1. Friday, September 27, 2002
I was 16 the night of my first rock concert. My parents, or maybe someone else’s, drove us the hour or so out of town to see the Who at the local corporate-branded amphitheater. They’d been my favorite band ever since I discovered them three years earlier, and if they hadn’t made any music worth listening to in more than two decades, it couldn’t have mattered less. What mattered were those songs, the ones I’d fallen in love with first on CD and then through the crate full of decades-old vinyl passed down talismanically by my father in the weeks before I entered high school.
Exactly three months before the night of my first rock concert, the Who’s bassist, John Entwistle died the exceedingly rock-and-roll death of a cocaine-induced heart attack in a Las Vegas hotel room while a local stripper slept nearby. And so on the night I went to see my favorite band, only two of the original four were alive to be seen, backed now by journeyman musicians seemingly hired to blend into the scenery. It’s a strange thing to arrive at a party just as it’s started to wind down.
Still, I remember the exuberance that seeped from the attendees into the air, leaving that cavernous space supercharged with anticipation and possibility. All of us, the old-guard fans and the relatively new, were searching for something we thought might be found between the chords, or perhaps straight through them. When the band took the stage and hit the ignition on a machine long past the point of being well-oiled, the distant fact of their semi-automated performance mattered less than the amorphous desire I felt in the air—the hope for some kind of aural ecstasy that might bring us to a place where things shone just a little bit brighter.
In the years since, I’ve wondered what drew me to classic rock just as the tidal wave of boomer nostalgia shuffled the art form definitively into the realm of overpriced nostalgia tours. The best answer I’ve found came in 2015, courtesy of Patrick Sawer’s Telegraph review of a Hyde Park Who show: those of us too young to remember these bands in their heyday, Sawer figured, are attracted by the possibility of communing with a sort of “folk memory,” a collective-unconscious personal narrative that transfigures history into myth. We overpaid for our seats for the privilege of bearing witness to that precarious moment when the legendary is still tangible.
On an intellectual level, there’s a pleasant heft to such a notion, but it’s nothing I could have articulated that night. The best I might have been able to offer would have been the fact that I’d recently been feeling a sense of nearing some threshold, and an accompanying sense that music might be the wave that carried me through the door.
2. I Live in a Different World
I was 14 when I first saw Almost Famous, the story of a 15-year-old reporter and a (self-avowed though ambiguously) 16-year-old Band Aid (read: particularly idealistic groupie) as they ride along with mid-level rock band Stillwater on the 1973 “Almost Famous” tour. But before William (Patrick Fugit) and Penny (Kate Hudson) get on the bus—before he tells his mother he’s going to a school dance only to abscond with Penny to a rock star rager in a Sunset Strip hotel; before he lands an assignment from Rolling Stone by falsifying his age and becoming the youngest correspondent in magazine history—the two teenagers stand in a desolate parking lot while Black Sabbath thunders away on the other side of the San Diego Sports Arena’s walls. Smuggled into the backstage sanctum by Stillwater after his assignment from Creem magazine fails to get him past security, William has just been beckoned across the threshold of the rest of his life. “It’s all happening,” Penny tells him. A hole has been ripped in the fabric of his worldview, allowing him the first glimpse at new spheres of possibility.
Almost Famous is writer/director Cameron Crowe’s memory play, a composite memoir constructed from his teenage experiences touring with (among others) the Allman Brothers, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, all while posing to both his Rolling Stone editors and his subjects as a reporter of legal age. It’s thus appropriate that the film rides a current of nostalgia, filtered through the lens of both the protagonist’s naivety and the auteur’s affectionate recollection. Crowe intended for his film to be “shamelessly personal,” a quality he saw in so many of his own favorite works of art. He was guided by the principle that “this movie’s gotta ache.”
Among Crowe’s goals with Almost Famous was to restore a certain purity of purpose to the world of classic rock, sidelining familiar sex-and-drugs conventions in favor of centralizing the musicians’ idealism and artistry. Films overwhelmed by the excesses of the ‘70s rock scene, Crowe believed, “never captured how much the bands, the musicians, love music.”
If Almost Famous functions as his corrective to a tradition of hedonism and hubris, Crowe may risk compromising his story’s verisimilitude; in a strictly realistic rendering of these events, there would likely be substantially more pain and abuse (as a sexual plaything for adult men, Penny Lane would cut a distinctly different figure if portrayed by a genuine 16-year-old rather than the 20-year-old Hudson). But by hewing to his own teenage perceptions as his narrative lens, Crowe crafts the ideal coming-of-age story for any sheltered adolescent who happens to be an emergent critic. With little more danger than one might find in a classic all-ages adventure, we follow two spirited young people as they explore the perimeter of the horizon while in the company of a boisterous gaggle of artists and aficionados.
It must be this sense of a burgeoning spiritual kinship that drew me towards Almost Famous when I was 14. The image of William and Penny static-charged and lingering in the lamplit parking lot thrummed in tune with my own recent teenage rites of passage. And each of those expansions in my worldview had been accompanied by the music I loved, all of it made more than a decade before I was born.
Not long after seeing Almost Famous, I turned off the lights in the basement, lit a candle, put Tommy on the turntable, and lay down on the floor, just as William is instructed (via clandestine note) by his older sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel). I had all the materials at hand to recreate the initiation rite that triggers William’s passage into adolescence, and the temptation to put them to use was too strong to resist. I didn’t see my future, as Anita’s note promised, but for all I know that night may have been the tipping point between two phases of my life anyway. That kind of shift was coming with mounting frequency in those days, so rather than the agent of change, maybe the music just served as the friend that accompanied me on my own amazing journey.
That word—friend—is among the first that Crowe deploys in the Almost Famous shooting script. As a needle settles into a vinyl groove and guides us into the story, the resultant “warm crackle” is described as “the sound of an old friend.” Sometimes, it’s not the art that matters; for some of us, what’s most valuable is the art form itself and all its fathomless intricacies.
3. You’re Supposed to Be the Enemy
Almost Famous is not just a story about falling in love with life’s possibilities, nor is it just a story about falling in love with music; at its heart, Almost Famous is a film about falling in love with writing about music. It’s the story of how a boy became a critic.
During the first of several searing Stillwater performances (Crowe’s fictional band more than passes the verisimilitude test, and he films them with according grandeur), William and Penny watch from the wings, William with pad and pencil at the ready. Penny throws him a look of incredulous reproach and plucks the pencil from his hand, prompting William to stop documenting his experience and simply experience it.
Watching this scene 20 years after my first viewing, it’s hard not to bristle when Penny denies William his ability to write. I tend to believe there’s value in jotting down initial perceptions, catching specificities that might otherwise be prone to evaporate. Yet I know, too, that my work often benefits from putting away the notes and having an unmediated encounter with the art, trusting that a handful of salient ideas will have coalesced by the time I’m called upon to recount them. It’s a tension that points toward the question of what, exactly, criticism is for—does it function best when stacked with specific details, or is it most effective as a hindsight account of an interior experience, which often needs time to settle before it can be evocatively articulated?
Throughout Almost Famous, the word fan is uttered by a variety of characters, and its meaning is something of a moving target. Initially, Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) brushes William off by telling him, “We play for fans, not critics,” but once he recognizes William’s innate good nature and mistakes it for adoration, he dismisses his bandmates’ mistrust with three magic words: “He’s a fan.” Later, disgusted over the apparent falsification of his story, a Rolling Stone fact-checker will rebuff William with a sneered, “He’s just some fan.” Given that the film’s primary self-identified fan is Jay Baruchel’s frenzied Led Zeppelin obsessive, who quivers with adrenaline as he babbles about Robert Plant having touched his pen, it’s not hard to see why William might want to distance himself from any term encompassing such a pathology. Yet on the DVD commentary, Crowe opines, “to be a fan is an important thing, and it’s good to protect that.”
Once again, a tension inherent to the critical life emerges: as lovers of both art and self-expression, to whom do we owe a primary responsibility with our work? Do we owe the artists an appropriate tribute to their talents and achievements? Do we owe ourselves a truthful record of sensation and perception? Or, in some amorphous and abstract way, do we owe something primarily to the art form itself? No matter the answer, there’s the final question, too: What form might that responsibility take?
William is a fan, he’s just not a fan of Stillwater in particular. Instead, he’s a fan of music, and all its powers and pleasures. Beyond fandom, he’s drawn into the even murkier zone of friendship with his journalistic subjects, and in the process, the matter of his personal responsibility becomes hazy; the line between on- and off-the-record is hard to keep track of in a situation like William’s, as Crowe has testified in retrospect. Stillwater longs for a Rolling Stone cover story that glorifies their artistry—“Just make us look cool,” Russell implores William, off the record, late at night by a hotel pool. And William—who promises to quote them “warmly and accurately”—is under pressure to keep the band happy while keeping his editors happy while keeping his mother happy and finding space to grow up somewhere in the midst of it all.
For a while, as William’s ever-extending sojourn with Stillwater reaches the East Coast, it comes to seem like his primary responsibility might be to Penny, tossed off (sold off) by the band the moment her presence became an inconvenience. It’s this grievance that William chooses to air in the chartered jet as the band shares last words before their presumptive fiery death. “You’re always talking about the fans,” he shouts at these vain, selfish men while they hurtle towards the ground. “She was your biggest fan.” It’s Penny who loves rock stars—particularly the almost famous ones—so all-encompassingly that she sheds her birth identity in order to more fully devote herself to their worship and patronage. But if William’s responsibility was indeed to her, it would seem to have been served by the time he prevented her deadly overdose in a New York hotel room. And so he’s left again with a deadline and the open question of who must be served as he chronicles his cross-country week with Stillwater.
In the end, it’s Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman, embodying the real-life editor of Creem magazine and one-time mentor to a young Cameron Crowe), who supplies the secret to honoring all of these seemingly contradictory responsibilities. “You want to be a true friend to [Stillwater]?” he asks William, and then offers the silver bullet: “Be honest and unmerciful.” This sort of clear-eyed assessment of an artist’s highs and lows comprises an essential antibody in a cultural immune system, and now that William and Lester1 have gained a platform to voice their beliefs, they owe it to the young people falling newly in love with music to offer their testimony in a way that might help guide the art and its appreciators towards some better future.
It’s no simple task, and it’s made all the more dizzying by the complicating factors Lester promises across that greasy-spoon table during his impromptu mentorship session—there will be access to vices, and proximity to glory, and all these and more will be agents of corruption and compromise. Lester is tempted to urge the guileless William to pick a different path through life for the sake of the kid’s constitution.
“But I can see from your face that you won’t.” And so he thrusts William into the lion’s den.
In 1974, Bangs published the essay “A Megatonic Journey,” his handbook for adolescent would-be rock critics. Much of his wit and wisdom was appropriated by Crowe for his fictionalized summit between a simulacrum of Bangs and his own doppelganger—criticism, Bangs explains in his essay, “doesn’t pay much, and doesn’t lead anywhere in particular,” but “you’ll start to get free records in the mail…[and] invited to press parties.” He concludes his indexing of advantages and disadvantages with one essential reminder: “A lot of people…will hate you and think you’re a pompous asshole just for expressing your opinions, and tell you so to your face.”
In 2012, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott experienced the full power of a fan base calling him a pompous asshole. The assault came at the behest of Samuel L. Jackson, who took umbrage with Scott’s relatively mild Twitter critique of The Avengers (Scott described the film as “a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else, that something being a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company”) and replied from his own account: “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one!” Scott’s brief spar with Jackson, and the accompanying barrage of fan abuse, made headlines and inspired him to write his 2016 book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. In it, Scott argues that despite the inherent distinctions between their professions, artists and critics are both inspired by an analogous urge: to immerse themselves in the art form they love, gaining a greater appreciation by virtue of taking the time to deconstruct great work and reconstruct it in some new form. For either party, “it involves the transformation of awe into understanding, and the claiming of some share of imaginative power.”
It’s not hard to imagine the Bangs who wrote “A Megatonic Journey” scoffing at this hifalutin idea. Much of Bangs’ essay is devoted to undercutting the premise that criticism of popular art is particularly significant at all. We critics are prone to pomposity, Bangs figures, because we’re all wrestling with the core triviality of the art we’re tasked with assessing. There could be nothing more frightening to a critic, Bangs assures the reader, than pausing “to reflect that if the music’s that trivial, can you imagine how trivial what you’re doing is?” The only skill necessary to be a successful rock critic, Bangs concludes, is “some ability to sling bullshit around. [And] the bullshit is readymade.”
Some of this playfully nihilistic bluster may come from a place of defensiveness—as painted by Crowe, Bangs was a passionate proponent of rock’s inanity. “The day it ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real,” Lester tells William, and the mounting pressure to assign rock some legitimate cultural significance threatens to “strangle everything we love about it.” Yet coming from an influential and innovative practitioner of rock criticism, it’s hard to take these disparagements at face value. Lester doesn’t claim that rock can’t be poetry, only that it can’t be poetry on purpose—the Guess Who becomes poetic by embracing their innate buffoonery. Grace can only be achieved through aggressive lack of pretension. It’s this awareness that forms Bangs’ authorial stamp.
Writing on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in 1979, avowedly his favorite album, Bangs affirmed the impossibility of ever explaining what a great work of art means. I would tend to agree that attempts to do so are most often either disposable grain for the content mill or consigned to the bunker of specialist theory. The rare great works of analysis and critique, the ones that tend to linger and beg revisitation, are those that do what the best of Bangs’ work does: explain what a great work of art means to the critic. In 1975, a high schooler aspiring to a life in criticism asked Bangs for a sampling of his influences, and alongside Jack Kerouac and Pauline Kael, he listed Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop. If the art is the subject of the work, it makes perfect sense that the art should influence the work as well, steeping the analysis in the artist’s vernacular until art and assessment function as refracted reflections.
There remains a contingent that wishes arts criticism would function as something closer to consumer report: a dispassionate rating of the product’s features and a firm verdict on whether it’s worth the asking price. But rather than looking to render judgment unto creative work, I have to imagine the majority of critics would agree with early-20th-century literary critic H.L. Mencken—whose precedent Scott cites in his book—in declaring his work motivated by “the simple desire…to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them.”
No matter our profession, just about all of us are motivated by that same desire, struggling daily towards some form of coherent self-expression that elucidates our internal abstractions. It just so happens that creators and critics have found the same rock (so to speak) on which to cling in life’s maelstrom of sensation: art, and all the unspeakable beauty it’s capable of containing.
5. What’s the Buzz?
Stillwater lead singer and would-be frontman (as in, would be if his guitarist weren’t so compulsively appealing) Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is precisely the sort of rock star Lester is most skeptical of. Jeff waxes philosophical on the transcendent power of rock music, claiming his artistry as a solemn higher calling while openly coveting signifiers of commercial success. Eager to impress William with a display of profundity during their first encounter, Jeff muses on the ultimate meaning of rock and roll: “What it all comes down to is that thing, the indefinable thing when people catch something from your music.”
That indefinability is key to Jeff’s conception of rock’s power—he likes William’s suggestion of the term “the buzz” for the link established between artist and audience, but it can’t entirely express the mind-expanding power Jeff is talking about. “I don’t think anyone can really explain rock ‘n’ roll,” he argues—though if anyone could, he notes, it would be Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter for the Who.
In 1972, at what would turn out to be the apex of the band’s career, John Swenson prefaced his review of a New York Who show by musing on a rock landscape currently experiencing “a drought period, one of the worst.” With the Who finally returning to Manhattan to mount one of their increasingly elaborate arena shows, rock acolytes might hope to access “that extraterrestrial dimension during a great concert when the entire crowd becomes transported from the profane realities of rock’s commerciality to a sacred reality in tune with cosmic everlastingness.”
Swenson’s effort to give outward form to his inward-bubbling ideas is a noble one, but still, it seems somehow too solid, constricting music’s evocative abilities through the paltry power of language. What I’ve always sought in music is a reprieve from conscious thought, a sort of suspended consciousness impervious to strict analysis.
In 1757, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke attempted not to define this sensation—“this state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended,” which he termed “the sublime”—but to study its causes. And among these, Burke paid particular attention to two aesthetic qualities: an impression of vastness that suggests the infinite, and any sustained thunderous sound. Burke took for granted, given the resources available to artists in the 18th century, that it would be impossible to fabricate these effects through art. What human product could replicate the vastness of the starry sky or the power of a thundercrack?
Here’s the thing, though: Edmund Burke never heard a Gibson SG Special send a flurry of micro-notes through a Univox Super Fuzz en route to two Hiwatt stacks, all while backed by the power of two bass drums, three floor toms, three mounted toms, a snare, a 20” ride, an 18” crash, a 14” hi-hat, plus a few symphonic gongs for good measure.
When I say rock, for the record, I do mean it as distinct from rock and roll, an art form that was more or less dormant by 1973. The proudly humble rock and roll had seen its heyday come and go by the time the ‘60s died, replaced by the increasingly bombastic rock, that strain of deliberately overpowering electric mayhem that’s most at home in arenas. Spaces, that is, like the one Stillwater walks into once Jeff has finished preaching to William’s converted. Incendiary sound is best enjoyed with 15,000 additional pairs of vocal cords contributing to the thunderous vastness.
1. At the Crossroads
“It’s a shame you missed out on rock and roll,” Lester tells William shortly after the two meet on a San Diego street corner. “You got here just in time for the death rattle. The last gasp, the last grope.”
Discovering Almost Famous as a teenager, Lester’s line struck me as a comical irony, a retrospective wink along the lines of later dialogue concerning the unlikelihood of Mick Jagger still being a rock star at age 50, and a miraculous new method of transmitting documents over the phone at just 18 minutes a page. How could rock be over, I reasoned, if 1973 had seen the release of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and the Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup, to name a very few? How could this be the death rattle if Queen, Aerosmith, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were only now making their debuts? How could the last grope of rock and roll have coincided with my favorite band’s masterpiece, the Who’s high-concept mod melodrama, Quadrophenia? Leaving aside the finer distinctions between rock and roll and rock, how could any lover of music sneer at a landscape this rich?
“That was a critical year,” Alice Crowe tells her son on the DVD commentary track for the bootleg cut of Almost Famous, complimenting his selection of 1973 as the film’s milieu. “Right after that, everything changed…the temper of the times changed.” These spontaneous comments echo the more considered ones Andrew Grant Jackson puts forth in his book 1973: Rock at the Crossroads. “If the cultural reformation of 1965-72 was a bomb, 1973 was the aftermath,” Jackson writes. As the last American troops came home from Vietnam, “the debris rained down. [And] the sun streaked through the smoke onto the road ahead.”
If William is thus coming of age during some cultural sea change, he’s also immersing himself in rock culture at the peak of what Crowe describes as “a glorious naivety” as to what this art form could mean and represent. 1973 was the tipping point between the peace-and-love holdover culture of handshake deals and the emergence of corporate mega-management with all its Faustian terms, as embodied by the shift from Stillwater’s hometown manager Dick (Noah Taylor) and shark-smiling interloper Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon).
The shift from Dick to Dennis is just one of the ways that Stillwater embodies the wistfully naive tone of Almost Famous. They may be (in the words of Crowe’s incarnation of Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres) a “hardworking band makes good,” but they’re emerging onto a precarious landscape. The mercenary spirit of Dennis Hope will prove viral, doing just what Lester predicts: definitively reconfigure the gloriously unpretentious spirit of rock and roll into “an industry of cool.” Stillwater may appear to be on the rise, but it seems more than likely that they’re caught in the undertow of some cultural tide. On that basis, Crowe’s choice to focus on the band’s artistry over their buffoonery is an act of grace. We’re all but told that Stillwater lacks the buzz necessary to transcend the almost in the way of their fame. There’s no reason for Crowe to take their dignity, too.
1973 would go down as a watershed year in rock history, not only for its abundance of epochal LPs but for the first shockwaves in what would prove to be tectonic shifts in the radio industry. A revolutionary school of data analysis provided FM programmers new insights into the habits and predilections of their listenership. With that information at hand, DJs were able to “narrowcast” their selections in order to maximize popular appeal. Where rock radio had once been free to mix chart-topping hits with oddities and obscurities, the newly corporatized FM airwaves placed brackets squarely around what qualified as mass media, leeching so much of the rowdy richness that had given birth to rock.
As Jackson notes in his book, artists were hardly immune to the mass cultural daze and confusion they found themselves a part of. “Like everyone else,” he writes, “the musicians tried to process what had just happened and figure out what was next.” For some—like Bruce Springsteen, whose debut album was inauspiciously released in January 1973—the future held limitless possibility. But for others, the horizon was contracting. The Who’s baroque attempt to pay homage to youth culture arrived on the tail end of a breaking cultural wave. The band would never make a great record again.
Blessed with the benefit of Cameron Crowe’s hindsight, Lester’s grim forecast may seem to have been prescient after all. For some essential element of the rock and roll spirit, 1973 could be called a last grope. But all was hardly lost—alongside the increasing plasticization of commercial rock came the transgressions of glam and punk, movements Crowe cites as an oncoming source of confusion and anxiety for a band like Stillwater.
Bangs is widely credited with having coined the term punk, and it was this real version of Bangs who, in a 1980 interview, mocked those who would prematurely declare rock and roll dead. “Nothing ever quite dies,” Bangs reminded journalist Sue Matthews. “It just comes back in a different form.”
2. Alice and Elaine
Parallel to William’s story of passion and heartbreak, elation and despair, and ultimate self-fulfillment, there runs another story, largely invisible and punishingly sad. That would be the story of Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand), widowed, estranged from one child, and now facing what seems to be the very real possibility that she’s let it happen again. Elaine allows William to light out with Stillwater against all of her better judgments, and then, based on the brief and fragmentary calls she receives and a return date that continually shifts down the calendar, it would seem that all of her worst fears have come true. And she’s going through it—late-night, phone-throwing breakdowns and all—entirely alone.
In Cameron Crowe’s shooting script—a document so dense with description that it often reads more like the film’s novelization—quite a lot of attention is devoted to Elaine’s internal life. So when William leaves with Stillwater, we learn that she “feels a very particular kind of loneliness. It’s the loneliness she got married, and then raised a family, to escape.” This is a startlingly empathetic description to retroactively afford one’s own mother, but it testifies to the outsized influence that Elaine exerts throughout Almost Famous, and how much her often-alienating worldview will ultimately be validated.
Throughout their shared DVD commentary, Alice Crowe lavishes frequent awestruck praise on her son’s attention to production design. “Oh my goodness Cameron,” Alice sighs with nostalgic wonder during one scene in the Miller home. “You got it right.”2 This fidelity to life extends, as well, to the sequence in which Elaine ends up on the phone with Russell Hammond. Turning on the charm, the guitarist has attempted to playfully vouch for William’s safety, but Elaine cuts him off at the pass, swearing furious vengeance should William come to any harm. And then, in the moments prior to Stillwater’s Cleveland show, professor of psychology Elaine Miller turns her focus on Russell himself: “Go do your best. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid! Goethe said that. It’s not too late for you to be a person of substance.”
Not only is this anecdote based in truth, it’s based on a pattern—Alice Crowe purportedly had conversations like this with Greg Allman, Glen Frey of the Eagles, and Glenn Hughes of Deep Purple, among others. And their reactions to these encounters tended to align with Russell’s own dazed admission moments before taking the stage in Cleveland: “Your mom kind of freaked me out.”
“Why do I freak people out, Cameron?” Alice asks on the DVD commentary, apparently genuinely baffled. When her son replies that her no-bullshit approach violates social convention, she takes it in stride: “Well, why crawl through the window when the front door’s wide open?”
For as unnerving as his brief interaction with Elaine may have been, it serves as an evident catalyst in Russell’s journey towards self-improvement (which will just so happen to bring him to Elaine’s door). Though the film’s main action comprises only a little over a week, Russell sees his life’s trajectory definitively shifted towards a new level of empathy and accountability over the course of the wayward Almost Famous tour. And what was the unexpected new element that triggered this chain reaction? His acquaintance with the Miller family.
With this outcome in mind, Almost Famous functions as a powerful tribute to the iconoclastic spirit of Elaine Miller and Alice Crowe. Elaine may be introduced as an eccentric (in their opening spat, Anita brings up Elaine’s relocation of Christmas to September as a means of avoiding commercialization; in the shooting script, Elaine clarifies that this was merely an experiment), but she is a woman of tremendous compassion and integrity. Her worst fears for William may come true in so much as her son is faced with myriad temptations (and isn’t above succumbing to some), but he makes it home intact in body and soul. Not every teenager would, and the fact that William is able to do so must be attributed largely to his embodiment of the values he was raised with.
In one scene that was rather notoriously excised from Almost Famous, William arranged a meeting between Elaine and his own panel of advocates—his journalism teacher, his guidance counselor, and his estranged older sister’s ex-boyfriend, whose presence in the narrative is one of many gratuitous memoir flourishes that push the runtime of the bootleg cut past 160 minutes—all of them supporting his proposal to go on the road with Stillwater. This scene is unable to be restored in any future extended cut for one unmistakable reason: it was meant to feature the assembled characters listening while William plays his mother “Stairway to Heaven” in its entirety, his Exhibit A in the cultural worthiness of rock. Unfortunately, Led Zeppelin was even more intractable than Elaine Miller, and they have staunchly refused to license the necessary rights.
Due to the song’s eight-minute runtime, it was likely always a candidate for excision (though Crowe does include a nod to the scene as the closing montage stops by the Miller family dinner table). But the “Stairway to Heaven” sequence is significant for another reason: William’s guidance counselor is played by Alice Crowe. The director engineered a scenario by which his mother could look her past self in the eye and reassure her that she made the right choice in letting her son chase his dream. It’s a uniquely odd scenario dense with the sort of uncanny energy that can be achieved only through filmmaking, and it’s a turn of events that Alice Crowe would likely not have predicted in 1973—though, as her son notes in the commentary, if she didn’t want him to be a filmmaker, she shouldn’t have taken him to see Carnal Knowledge and Medium Cool.
“Such are the ironies of life,” as Alice tells Elaine during their brief meta-summit. And then—just as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant instruct—they listen very hard, in hopes the tune may come to them at last.
3. In Another Life, When We Are Both Cats
For better or worse, Cameron Crowe is one of a handful of artists whose work profoundly shaped my worldview. Defining years of my development were spent watching and rewatching not just Almost Famous but his debut, the teen romance Say Anything, his breakthrough sensation, the adult romance Jerry Maguire, and the big-swing sci-fi curio, Vanilla Sky.
When I say the seismic impact that Crowe’s work exerted on my worldview might be for worse, I’m bearing in mind a by now long-established skepticism towards his gender politics. His indirect role in the coining of controversial term “manic pixie dream girl” is well-trod ground, but that icon of adolescent ardor, Lloyd Dobler of Say Anything, is upheld by the film (and thus viewed by my adolescent self) as the ideal embodiment of teenage masculinity despite a style of wooing that ranges from overbearing to manipulative. I’ve already mentioned the way Almost Famous whitewashes any number of traumatic implications to the Band Aids’ relationships with rockers, all in the service of paying homage to Crowe’s own hormonal awakening; by the time Vanilla Sky hinges on a romantic triangle with a screeching seductress on one end and an impossibly alluring enigma on the other, the writing is on the wall: his gender politics remain locked in the worldview of of the Reagan-era teen comedies on which he made his name.
There have been reports that in recently adapting Almost Famous for the stage, Crowe has made some effort to correct the more glaring blind spots in his storytelling—the ages of Penny and her cohort are left unspoken in order to draw attention away from the ugly implications of their sexual relationships with adult men. “Let’s not invite the wrong kind of debate,” Crowe said in 2019 by way of justifying his revision. “I never really felt there was some kind of predatory experience going on.”
As a sound byte, it’s less than ideal, reinforcing concerns over the story’s innate shortcomings rather than assauging them. Yet to self-consciously attempt a de-problematizing cleanup pass on Almost Famous would seem an effort destined for failure, or at least pointlessness (though Crowe’s other major choice, to remove William’s non-consensual kiss with an overdosed Penny, was a no-brainer). This cinematic all-ages adventure coasts on the same blissful naivety that Crowe celebrated in his characters, defying its tonal sugarcoating by virtue of its self-assurance and enthusiasm. It’s hard not to fear that a two-decades-late intervention from a fundamentally different incarnation of its auteur would throw off the story’s essential chemical balance.
In a 2020 essay on Vanilla Sky, I attempted to account for the seemingly irreversible decline in Cameron Crowe’s professional fortunes by comparing his case to that of Pittsburgh Pirates all-star Steve Blass, who abruptly lost his ability to pitch for no discernible reason at all, a textbook case of that unofficial athletic condition, the yips.
A few weeks later, Rachel Handler interviewed Crowe for Vulture, and over the course of their conversation, she took a brief and (for at least one reader) startling digression: “I read an essay on Bright Wall Dark Room recently that suggested that Vanilla Sky’s mixed reception gave you a case of the ‘yips.’ Is that fair?”
Crowe reportedly laughed loudly and replied, “I don’t know. Maybe.” He made a valiant effort to redirect the conversation to more comfortable territory—spinning some comparison between the ambiguous tones of Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire—but derailed himself to return to my allegation: “The yips! That’s funny.”
To see a director of whom I was, at least at one point, such a fan responding to my work was thrilling, but I felt a twinge of regret. For how essential his work had been to me once, didn’t I owe him more than this? We tend to take for granted that our relationship with our favorite artists will be one-sided, and for some of us, as conversations with friends incrementally migrate to platforms with significant reach, it can be hard to make the mental leap necessary to truly believe our words could penetrate the rarefied airspace of our subjects. Then one day you wake up to learn that an artist who helped you become yourself has been told you diagnosed him as cursed.
If on one level I feel proud that Cameron Crowe was told about my essay, and on another I feel embarrassed, on the third and most important level, though, I feel neutral. All that matters is what I share with my friends—the ones Penny Lane would say I can always find at any shop with a decent home media section.
4. To Begin With
If the shaggy and sprawling Almost Famous has a central dilemma, it’s the question of whether William will manage to secure an interview with Russell. It’s this essential puzzle piece—withheld by the mercurial guitarist for reasons ranging from disinterest to a seemingly violent creative fugue—that William chases from San Diego to New York and back again, but the prize eludes him, and he parts ways with Russell without ever having conducted a proper interview. Yet just when all seems lost, the machinations of Penny Lane bring the desperate rocker into the bedroom of the despondent teen journalist, where William is able to at last get Russell on the record.
William asks Russell, “What do you love about music?”
“To begin with,” Russell replies, “everything.”
If Almost Famous imparts any lesson to the William Millers of the world—those falling in love with art while simultaneously falling in love with writing about it—it’s this: in order to devote your life to this stuff, whether that devotion yields revision or review, you need to love it on such a basic level that you’ll be able to ride out the art form’s soaring highs and dispiriting lows.
“It is my contention,” A.O. Scott wrote in 2016, “that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself. Let me go further. Criticism is art’s late-born twin. They draw strength and identity from a single source.”
That source may not be explicitly accounted for in Almost Famous, but I think it might be found in one conspiratorial encounter between William and Russell. It comes shortly after Jeff has bloviated on the world-saving power of rock, a conversation in which Russell pointedly did not engage. With Jeff gone, Russell pulls William aside and provides one of his rare, genuine insights: the great rock songs are all defined by their unplanned idiosyncrasies and flourishes. “That’s what you remember,” Russell advises William. “The silly things, the little things…[that’s what] makes the song.”
There’s a purity of purpose in this observation that would seem impervious to even the playful nihilism of Lester Bangs (the real one or the fictionalized). For all his bluster, Bangs was as capable as anyone of falling rhapsodically under the sway of the art that moved him. Writing on Astral Weeks, he described work “fueled by the belief that through these magical and mental processes illumination is attainable. Or may at least be glimpsed.” It’s hard to read such a sentiment and not conclude that the writer is profoundly in love with the sublime power of art—these mystical objects, as Bangs referred to his favorite works.
While I drafted this essay, Rolling Stone published “Stillwater Runs Deep!” an article purportedly retrieved from the archives and bearing the byline William Miller. This roughly 7,000-word realization of the story that so amazes the Rolling Stone editorial staff (“I am flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi, with America’s hottest band,” it begins, “and we are all about to die”) was meticulously constructed by Crowe and a crack team of the magazine’s music writers, not just expanding the backstory of Crowe’s fictional band but revising and elaborating on the events of Almost Famous.
In one of the more significant expansions, “Stillwater Runs Deep!” concludes with an additional excerpt of William’s interview with Russell, allowing us to know what comes after “To begin with, everything.” While they talk, Russell peruses William’s records—Tommy, Led Zeppelin II, and Pet Sounds, an album Crowe sees as a spiritual cousin to Almost Famous3—and he remarks to the young critic, “I knew you weren’t the enemy. We have all the same records.”
Putting a button on the record browsing, Russell advises William, “I would get myself some Coltrane as soon as possible.” This remark isn’t treated with any consequence in the article, but it does seem consequential that in the 1998 shooting script for Almost Famous, Crowe embedded multiple nods to Coltrane—all of them linked to Lester Bangs.
When it comes to art, there can be no true enemies. Everyone’s got the same records.
- From this point on, I’ll use “Lester” to refer to the character in Almost Famous, and “Bangs” to refer to the real-life critic and editor.
- One element that Crowe deliberately did not get right: his father was alive during the events of Almost Famous. “It’s just more powerful and truthful not to have my dad in the film as just a sidekick to my mom,” Crowe said in a 2000 Rolling Stone profile. Any broader implications for the household dynamics of the Crowe family connoted by this statement are left up to speculation.
- “That album is the sweetest sad thing I’ve ever heard,” Crowe said in 2000. “I could never aspire to make a movie as profound and deep as Pet Sounds, but I can make a movie about what it’s like to be a fan of Pet Sounds.”