Published September 1, 2000
Almost Famous begins in 1969 with a literary discussion about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird between a precocious eleven year-old, William Miller (Michael Angarano), and his widowed mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand). A college professor in San Diego, Elaine has obviously invested a great deal of hope in her son, whom she intends to be a lawyer—like Atticus Finch in the novel and his own dead father—and has accelerated his progress through school by three years. The intensity of their relationship already seems to have excluded her first child, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), who naturally rebels by taking an exaggerated interest in the popular music that her mother so despises. When in the course of the on-going argument between them Anita accuses her of depriving young William of his adolescence, mom scornfully replies: “Adolescence is a marketing tool.”
This observation is left hanging in the air, but the rest of the film could be seen as a commentary on and, to some extent, a confirmation of it. Anita leaves home out of high school to become an airline stewardess with words of defiance for mother and what is meant to be a reassurance to William that “Some day you will be cool.” She also leaves her little brother her record collection, and when we next see him (now played by Patrick Fugit) four years later, he is a 15 year-old high school senior and a regularly published rock music journalist, much to the annoyance of his mother. A call from Rolling Stone magazine, which knows him only by his by-line, sets him off on a cross country journey to follow a second-tier rock band called Stillwater. Mother, still disapproving but ever indulgent, can only let him go with terrible imprecations against drugs and drink and sex, which she assumes (correctly) will be all about him.
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe and based on his own youthful experience, this is such a charming movie—and such a rare one, too, in its ability to convey something of the excitement of the myth of rock ‘n’ roll stardom while remaining detached from it—that it seems almost churlish to criticize it for the things that it doesn’t do. Its most obvious lacuna is that for a film about a rock music critic (trust a critic to notice this!) there is almost nothing that is critical— no sense of how or even if William’s musical taste has been formed. His liking for Stillwater is taken by his new friend, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the legendary critic with whom he has managed to scrape an acquaintance, as evidence that he is on drugs. William does not defend his taste. Nor is there enough music by the alleged band itself for us to make an independent judgment of its quality, though the little we see (written by Crowe and his wife, a former rock musician) is not encouraging.
But the musical quality or identity of the band is not the point. This is not a film about music, which is the ostensible point of everyone’s (differently expressed) adulation of its stars—especially the band’s two, frequently clashing leaders, played by Billy Crudup and Jason Lee—but about the rock-star lifestyle. Thus it encourages us, perhaps inadvertently, in the view held by Mrs Miller that the whole mystique which so captivates her son is really about the sex and the drugs and not, except incidentally, the rock ‘n’ roll. Though baby-faced William seems through most of the film to move untouched among the temptations with which he is surrounded, in the end it is hard not to feel that the film confirms not only mom’s judgment that adolescence is a marketing tool but Lester Bangs’s that rock ‘n’ roll is over and that William has only managed to get to it in time to hear the death rattle.
“At least I’m here for that,” says William disarmingly. And he is smart enough to find the death in it. But his willingness to be a lifestyle groupie finally makes us doubt that he has ever quite reached the level of maturity promised by this film’s trajectory. Though he now, at this distance of time, can look with some detachment and amusement on his childish enthrallment to the glamour of Stillwater, the thrill of first love has never allowed him quite to break free from the spell of the beautiful camp-follower who calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), or perhaps from what she stands for in terms of the “liberated” female sexuality of the groupie—a term which Penny shuns. “We’re not groupies,” she insists. “We are here for the music; we are Band Aids.” Proleptically Clintonian in her understanding of such matters, she insists that there is “no more sex” but “just blowjobs and that’s it.”
Of course, that’s not it, as William must painfully learn. Nor is it for him any more than for her the music which is exalting but rather his loss of innocence and hopeless devotion to this girl, almost as young as himself. Clearly, these feelings have never entirely left him, and their residue is what makes the weeks he spent following the band in 1973 so exquisitely and agonizingly memorable. That’s the trouble with “lifestyle”—you can never quite shake off it all those bitter roots in deeper and more permanent feeling that it trails. What makes the movie the charmer that it is is the poignant permanence of the groupie ethos in Penny’s summing-up of her maimed psyche: “Never take it seriously. If you don’t take it seriously, you never get hurt; and if you never get hurt, you always have fun.”
More even than fame-worship, this soul-destroying doctrine appears in retrospect to have been the true legacy of the 1970s to our crippled culture. At some level—perhaps in the climactic speech by Lester Bangs which blows his sister’s prophecy out of the water by telling William that he is not cool and will never be cool, which is the only reason he can write so well about terminally cool rock stars—Cameron Crowe must be aware of the fact. Otherwise, he could hardly have made a movie with as much true feeling in it as he has in Almost Famous.