The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.
— Lester Bangs
Almost Famous is Cameron Crowe’s love song to an era, the end of that era (1973), and a back to the future call to what comes next. His film is both highly personal for him and for anyone who lost/loses themselves in music, grew up with that immersion, or dreams of a life of freedom and abandon on the road. I loved it when I first saw it in a theater 9 years ago, and again when I watched it on DVD a couple of nights ago. In fact, I liked it even more this time around.
Based in part on Crowe’s own experience writing for The Rolling Stone as a teenager, the movie tells the story of 15-year-old William Miller, who stumbles into a life-altering gig covering the (fictional) band, Stillwater. William, played by Patrick Fugit, makes the hero’s journey of discovery, aided in diverse ways by family and new friends. But that guidance is usually in conflict, and often comically so. His mother, played by Francis McDormand, is intensely overprotective, but does not lack the capacity to change or relax her hold on her son. William’s sister, played by Zooey Deschanel, wants desperately to free him from their mother’s clutches. Crowe weaves a funny and moving familial dynamic, which sometimes surprises mother, son and sister. William’s new friend, Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson), provides an insider’s view of the life he encounters on the road, and helps him adjust. She becomes his substitute sister/teacher, and then his crush. Mrs. Miller and Penny are, in a sense, his Athena and Aphrodite, pushing him toward his prize, his golden apples, his boon.
Lester Bangs, once a real-life mentor for Crowe, takes on that role in the movie as well. His mentoring contrasts with Penny’s, warns him to be careful, while she pushes him gently, sweetly into an embrace of the Rock N Roll moment.
Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hofman, cautions William about the road ahead:
You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist: first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.
William tries to find his own way, utilizing the words of warning from Bangs and his mother, the gentle prodding of Penny, and the less than subtle initiation of her friends, the Band Aids. Music is always the current, the background, the foundation, and the binding force. In one of the best scenes of the movie, an early Elton John song heals a broken band, at least temporarily:
Celebration of innocent and bawdy, exuberant, enthusiastic youth. Celebration of life. Music is the escalator. Music is the wave. Songs are deeply personal and universal. For a culture of one or one billion. Two. Three. Seven . . .
Cameron Crowe married his Helen. His Aphrodite brought him Nancy Wilson of Heart, and she created much of the soundtrack for Almost Famous. Peter Frampton acted as adviser, and has a cameo spot. The movie is authentic, without ever, ever being dreary or losing life through “documentation”. It makes us laugh, and many of us, after watching it, will fantasize about being on the stage, being that powerful, that cool, causing millions of school-girl crushes, and being on the cover of The Rolling Stone. We’ll also think a bit about William and Penny and imagine that the kids are alright.