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Almost Famous and A Love for Music

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the the movie Almost Famous I had some thoughts...

It’s tough to describe the way music feels, the way it makes us feel, even musicians themselves have trouble doing it. From Jeff Bebe’s perspective, the lead singer in the band Stillwater from the movie Almost Famous, “I don't think anyone can really explain rock 'n' roll. Well maybe Pete Townshend, but that's okay.” Though this clever anecdote makes light of this idea, I often find myself considering the movie Almost Famous and why it was able to describe, not just the nature of music, but the relationship we can have with it, almost as if it were some sort of spiritual guidance. In many ways, it was able to help me define my love for music and the idea that it held this sacred power that had the ability to give us a place of solitude.

The first thing I would have to admit is that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Lester Bangs, the real life legendary rock journalist, was able to capture a certain ideal of music so well that he has influenced me almost as much as any single musician. It starts with his very first line, as he lectures a radio DJ about different artists and his feelings on them, “Music, you now, true music - not just rock ‘n’ roll - it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. It's a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America.” That was all it took, from there I understood, and I’ve never judged music in another way since. If I like something, I like it, I don’t even question it, no matter the other particulars of the song, whether it be one from a girly pop artist or a weirdo underground band. I’ve also tried to take a view that this concept extends to others, meaning that you can’t really judge someone for what they like but that is a more difficult ideal to obtain.

Throughout the movie, Bangs continued to be a mentor to William Miller, the films main character and a budding rock journalist himself, teaching him about the industry, offering him advice for dealing with Rolling Stone, and even sharing some very personal moments with him about writing, my favorite being, "I used to do speed... and, you know, sometimes a little cough syrup, and stay up all night... just writin' and writin'... about the phases of Coltrane.... just to fuckin' write." Some of the most valuable advice he is able to pass on though is in waring him of the dangers of the disingenuous nature of the music industry, the “industry of cool” as he termed it, but even in this sentiment, he is offering the advice that in music, all that matters is the music, to not be impressed by the gimmicks and grandeur that can often be overly immortalized.

These sentiments can be seen not just from Bangs but are really a running theme through the movie, that this relationship with music is about the love for it. Late in the movie, when one of the Band Aid’s, Sapphire, runs into lead guitarist Russel Hammond backstage at a gig down the road, she vents to him about the new groupies, saying, “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” It’s this kind of small, simple moment that characterizes the way music can be so meaningful, if we only take time to let it, and it’s the idea that holds the characters together. Like when William is desperate to get home and Penny tells him, “You are Home,” as if she is saying to him, you’ve found us, the other people that love this so much that we let it be one of us. It’s similar to the sentiment Penny says to him when she first picks him up in her car to take him to the ‘Riot’ House Hotel, “if you ever get lonely you can just go to the record store and visit your friends.” It’s a true undercurrent of the movie that music can be this thing in our lives that is a friend, a guide and a spirit akin to our own feelings.

Almost Famous is a movie, at it’s core, about the music obsessed. Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe and based off his years as a teenager writing for Rolling Stone, it is a unique look into something that we all feel. From the moment he first finds the records his sister left him under his bed, to the final scene, we are taken on his trip, his discovery of music and we are able to see it through this lens that Crowe has experienced himself. Those records William thumbs through are actually Crowe’s records and the songs we hear throughout the movie are almost like a greatest hits of his adolescence and it offers this genuine love of music as a constant, much as music can be in life through the highs and lows of the typically mundanity. It’s in the last scene where William finally gets his interview with the Russel Hammond, the band’s lead guitarist, that the movie is essentially encapsulated, as he asks him what he loves about music and he responds simply with “everything.” And everything, though simple and maybe obvious, is the most honest and truthful answer of the whole movie because despite the fact that these characters, who start off as these amazingly cool people, turn out to be these very flawed, desperate individuals, they are still there for the music, because there is a pure love for it and that pure love for it is all I strive for anytime I put in my head phones or turn on my stereo.

Almost Famous. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Produced By Cameron Crowe and Ian Bryce. Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Vinyl Films. 2000.

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