The Quarantine Stream: 'Almost Famous' Makes You Want to be Uncool
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Almost Famous
Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime Video
The Pitch: Based loosely on the actual experiences of writer/director Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous chronicles the coming-of-age journey of teenage journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) tasked with following an up-and-coming rock band on tour in the early 1970s.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Rewatching this for the first time in about fifteen years, it’s easy to see why it’s one of /Film’s collective all-time favorite movies. It’s the type of film that sweeps you away – an intoxicating mixture of story, style, and music that, even though it chronicles a few stereotypical moments of rock excess and revelry, still feels unique in the pantheon of movies about music.
Blending his own memories with some fictionalized flourishes, Crowe manages to recreate an insular world which feels totally authentic – a subculture most are never privy to, but one that’s endlessly fascinating to explore. Penny Lane (the Oscar-nominated Kate Hudson) and the Band-Aids serve as a subculture within that subculture, providing yet another layer of relationship dynamics for the 15-year-old William to observe and sift through.
Since /Film loves this movie so much, I won’t go too long here: we’ve covered the movie from many different angles over the years. But there are just a few little aspects I wanted to highlight, and one of them is the accidental genius of Stillwater. A composite of the real bands Crowe actually followed and chronicled in his teen years, Stillwater is one of my favorite fictional bands in film history – partly because of the fraught relationships between the members off stage, and partly because of the larger-than-life personalities involved. Billy Crudup’s lead guitarist Russell Hammond has, in many ways, the most crucial arc of the entire film: that of a selfish egotist being pushed in incremental steps toward becoming, in the words of Frances McDormand’s Elaine Miller, “a person of substance.”
But it’s the band’s lead singer, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), who ends up stumbling into the movie’s most genuine comment about music. Ironically, the quote comes in a speech which, late in the film, Bebe laments having given in the first place, but the truth is buried in his ramblings nonetheless: “But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music.” That right there is what this movie captures better than almost any other.
Lastly, I have to mention Philip Seymour Hoffman, adopting a perpetually gravelly voice, as rock music critic Lester Bangs, playing the ideal version of a mentor for young William. Bangs has seen it all and can instantly see through absolutely any bullshit that’s thrown his way; when Russell has a mid-movie realization that all he cares about are people and experiences that are “real,” it underscores how journalists and creatives – while often depicted as being on opposite sides of a metaphorical war – maybe aren’t so different after all. (That’s just one of multiple instances in which this movie features repeated ideas or motifs, almost like a repeating chorus in a great song.) Most importantly, though, Bangs is always available to William with a sage word of advice, best reflected in a repeated mantra: “Be honest, and unmerciful.” Those four words are the essence of true journalism, and serve as an inspiration for the members of the Uncool everywhere.
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