Where Does This Real World Begin?

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous (2000) | Dreamworks
Dreamworks

On her way out of town, her bags packed into her boyfriend’s car, her hair filled to the brim with curlers, Anita Miller (Zooey Deschanel) bends over to offer her younger brother William (Michael Angarano) some parting advice. She looks directly into the camera as she says it, telling us with unwavering certainty: “One day, you’ll be cool.” And then, whispering in his ear so that their overbearing mother (Frances McDormand) can’t hear: “Look under your bed; it’ll set you free.” She gets in the car and drives off as Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” swells, sticking her head out the window to look back one last time.     

*

Almost Famous, which turns 20 this year, is a classic coming-of-age story, a high school comedy without the high school. Instead of the wise English teacher, William has grizzled music journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman); instead of the unattainable popular girl who’s busy chasing jocks, there’s the unattainable Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), busy chasing rock stars. In a typical high school comedy, the hero learns a little something about themself and, as a reward, gets to leave town for a bigger and brighter future. Superbad, Lady Bird, Boyhood, Ghost World, American Graffiti—their protagonists age out of high school innocence and graduate to the great beyond. Almost Famous, though, inverts the trope.     

Anita’s departure is the first of the movie’s three major journeys into the unknown. We don’t get to see what happens to her once she skips town to become a stewardess, but she sets William’s story in motion, leaving a record collection under his bed that will become his ticket out. After she leaves, we jump ahead four years, from 1969 to 1973, during which time William (now played by Patrick Fugit) has transformed into a music fanatic, writing for his school paper and an underground magazine while weathering his outlier status as a 15-year-old senior with no friends and no facial hair. He’s a loser—but a loser with purpose. 

His journey begins when he meets Bangs, who gives him an assignment to cover Black Sabbath. At the show, William befriends mysterious groupie Penny and opening band Stillwater, who, despite their distrust of journalists, he manages to charm with his thorough knowledge of their catalog. When, a few days later, William gets a call from Rolling Stone soliciting story ideas, William pitches a piece on his new buddies. Suddenly, he finds himself heading out on the road with them, packed into their tour bus (nicknamed Doris) alongside the band and Miss Penny Lane herself. 

For the first half of the movie, William gets to enjoy himself. His default mode is wide-eyed. We watch as he finds himself suddenly in the center of the rock ‘n’ roll world he’s spent years idolizing from the outside. He peers in hotel rooms and finds folk duos harmonizing; he meets obsessed Led Zeppelin fans and clairvoyant groupies. We watch him watch the band too, grinning at guitarist Russell Hammond from the side of the stage. Sometimes Russell turns back for a smile, bathed in blue light. And, maybe more than anything else, we watch him watch Penny, her eyes closed as she sways to the sound of Russell’s guitar. 

Almost Famous (2000) | Dreamworks

Typically, the road is a space of transition. Here, the road is the destination itself; every city is a break between highways, every stop a rush of adrenaline that fuels the next long escape. We see the road not through the tired, world-weary eyes of the band, but from the perspective of the kid leaving home for the first time. Long stretches of empty American highways connect LA to Topeka to Cleveland to New York. There are very few shots of the cities themselves, just the shows and the gaps between. Despite the Simon and Garfunkel needle drop, this isn’t a story about discovering America. America exists as a foil for the alternate reality that builds itself in gas stations, green rooms, and hotel lobbies. Penny refers to everything that happens outside these spaces as the real world, a world they’ve managed to not only escape but transcend. This isn’t life; it’s rock ‘n’ roll.

On the road, things are good until they’re not. The band revels in William’s adoration and quickly starts treating him like one of their own, bringing him into their pre-show rituals and post-show parties. Russell and Penny both make him their confidant, telling him their secrets and their dreams—to leave Stillwater and to move to Morocco, respectively. When Russell is electrocuted on stage, they all decide to crash through the venue’s gates on their way out of town, united in reckless abandon. William finally feels like he has somewhere he belongs, even if that somewhere is technically nowhere.      

But soon enough, tensions begin to bubble within the band. The enclosed space of the tour bus brings both intimacy and conflict; no one is meant to spend that much time together, let alone with musicians and their egos. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) resents Russell’s high and mighty attitude. Their label sends over a fancy manager (Jimmy Fallon actually making good use of his natural smarm, for once), who has them ditch Doris for a plane so they can play more shows and make more money. Tensions build between Penny and Russell, too, who have been sleeping together. William, perpetually level-headed, becomes the caretaker. He gets Russell back to the bus after the guitarist takes acid and jumps off a fan’s roof; he saves Penny’s life when she overdoses on Quaaludes after Russell ditches her for his ex. Eventually, he realizes he’s not the only one stuck in a fantasy. “Wake up!” William yells at Penny. “When and where does this real world occur?”  

So maybe he was in transit, after all. When the band’s new plane gets caught in an electrical storm, William decides it’s time to go. He waves goodbye to Russell and heads for Rolling Stone, where he finds out that the band has discredited his entire article because it made them look bad. He was only their friend while he was useful to them, only a part of the community insofar as he sang its praises. Despondent, William collapses in the San Francisco airport. His heroes have turned out to be clout-chasing liars who hate each other; the girl he loves is in love with the idea of not being real; he’s not even going to graduate from high school on time. His sister Anita finds him in the airport and tells him she’ll fly him anywhere in the world.

He just wants to go home.

*

In this way, Almost Famous is a movie about what happens when the myths you tell yourself to get through the humiliation of adolescence—that one day you’ll be cool, and this will all be over—unravel in front of your eyes, and you’re left alone in an airport with nothing but nausea and a duffel bag. 

What makes the movie so strong, though, is its understanding that William isn’t the only one living a lie. Penny could easily just be an object of William and Russell’s desire (and she is a lot of the time—director Cameron Crowe often lingers on her wry smile or pans over her bony body in slow motion, while someone somewhere plays an acoustic guitar)—but Penny is also mythologizing herself. She lets William get to know her in fits and starts, just barely revealing her (possible) actual age the first time they meet, then walking away when he asks what her real name is. She teaches William the importance of mystique, of crafting your own image. As they sit on the benches backstage at the Sabbath show, she pushes his hair aside and holds her hands up like a lens, framing him once she’s satisfied: “Now you’re mysterious.” William watches later as she makes a grand entrance into a hotel room, reciting a flight attendant’s safety speech—a cute callback to William’s sister—as if they’re all about to take off together, which, in a way, they are.

What makes Penny feel real is the fact that her persona is clearly that: a persona. There are, however, moments where we see what’s underneath. When William finally calls her on her own inventions, telling her that Russell sold her to another band for 50 bucks and a case of beer, Penny turns to look at the camera, her veneer shattered. She’s stunned into silence, and looks like the young woman she’s supposed to be. “What kind of beer?” she asks William with a teary smile. 

Russell, too, is more than just a guitarist with mystique. Like Penny, he’s preoccupied with the idea of reality; he’s caught between the desire to feel something real and the desire to be famous, to have success in an industry where everything is a performance. This dilemma reaches its apex in Topeka, Kansas, when, after storming out on a fight with the band, Russell gets invited by a fan to a high school party. “We’re just real Topeka people, man,” the kid says. It seems like what he’s been looking for. But by the end of the night, Russell finds himself on the roof, high and screaming that he’s a golden god. Even when he finds reality, Russell’s ego needs something bigger.  

The world he’s living in is, of course, a very real part of America too: a hyper-capitalist and competitive music industry that tears apart his friendships and his sense of self, eventually even putting his life in danger. When their plane gets caught in an electrical storm, everyone on board, thinking they’re going to die, starts revealing secrets. Russell tries to play the nice guy, saying he loves them all before Jeff cuts him off and calls him on his shit. “You act above us, you always have!” he yells. Russell has no response.   

Through the band aid and the rock star, Almost Famous becomes more than just a coming-of-age story. It’s both a criticism of and a love letter to a whole industry where people are pretending to be something they’re not, trying to escape reality and searching for something real, running away from some small version of themselves. 

*

William is warned about all of this from the start. Lester Bangs tells him right off the bat that he’s too late for rock ‘n’ roll: “You got here just in time for the death rattle, the last gasp, the last grope.” The rock stars will try to buy William’s journalistic praise, Bangs explains, plying him with drinks and drugs. “They will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it, right?…And then it just becomes an industry of cool.” 

Almost Famous is also a period piece. Though not explicitly political, it has a sense of loss that permeates many of the best movies about America in the ‘70s—the understanding that the ‘60s have failed, the Vietnam War is still dragging on, and the new world has not arrived. These were the years of rock’s growing pains, when the kinds of musicians who had once aligned themselves with rebels and hippies became too big to lay claim to anything resembling counterculture.

In this sense, Stillwater stands in for the genre as a whole. The first time William tries to interview him, Russell asks to turn off the recorder. “Just make us look cool,” he tells William, proving Bangs right. The band’s new, label-appointed manager lays it out for them in plain language: “You’ve got to take what you can, when you can, and you’ve got to do it while you can.” Bangs’ voice echoes in William’s head. 

Today, the question of selling out is almost irrelevant in the music industry; every mid-level indie band has a song in a car commercial. Almost Famous hints at the beginning of this collapse, or, the end of rock’s idealistic years. For William and Penny, the tour bus takes them away from home and towards some imagined future. For Stillwater, it’s the space between playing to 100 people and playing to 10,000. As long as they’re in the bus, they’re not not famous, but they’re also not sellouts. 

If you’re trying to make a living off of music, though, it’s not possible to separate the money from the art or the aesthetics from the way in which they’re sold. Almost Famous captures this problem by simultaneously romanticizing and criticizing the “industry of cool.” The concert scenes look straight out of a music documentary; we watch alongside William as Stillwater plays to thousands of fans. We watch, too, as Penny dances alone in an empty venue, tracing the trash with her feet. Crowe gets to have it both ways because that’s how the whole thing works: even if William ends up disillusioned by the end, it’s hard for him to deny the thrill of the ride. 

When he finally leaves the tour, William calls Bangs again, who reprimands him for having been seduced by the rock stars. “It was fun,” William defends himself. “‘Cause they make you feel cool,” Bangs says. “And hey, I met you, you are not cool.” Bangs then sets up an odd binary between writers and rock stars, telling William that girls will always be an issue for uncool guys like themselves, but that that’s what makes their art better. 

It’s a pretty facile—and vaguely incel-ish—lesson. The interesting idea here is not that William and Bangs are valuable because they’re uncool, but that coolness—and, by extension, the “industry of cool”—itself is not inherently valuable. The lives of rock stars are no less morally and ethically bankrupt than everyone else’s; going on the road and doing something different won’t save you. Counterculture is mainstream now anyway. 

Almost Famous | Dreamworks

Then again. The movie’s most famous scene takes place on the road, as everything is starting to go sour but no one’s ready to go home. The morning after the band’s blowout fight and Russell’s episode at the Topeka teen house party, Russell crawls back onto the tour bus in shame and silence. As Doris starts rolling down another unknown highway, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” begins to play. At first it seems like it’s non-diegetic, something that’s part of the soundtrack, not the scene itself. Then bass player Larry starts singing along. 

One by one, everyone on the bus joins in, until they’re all belting the chorus together. It’s corny and over the top and a perfect encapsulation of the things music can do that nothing else really does. Going on the road won’t save you, but it might help you find some things you’ve been missing—freedom, connection, community. 

“If you ever get lonely,” Penny tells William early on in the movie. “you just go to the record store and visit your friends.” I’ve never been sure if she means her actual friends, or the records themselves.

*

I can’t remember the first time I saw Almost Famous—it’s one of those cultural texts that seems to extend as far back as my own memory, something that’s just always been there. As a kid, I bought into the romance. Once I got a little older, I started seeing the movie’s flaws: the way it white-washes a genre that was invented by Black musicians; that non-consensual kiss, when Penny is passing out from her overdose and William finally tells her his true feelings. In general, the movie’s gender dynamics are hard to stomach. Crowe never fully grapples with the presumably enormous age gap between Russell, whose age is never specified, and Penny, who is possibly 16. Gaps like this may have been common at the time, but that doesn’t make them defensible. Through William’s eyes, the dynamic between Russell and Penny is both problematic and romantic—something he criticizes yet covets. 

In this way, Almost Famous’ biggest strength is its biggest problem: it’s Cameron Crowe’s own story, based on his experiences as a teenage rock journalist, so it’s structured by Crowe’s limited perspective as a straight white writer and director. What would a movie from Penny’s perspective have felt like? Growing up watching Almost Famous as a girl, especially as a girl who plays music, is like peaking into a world in which you could almost exist. Through Crowe’s lens, the movie ends up feeling just a bit too romantic, selling the very myths it pulls apart. In the closing montage, everything turns out a little too alright: the band gets back together, William’s sister and mother are getting along, and his story eventually gets the cover of Rolling Stone. Crowe, after all, did become famous, so of course it has a happy ending.

Getting older has also meant learning a few of the movie’s lessons first hand. Being on the road with my band, I understand the feeling of wanting to kill everyone in the car, and also wanting to never go home. I started thinking about Almost Famous when the pandemic hit, as live music was put on an indefinite hold and musicians had to find alternatives to the road. Bands have rebooked spring tours for the summer, and then the fall, and now the spring of 2021, hopeful that there will be some way to get back out there. With the advent of streaming, touring has become one of the last sources of income for musicians. I worry about those who won’t be able to make ends meet without it, and may stop making things altogether. I also worry about the loss of connection from not being able to stand at the back of a bar, watching a shitty band, meeting a friend of a friend who also had nothing better to do. 

In the film’s final montage, there’s a brief shot of Jeff kissing Russell on the head while they play. In my more rational moments I’m certain that a band like Stillwater would have never made it out of that flight and recorded another album together. But sometimes—like when I’m fighting with my bandmates over the stupidest, smallest things—I remember that shot, and feel a little better. 

Kate Hudson in Almost Famous

That montage also has the movie’s third departure: Penny Lane, finally booking her ticket to Morocco. What kind of life she will build once she gets on the plane remains a mystery; Morocco could easily be interpreted as just another way of avoiding whatever real world she’s running from. But it’s nice to know that she made some kind of choice, instead of rolling down the same road forever.

So, in the end, Russell plays on, William comes home, and Penny gets out. The road is as real as the world outside it and there are no heroes, just people you can sit around and talk about songs with. The dream is dead; the dream is still worth having. Or maybe, letting go of the dream will make room for something else. 

In the very last shot, Doris rolls along down an empty highway that could be anywhere— always on the edge of getting somewhere, always almost there.