Nostalgia permeates Almost Famous, occupying its every word and image, captured in its meticulous recreation of the language, decor and guitar sound that superficially sums up American culture of the 1970s. It’s an honest picture, one willing to point out the dangers of hero worship, even as it pledges allegiance to the cult of personality. Rock enthusiasts will echo the film’s sentimentalism, but those keen on investigating the corrupt aspects of commercial art may find its sensitivity to celebrity insincere, unwarranted in light of the misogyny and narcissism it supposedly abhors. That said, Almost Famous finds strength in these messy contradictions, mirroring the incompatibility of fan and critic and the indecisiveness of its adolescent protagonist, stuck between a desire for acceptance and journalistic objectivity.
William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is a child prodigy, what his mother calls “predominantly accelerated,” a boy nurtured in philosophical discussion and articulate in speech, but sheltered from popular culture and too prepubertal to connect with his classmates. Given the gift of rock ‘n roll by his recalcitrant sister (“It will set you free,” she claims), William fingers through her vibrant record sleeves, finding the adventure and experience he can’t attain in his prohibitive household nestled within each dust jacket. The obsession builds and maturity finds William aspiring to be a rock writer, sending his school newspaper clippings to Creem Magazine’s Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gives the upstart an assignment, but urges him to avoid befriending his alluring subjects. Bangs acts as a counterpoint to William’s wide-eyed enthusiasm, eulogizing rock’s death just as William aspires to become one of its mouthpieces, chastising a “commercialization” strikingly similar to the one that his mother rallies against.
Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is the antithesis of Lester Bangs, acquiring fame by standing adjacent to stardom, using her motto of “We’re here for the music” as a shield to protect from emotional investment. Her celebrity fetishism culminates in a gang of female companions know as “Band-Aids,” devotees that function as muse and paramour to touring rock acts, blossoming into veterans of the road even before they celebrate their 21st birthdays. Penny acts as access for William, literally and figuratively, ushering him backstage while on assignment and introducing him to Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the handsome guitar virtuoso from Stillwater, a “mid-level” band warming up for Black Sabbath. Though Hammond and the boy quickly develop a rapport, his bandmates are reluctant to chat with a journalist, dubbing critics as “The Enemy.” William’s only way to break the ice is by disarming the group with flattery, a technique that violates one of Bangs’ edicts of music journalism and positions William at his knees before the altar of the “industry of cool.”
Fugit’s performance perfectly embodies the physicality of a precocious teen, his character adopting mannerisms from his idols and incorporating new terminology into his lexicon, temporarily abandoning his original efforts at impartiality. This shift from outside observer to participant is symbolized by pens trickling from the mouth of his messenger bag as he hastily rushes to join Stillwater on tour, an attempt at fraternization that will certainly clash with his recent promotion to Rolling Stone feature writer.
Despite his many attempts at blending in, no bond between artist and fan can obscure the fact that William exposes band insecurities, documenting each in-fight over promotional items and struggle over leadership simply by being present, “taking notes with his eyes.” Russell even allows himself to unravel in William’s presence, revealing his false humility by celebrating with the “real people” of Topeka at a high-school party, moments before dropping a Solo-cup full of liquid acid and proclaiming himself a “Golden God.” Faux-spiritual delusions also afflict Miss Penny Lane, making her “a slave to the groove” through unflagging devotion to the two-timing Russell and adherence to her own half-baked ideology.
William’s mother, Elaine, spoke of a “world of compromised values,” and, though it relates mostly to experimentation with drugs, it fits the compromises beset upon rock ‘n roll culture by male chauvinism. Penny is a victim of Stillwater’s sexual irresponsibility and her subsequent dehumanization and quaalude overdose is a testament to the shortcomings of this glamorized, bacchanalian lifestyle. Almost Famous recognizes the danger in transforming earthbound artists into divine vessels, but can’t shake the urge to mythologize, painting a portrait that wavers between investigation and veneration, dangerously teetering toward hyperbole.
Almost Famous (DreamWorks Pictures, 2000)
Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
Photographed by John Toll