At fifteen years old, high-schooler William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is hired by Rolling Stone magazine to tour with upcoming rock band Stillwater, and write about their exploits on tour. Set in the Me Decade (1970s), young William is inspired by the bands of the time. Much to the logical objections from his mother (Frances McDormand), William couldn’t pass up a chance to go on tour with his idols. It’s 1973 and only time will tell how he fairs. Fronted by lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), Stillwater take William on their tour of the United States, learning a few things about the band in the process, but more importantly about life itself.
“You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars” says music journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and he goes onto says: “and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it”. This film is as much a journalism film as a music film or a coming of age drama. And even in the 1970s, there was still a debate on whether it was okay to write a puff piece editorial to make something look better than it really is rather than write the hard truth which is often to inform, to persuade or even to enlighten. Would you rather have warm lies or cold truths?
For the most part, we are witness to a feel-good story about a boy on the road with a band. It’s also a “boy meets girl” story. Much alike how John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club is a feel-good comedy drama, Almost Famous follows this. But both films make audiences feel good until the the third act. When we reach the third act of both films, that’s when the bulk of the drama comes in. Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is Stillwater’s biggest fan but they treated her like a nothing. “She was a Band-Aid! All she did was love your band… you used her, all of you! You used her… she almost died last night while you were with Bob Dylan” and it was in this scene when the penny dropped, excuse the pun.
As far as acting goes, everyone owned it. But I really enjoyed the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), even in the relatively small role that he had. His performance is great and is honed in by the Oscar-winning dialogue which pushes us into discussions of alternative facts which has been brought to light of late. Alternative facts are not a new thing, but this film shows that most of us want to be seen positively, even if what we’re doing is wrong. Then again, right and wrong is often about perspective. Stillwater do drugs, drink copious amounts of alcohol and sleep around. Yet, they really expect William to write a positive portrait of them. Um… alternative facts much?
But this film doesn’t romanticise this music culture as much as others have. The 1960s, 1970s and even somewhat the 1980s did perpetuate this ideology of music being able to “set you free”. And that goes beyond rock n roll. Whether that be rock, metal, disco, rap, hip-hop, soul or other, we all have our poisons. We all have our preferred genres and when we listen to our loved genres, it is like being set free. And then we’re back to reality when we’re done. And despite this very poetic look on ideology in numerous music films set before the turn of the millennium, you can’t help but get sucked into the story and wish that you were Will, regardless of the things that happen to him.
From the groupies to the volatile relationship between the lead singer (Lee) and the lead guitarist (Crudup), Almost Famous plays into these band stereotypes well. But it also shows how life on the road isn’t always rosy. Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane is a prime example of this. Her arc starts well but by the end of the film, you can’t help but feel bad for her, despite the bad choices she made. And much akin to numerous other coming of age films, including Everybody Wants Some, Dazed and Confused, Easy A and Edge of Seventeen, the characters aren’t really bad people. They made dumb decisions and ultimately did a bad thing that they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives.
There’s something most people could relate to here, no matter if we’re talking about the bleak or the beautiful. Whether it’s the constant battle between to entertain or to inform in journalism, or relationship problems or the partying until four in the morning, Almost Famous was an instant classic at the time of its release and it still holds up seventeen years later.