“These people are not your friends.”
For anyone who’s ever worked in culture journalism – or aspires to do it – this pearl of wisdom, dropped from the legendary rock writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to his moon-eyed teenage protege William Miller (Patrick Fugit) in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, is one of the most essential truths of the trade. And now 20 years after the film came out, as social media has eroded the barriers between writers and artists, the line rings truer still – and could stand to be re-emphasized.
Based on Crowe’s own memories as a precocious magazine writer, Almost Famous is many things at once – a bittersweet coming-of-age story, an exceptionally vivid evocation of mid-70s rock culture, a love letter to music itself – but at its core, it’s as much a film about journalism as All the President’s Men, even if what’s being written about isn’t as consequential as the Watergate break-in. The hard lesson for William is learning how difficult it can be to get any distance from his own fandom, especially when embedded in the most seductive world imaginable. The fact that it’s not a consequential story makes it worse: Woodward and Bernstein had no trouble distancing themselves from nefarious government operatives, but an awesome guitarist who just wants you to make him look cool? That’s not as easy as it sounds.
And it’s not as if Crowe entirely succeeded, either. As a features writer at Rolling Stone, Crowe was known for ingratiating profiles, not for Bangs-style flame-throwing, and his marriage to the Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, who composed the score to Almost Famous, is proof enough that he was not immune to seduction. Yet the film is honest about the pleasures and pain of fandom, and how relationships that seem genuine can be transactional, and sometimes vice versa. Its characters are bound by a shared love of music that leads to moments of communal bliss, but that passion is yoked together with feelings and motives that aren’t compatible. The good times inevitably come with a hangover.
Many of the details of William’s background are drawn directly from Crowe’s life: His mother (played here by Frances McDormand) was a professor. He skipped three grades in school, ensuring an awkward pubescence in high school. (His youthful appearance allowed him, at 22, to go undercover as a senior to help write his novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) And he did correspond with Bangs, the editor of Creem magazine, and wrote his first Rolling Stone cover story on the Allman Brothers Band at age 16. He finesses his biography in fascinating ways for Almost Famous – his composite band here, Stillwater, is a perfectly realized mediocrity – but the essence of his experience is rendered like a vivid memory, colored by nostalgia and perspective in equal measure.
It’s extremely difficult to build a film around a passive protagonist like William, who’s an observer by nature and by trade, and tugged around here by more assertive personalities. When Rolling Stone sends him on the road to write a few thousand words on Stillwater, an up-and-coming band with a magnetic lead guitarist and three “out of focus” guys, William naturally recedes to the comfortable space of the fly-on-the-wall journalist. Fugit’s eyes tell much of the story – observant at times, but also active and eager when he cannot hide his longing to be part of the scene or his desire for Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the “Band-Aid” who appoints herself as his guide.
One issue with Almost Famous, especially in the theatrical cut, is that Penny Lane seems like a whimsical creation, invented solely as the catalyst for William’s coming-of-age experience. The much better director’s cut, called Untitled: The Bootleg Cut and running about 40 minutes longer, puts Penny and William more on equal footing, each enthralled by Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), Stillwater’s charismatic guitarist, but slow to realize that Russell will deposit them at the end of the tour. Crowe loves idealists – John Cusack imagines no future other than caring for his girlfriend in Say Anything …, and Tom Cruise’s sports agent in Jerry Maguire dismantles his life for purer visions – and William and Penny are essentially big-hearted naifs who care about the music first, and set themselves up for disappointment. A rock star needs a mythologist and a side piece on the road, but they each come with an expiration date.
Yet the overall tone of Almost Famous is generous, even to vain souls like Russell, who at least recognizes the hurts he’s caused. There’s hardly a character in the film that Crowe doesn’t regard with some affection, which may be nostalgia getting the best of him, but squares with his instinct to see the best in everyone. Willam and Bangs have little in common – Bangs sizes the young man up with a laugh, “There’s fucking nothing about you that’s controversial” – but Crowe doesn’t understand it as a source of friction, even as he, through William, has a much rosier view of the rock scene. Bangs is useful to William as the angel on his shoulder – his advice on how to hold the editor at bay on the Stillwater profile (“Tell him it’s a thinkpiece about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom”) is particularly choice – but he’s folded into a much larger gallery of personalities, from which the kid plucks whatever insight compels him. Crowe reminds us of what it feels like to be young and impressionable, even as a grade-skipping wunderkind.
But above all, Almost Famous captures the associative qualities of a pop song, when a memory attaches itself to a piece of music and can be recalled through a needle drop. The Tiny Dancer sequence on the Stillwater bus is the most celebrated in the film for good reason, a joyous singalong the morning after the band’s ugliest reckoning. But Crowe fills the movie with such moments out of time: William’s sister (Zooey Deschanel) briefly looking back out the passenger-side window as she leaves home to Simon & Garfunkel’s America, Russell and William pulling into a Topeka, Kansas, house party to Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, even the killer guitar riff that can make a mediocre song like Stillwater’s Fever Dog seem enthralling under the right circumstances.
Almost Famous is about chasing that feeling, and the bumpy road to transcendence.