped shape the music of the era. The movie is loosely biographical and looks back at Crowe’s early career as a teenage music journalist. The movie is a coming of age story centered around 15-year old William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit), and his unlikely rise from high school nerd to a rock “n” roll journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. We meet the famous rock critic Lester Bangs (played by the late, inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman) who raves for purity and truth in rock and disdains the fact that rock has become an “industry of cool.” Bangs advises Miller to make his journalistic reputation as one who is “honest and unmerciful.” Bangs later gives Miller a $35 assignment to write a review on the band “Black Sabbath.”
“Almost Famous,” although showcasing real musical groups of the 1960s and 1970s, focuses on a fictional rock band called “Stillwater.” What Crowe has done in the movie is to juxtapose real and fictional characters in order to give us a sense of the time and age. Early on in the movie, we are introduced to William Miller’s mother (played by Frances McDormand) who may be representative of the conservative establishment and antiquated parental fears about the dangers of rock “n” roll and/or popular music. At one point, she rails against the evils of popular music and says “They’re obviously on drugs,” as she points to the clean-cut figures of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel on an album cover. In a way, Miller’s mother embodies the fears that conservative Americans in the 1960s and 1970s harbored about the putative corrupting influence of rock music. At one point in the movie, Mrs. Miller drops William off at a concert and then yells to him, “Don’t take drugs!,” an embarrassing comment that elicited peals of laughter from other concert-goers and a sarcastic “Yes, mother” comment from a disembodied voice.
“Almost Famous” does not look at a specific musical era in particular, but loosely follows musical groups from the 1960s through the 1970s. This was a period of tremendous social change, including –but not limited to- the sexual revolution. It was a period of challenging established traditional notions of sex and behavior, and admitting that -gasp!- women too had sexual needs and actually enjoyed sex. This liberalization in sexual attitudes, in which petting and premarital sex were considered acceptable, is evident in the movie. A number of groupies, who would rather call themselves “Band-Aids,” led by Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) reflect this liberalization in attitudes. These girls have no qualms performing oral sex on band members, and although they claim that is the limit of the promiscuity, later events in the movie tell a different story.
“Almost Famous” also lends credence to Rojek’s observation that listening to music in today’s age has become “deterritorialized.” Today, the majority of people consume music or listen to music using an iPhone or some personal mp3 player or some other personal technology. In other words, the public spaces in which people consumed music in the 1960s and 1970s has gradually diminished and been eliminated to the point where we listen to music today in a form of digital obscurity (a person and the personal technology they use to consume music). The experience of listening to music in the period depicted in “Almost Famous” is drastically different today. It is possible to imagine William Miller or Lester bangs going to a record store to obtain a popular new record. The whole visual experience (the art work on the album cover plus the illustrations) and tactile experience (the feel, touch and smell of the new record) is non-existent today compared to that era. Today, the ease of downloading music directly has diminished the totality of somatic experience in consuming music.
Although Crowe does not delve too much into period detail, he does give a fair and balanced treatment of rock “n” roll without bias. The movies gives us a sense of the excitement and change and hope of the 1960s. If anything, New York Times film critic A. O. Scott writes that Crowe succeeds by “evoking the joyful, reckless, earnest energy of rock in the years between 60’s idealism and punk nihilism.” There is fair amount of recklessness in the movie exemplified by the leading member of “Stillwater,” Russell Hammond (played by Billy Crudup), jumping off the roof of a building while screaming out, “I’m on drugs.” In keeping consistent with the emerging drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s, Almost Famous depicts generous use of drugs like LSD, Quaaludes, marijuana, and plenty alcohol. The frenetic energy of the period is also reflected in the wild parties and kinetic concerts.
I chose “Almost Famous” for one simple reason: the music was just too good. In fact, the first time I watched Crowe’s film, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a movie or listening to a movie. It is a veritable smorgasbord of good, scratch that, great rock “n” roll music. Some gems that come to mind include Led Zeppelin’s “That’s The Way” and “Tangerine,” Deep Purple’s “Burn,” Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Joni Mitchell’s “River,” Cat Stevens’s “The Wind,” Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” Another reason to love “Almost Famous” besides the music, is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s role as Lester Bangs. Hoffman, one of the greatest, underappreciated actors of our age shows a sliver of his brilliance, as he completely inhabits the world of Lester Bangs, passionate rock critic extraordinaire.
If I were to further research this movie, I’d probably want to delve more deeply into the specific politics and economic climate of the era. Music is not produced in a vacuum, but is rather a product of the culture and climate of the time. It would be interesting to see if one could draw direct connections between particular social or political events with the creation or expression of a particular of of music or song. It would be insightful to research the history of specific groups like Led Zeppelin to study the development of the creative process and how it is influenced by culture and politics.