Rock n’ Roll has been many things to many people. It’s been the force that keeps people going and it’s also been the final, subtle nudge to push someone over the edge. It has been hailed as one of the greatest popular art forms ever created and cited as the reason why millions of people are going directly to hell upon relinquishing of the soul. It can be loud and abrasive, soft and full of feeling, played in giant stadiums to high school gyms and so many garages and basements along the way. But one thing is certain, it’s power has had a hold over our society for the better part of 60 years. Being a “rock star” isn’t a term to be tossed around lightly. It’s the closest thing Americans have to a coronation. The allure of this status and all the trappings that come along with it sit at the heart of Almost Famous (or, in my case, Untitled, the extended cut of the original film), the flame that attracts as well as burns.
All of the characters in Cameron Crowe’s mostly-autobiographical film share one of the opinions above. For William Miller, the Crowe-approximation performed by Patrick Fugit, it’s a special pull. As an aspiring journalist, it’s a topic to cover. The existence of records, concerts, and bands lead to assignments, bylines, and checks. But that is a more mature way to look at it. As a teenager, especially one who is ostracized for being two years younger than his peers, these artists are more than musicians; they’re gods that meander down from Mount Olympus to strum a couple tunes. Being linked in any way to a group of people who have adoring crowds coming out to see them every night is a powerful, romantic image.
It’s a vision shared by members of Stillwater, the band that William covers for the duration of this film, especially the lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). They had the whole thing planned out, especially Jeff. They know how to play the game, they know the mold of what a great rock band should be, and they’ll be damned if they let anyone get in the way of them and their fans (and the power and validation that comes along with it). Then there’s Penny Lane, a breathtaking Kate Hudson, who is not out on the road to be Sycophant Barbie. She’s here because of the music. She aspires to be less of a groupie and more of a muse, contributing back, in some small way, to a culture she adores so.
If only rock reciprocated the love of its admirers.
Our fresh-faced protagonist, the fifteen-year-old William Miller (he has a name that begs to be used in full) clearly has talent and ambition; you don’t write-in submissions to “Creem” if you’re terrible and unmotivated. He has a problem that is not unlike most athletes, wherein he just hasn’t gotten the right amount of reps with top-tier talent. Sure, he’s written about albums and interviewed local San Diego bands who never escape the medium-sized bar, but the people he adores? The faces that hang on his wall in poster form? That’s a whole different ballgame.
Luckily for William (Miller…I’m trying), he has two people who look out for him, who, ironically, couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is his mother, Elaine (as played by Frances McDormand), a righteous woman who sees popular music as a dead-end both intellectually and otherwise. She is a strong enough parent to let her son go out on this wacky field trip but enough of a mother to worry incessantly about him (and to continually remind him of the dangers of drugs all around the country). She trusts her son but hates the environment. Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a music journalism veteran, looks at William and sees a hundred other eager kids who, through a variety of failings, have fallen by the wayside. Lester not only extends himself as a mentor, he tells William exactly what is going to happen to him. They’re going to want to be your friend, you’re going to feel cool, you’re going to buy into it, it’s the worst thing you can do, don’t be their friend, just be a journalist, be honest and savage, and, it can’t be stressed enough, really: never be their friend.
It’s all well and good to think one thing, but it’s completely different in the situation. It must be an intoxicating feeling to not only be accepted by a group–any group, really–but Stillwater? The band whom he already knows by name and his rapid-fire personalized critiques ready for? How could he be expected to not give in to this temptation? Add in all the different rings in their traveling circus (the hotel rooms, the huge bills that someone else gets to pay, the women, the women, the women) and his mother has no need to worry about his son getting hooked on any drugs; he’s already hooked on “the life.” Somewhere, Lester Bangs shakes his head.
Jeff Bebe is supposed to be looked at the way he looks at himself. When he talks to William about rock in these big, broad strokes, he’s less a musician and more an actor playing the role of “lead singer.” He goes on in great lengths about what his job is, including turning on (and, naturally, “getting off”) various members of the crowd, even the ones who couldn’t be bothered. He says how much he loves the music, and how it’s all about the music, but when the slightest vain issue pops up, it crushes him like a locked gate hit by a tour bus. Russell uses his time on the bus to write music, Bebe uses it to seethe. Their first t-shirts arrive and Jeff is pushed to the back. The radio DJ can’t pronounce his name. The kid chooses to interview Russell first. His defense isn’t based on merit, but simple positioning. He’s the lead singer for fuck’s sake! He’s Van Zant! Plant! Daltrey! Jagger! There’s an order to this. He and Russell sat down and agreed that Bebe was the lead singer and Russell was the guitarist with mystique. When does everyone else get the memo?
Russell is an odd spot. He is beholden to the band that he’s come up with, but don’t confuse that with being humble. Russell has read his own press and he expects a certain amount of the glory that comes with his position. As this “Almost Famous” tour continues, and as his band becomes increasingly just “famous,” you can see Russell furthering the advantage he takes. Why shouldn’t he get to have a wife back home and a girl on the road? Why shouldn’t he be able to push off the interview with The Enemy to whenever he wants, his plans be damned? Why wouldn’t he want to go to find something “real” and end up on a roof in front of nearly a hundred adoring young teens and scream out he’s “a golden god!”? And why should he have to care that he’s putting the rest of the band in the lurch? He’s affixed himself above the normal mortal coil; why should he be beholden to any of the decency expected of the commoners when he’s a star?
Intrinsically linked to Russell is the lady known as Penny Lane. Everything about her is seemingly idyllic: the clever, Beatles-based name, her popularity amongst the famous musicians, the position she holds over the other groupies/band aids/girls…. There must be some validity to her claims that she’s a part of the circus for the music, as she beams like a spotlight when the band is on stage from her spot just adjacent. In many ways she bridges the gap between William and the band members, as she can be a fan and have access to these people she adores so with some hold over her own credibility. She’s even smart enough to realize that the land she plays in is fantasy, a wonderful distraction from the “real world,” living under the protective edict that if you always have fun, you can’t get hurt. Unfortunately, she’s not smart enough to give the conceit that no matter where you are, if you feel it, it’s real.
And it is reality that befalls all the characters, turning their lives upside-down. The band gets a new, corporate manager, effectively turning their rock operation into a cog in a corporate conglomerate. If they want to make a living at this, to live the dream they aspired to when they were young, then gigs become obligations. They don’t play for fun, they play to keep the lights in their mansions on. After this whirlwind ride, William ends up in his room, beaten, jaded, alone. All of that time, all of that experience, and he failed at the task that he was sent out to do when all he did was fulfill that task. In the middle of that experience and disillusion is Russell’s ambivalent tossing aside of Penny and her genuine, soul-crushing response. A lot of the romance in rock n’ roll–at least, a good deal of the poetry–is embodied by Penny, and man did she not look good as a tube was forced down her throat in that posh hotel room (although William seemed to enjoy it a bit).
At the heart of this film, though, is Russell and his character arc. He is someone we never see out of the context of the rock star life. The only hint we get is when he is assaulted over the phone by the power of Elaine, but plays as another part in a running gag. For the man who says he wants something “real,” he never gets a good dose of it. The terrifying, near-death experience on the plane was, sadly, a commonplace thing among acts of the era, and most of the issues he brings up are band-related. But at the end, as he walks through a normal person’s house on a normal afternoon passed a normal girl who is more perplexed by his presence as a person than as THE Russell Hammond, he finally gets a sense of it. There, sprawled out on the bed, is an exhausted William Miller, the kid he subtly took advantage of (“just make us look cool”) and then tossed aside, much like Penny.
Here he is, finally sitting down for the interview that he’d promised William the last time they were both in San Diego, and William finally gets to ask the burning question that he’s been waiting on. He turns on the recorder and asks, “what do you love about music?” After a second, Russell responds, “everything.” Inherently, that’s the same joy that informs the entire film. This is a movie with flawed people who are put on pedestals when they’re clearly not there for their moral standings. It’s a complex that we as an audience must shoulder some of the blame for. To a certain extent, it’s our fault for Jeff Bebe’s outgrown ego, for Russell’s shocking lack of decency, and for William and Penny’s warped views of these men as anything but mortal.
But for all of the bad things that occur in this film, professionally, personally, or otherwise, I’m sure there’s only one scene that pops into your head when you think of “Almost Famous,” and that’s the “Tiny Dancer” bus sing-a-long. That’s the glue. It’s the music that brings these musicians back together, it’s the music that drives every frame of this film, and it’s the music that keeps us coming back for more. For all of humanity’s weaknesses, sometimes, we can create something transcendent.