Does 'Almost Famous' Actually Suck?
Looking back at Cameron Crowe's rock-journo coming-of-age saga.
Rock 'n' roll is dead—a withering report. Death came for rock in the year 1973, when it became cool. That's according to Lester Bangs, the real-life disaffected music critic personified by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. Hoffman occupies the role of elder statesman to the young protagonist of the film, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who, besides having the most vanilla byline in rock journalism, will lean on his steward's advice as much as he will attempt to disprove his admonitions.
"Hey, I met you. And you are not cool," Bangs tells Miller later in the film as the kid-journo seeks a salve for wounded feelings and expectations. This is observably true, yet, Bangs continues to speak, rewarding Miller and the viewers of this quasi-autobiographical 2000 Cameron Crowe production with a bit of redemptive sentimentality: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you're uncool."
Before we really get this bus rolling, though, it's worth reminding anyone who doesn't remember what the Chekhov's gun of Almost Famous is: Rolling Stone. You don't just offer a 15-year-old the chance to write a cover story for America's name-brand music culture magazine and not reference it ad nauseum as the epitome of cool. All the players in Almost Famous bow to Rolling Stone. Bangs, ever frumpled, is dewy-eyed even while he derides it as dribble. The gears of capitalism will turn even the most jaded ink stained wretch into a consumer, it seems.
More important for the film, however, Rolling Stone is the catalyst for Miller's bildungsroman journey: The narrative of how he writes the cover story on Stillwater is really that of how his uncoolness is kryptonite to beautiful ladies and svelte rock stars. The longer they are around him the more they suffer the symptoms of maturity. As William Miller exposes himself to the world of rock 'n' roll, he forces the adults around him to grow up.
The ensembled cast includes skateboarder-turned-actor Jason Lee as the lead singer of Stillwater (think Lynyrd Skynyrd–lite), the band Miller is tasked with covering. For his part, Lee is a victim to continued mocking, intentional or not. His foil is the handsome lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), whose only shortcoming in the entire movie is that he is forced to grow a conscience. The film focusses on the tug-of-war of male emotional kvetching between the two, relegating their bandmates as glorified extras. In fact, the drummer doesn't have a line until the 2:14:45 mark. "Fuck it! I'm gay!" Then he speaks no more, expressing himself exclusively through side-eye and drumsticks.
Otherwise, the first band manager of Stillwater is played by Noah Taylor, who is now best known for cutting off Jaime Lannister's sword hand in Game of Thrones. The second manager—"your manager needs a manager"—is Jimmy Fallon, right in the thick of his Saturday Night Live years. And you can tell. His character speaks like a nervous wise guy: "I didn't invent the rainy day, man. I just own the best umbrella," and dresses as if his Barry Gibb impression got caught in the act with a shag carpet. The female lead is Penny Lane, Kate Hudson's breakout role, and whose actual name is nearly as absurd as her nom de rock. In the eyes of the teenage journalist and lead guitarist, she is the ideal muse, inspiring magazine and music writing alike. She'll suffer under their gazes, though, until she (finally) springs for a transcontinental escape to Morocco.
Though Almost Famous traffics in cool—as a commodity, a state of being, a posture—it itself is uncool. Attempting coolness through nostalgia is a sort of wistfulness that clearly appealed to critics so much that this film won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Now, with matching clear lenses and eyeglass frames, it's easy to see how the conceit of Almost Famous suffers under the fashions of our own age.
Set in the unremarkable year of 1973, this film follows not a Misunderstood Teenager™, but a precocious nerd—a severely unhip Kevin McCallister—who dupes adults into believing in his knowledge of the world and validity as a person. Modern American teenagers probably shouldn't be such outsize protagonists yet that doesn't prevent pop culture from mining the idea of propulsive pubescents. Perhaps, though, it's just a California thing.
We see that Miller grows up on one of those Elysian Californian streets, similar to the kids of Transparent, 20th Century Women, and Palo Alto—each a more recent narrative centered on youth and its discontents where teens romp about the suburbs, glower against authority and responsibilities, and trade their innocence for kicks. While these kids are depicted with some interiority and callow joy and pessimism, Miller keeps listening to his mom and hounding Russell Hammond for an interview.
Unsurprisingly, Miller does not do drugs or commit egregious acts of vandalism. He does get laid, though; in a sort of 70s pixie girl seduction ritual, he is bedded by three "tour wives" who are bored in Tupelo and engage him in a foursome he sheepishly avails himself to. Penny Lane surveys the debauchery, which turns William on almost as much as when he watched her get her stomach pumped.
Penny's story arc crashes with her attempting to overdose on alcohol and Quaaludes. Miller saves her but not before he confesses his love for her and kisses her. Penny is dying, but Miller's interest in sadism and AM rock is awakening. In the least sexy scene of arousal this side of a Jodorowsky film, Miller gets a randy look in his eyes as Penny pukes up the sedatives.
Miller's older sister, played by a young Zooey Deschanel who emphasises her lines as if she spoke in Impact font, explicitly tells him "One day, you'll be cool." Nearly two decades on, Almost Famous belies that promise. The movie is largely a sunny depiction of a notoriously calamitous lifestyle. But, even with the warm "Tiny Dancer" scene and rock 'n' roll historicizing, Almost Famous, like Stillwater itself, stagnates in self-love and musical navel gazing.
A cultural relic for millennials, if you saw the movie as a kid, you know that all goes well and ends well for William Miller. He grows up to become Cameron Crowe, who, in the future, will direct a movie about his days on the road as a music journalist and how great that time was when everything was cool even when it really wasn't.