I am maybe the only person to watch Almost Famous for the first time in the year 2020 so I’m going to brief: Precocious misfit William Miller writes for an underground newspaper, gets noticed first by Lester Bangs and then by Rolling Stone, goes on assignment touring with the fictional “Stillwater,” falls in love with effervescent gaping hole and groupie Penny Lane, sees his heroes misbehave and eventually comes home to his very worried mother. The strength of any one scene relies on the actors in it: unsurprisingly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs and Frances McDormand as William’s mom are very good. Jimmy Fallon is really bad. Between last night and this morning, I have forgotten everyone in "Stillwater," especially Jason Lee. Kate Hudson’s midriff does most of the hard work in this movie; she plays exactly the kind of manic pixie dream girl that would eventually be Cameron Crowe’s biggest legacy, a skinny and Seussian dodo bird with the uncomplicated appeal of anything easily penetrated. Fairuza Balk, one of my favorite big-toothed goth hotties, also plays a groupie, but she gets to be funny and weird and has at least one good scene where she talks to Frances McDormand on the phone and assures her that William is still a virgin. Penny Lane’s spiel about not being a groupie, but a “Band-Aid” (“We are here because of the music, we inspire the music”) is kinda way worse, imho, and disempowering and unself-aware and the opposite of what we know about women like Pamela DeBarres, who were smart and slutty and fine with it. But I promised I’d stop screaming about this and I will.
Cameron Crowe’s character works because he reflects back anyone who might be watching: if you were ever a fan, if you were ever the youngest person in the room, if you were ever a music writer, professionally or personally, if you ever had a mom, whatever. It’s a music movie that focuses on a non-musician, of course it’s got a lotta mileage. I have outgrown my extreme Lester Bangs fandom, at one point I was married to his review of Astral Weeks, but I still hold him in high regard as someone who worked hard to write about what he loved. It’s easy to be mean but embarrassing to be a fan, and hard to write in earnest about the spiritual potential of rock music. I don’t know that Almost Famous is 100% sincere, but it tries. Lester Bangs gets a lot of good lines, like when he diagnoses the imminent death of rock n roll: “Because they’re trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb…And the day it ceases to be dumb is the day that it ceases to be real, right? And then it just becomes an industry of cool.” Sure I could parse out our obsession with “realness” but I’ll stop at “industry of cool." Like everyone on Planet Earth I have a real fondness for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who could play a sad sack without holding you hostage to his depression, who brought intelligence and tenderness to even the dumbest characters he played. My favorite scene comes at the end, when William calls Lester and they commiserate about both being losers, Lester Bangs being played as the kind of guy who would always answer his phone.
How does Almost Famous score on Bangs' scale of realness? Is it critical of the machine or part of it? We both know the answer but I'm gonna let this one slide. I’ve become a lot more forgiving when I can imagine a book/movie/whatever being meaningful at one point in my life but not forever. Most of the media I consumed between ages of eight and twenty-eight is kind of unbelievably sexist or worse in retrospect, and if I wanted to open up a museum of shit I don't like and why it’d be ten thousand miles long. I can imagine Almost Famous rocked someone’s world once and that’s fine by me. Anything that points you towards a way to think about the things you love. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)