Is there a word for nostalgia for something that isn’t quite gone? Because that’s the feeling I got the first time I saw Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical film Almost Famous, which arrived Sept. 22, 2000. I still feel it, every time I see it. The film is yearning in celluloid form.
Yearning is underrated. It’s the sharp-sweet part of love, the thing that propels you from your chair into a wider world, and the thing that pins you to your chair, pining for a wider world. The art that most moves me is that ache. I feel it in films as disparate as Adaptation, She’s Gotta Have It, Breaking Away and An Education. It’s about getting out, making something, meaning something. It’s about unsticking yourself from who you are, longing to be better than you are and finally being who you are, all at once.
That’s the arc of Almost Famous: William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old music lover in 1973 San Diego, too bright to fit in, stumbles into a gig covering the tour of a mid-level rock band, Stillwater, for Rolling Stone magazine. He has a professor mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), who recognizes who he is but fears for his youth; a rock-critic mentor, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who gives him both hope and realistic expectations; an idol, Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), who has all the cool William doesn’t; and a crush, the discerning groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who sees in William what he almost is. (As with all great writing, each gets his/her own arc.) Over the course of a summer, William experiences equal parts delight and misery, and eventually figures out what matters to him.
Notice something interesting? No antagonist. The obstacle William must overcome in his hero’s journey is only himself.
There are so many reasons I adore this film. Here’s one: The journey is joyful. Crowe loves everything about music and its world, and he communicates that to us in specific, discrete scenes. The feeling you get singing along to the radio with friends in a moving vehicle. The glee of being at an epic party. How a truly loyal groupie at a backstage buffet knows better than to eat all the steak.
Another thing to love: This is a movie about writing. In September, 2000, I was at the apex of my own career, doing celebrity profiles for American magazines, and Crowe’s script made the hair on the back of my neck stand in recognition. (I wasn’t alone in this: He won both the Oscar and the BAFTA for best original screenplay.) When William meets Bangs for the first time, you expect Bangs to scoff, but no – thrillingly, he takes William seriously.
“Music chooses you,” Bangs proffers (echoing the way I feel about all art that I love). But the music Bangs and William love is fading away, becoming corporate, “an industry of cool.” William will make that rare, magic transition from being a fan to being a part of it. But “you cannot make friends with the rock stars,” Bangs warns. The only way to achieve anything is to be “honest, and unmerciful.”
What essential advice! I chose to write about celebrities because I believe that the people we make famous are the ones who somehow represent what we might be, given the means, access and connections most of us will never have; and therefore, writing about them will communicate something to all of us about what matters. Bangs’s speech tells me that Crowe believes that, too.
But it’s that word “almost” that defines this movie, and makes my heart constrict. Because achieving what you set out to do is so rare. Most of the time, “almost” is all we get. You’re almost brilliant. What you say will almost matter. Your contribution will almost last. The line Bangs feeds William to sell Rolling Stone on giving him more time – “This is a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations” – is both an inside joke (that’s what every story is, ha ha!) and pure truth (that’s what every story is, shuddering sigh).
The idea that Stillwater is almost famous at the moment when rock is almost dead is also poignant to me – that idea of missing something before it’s gone that I mentioned at the top – because that happened to me, too, with magazines. When this film arrived, I was 38; I finally knew something about writing. Magazines were flying me to New York, Los Angeles and London and giving me 5,000 words to describe what I saw. Celebrity profiles were following all the strictures of legitimate journalism, and writing for Premiere, GQ, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair felt like contributing something to the culture.
But I could see the end coming fast. The access to people was waning. The ad money was fleeing to the internet. The number of magazines that wanted writers to tell the truth was dwindling. I’d glimpsed the top, the great-perfect-shining thing that we’d pulled off, at the very moment I could see it crumbling away beneath me.
“It’s all happening,” is Penny Lane’s catchphrase; and that, too, is double-edged. We’re here, we’re feeling this, let’s remember to be in it. Because in a flash, it won’t be happening anymore. Why do things that are great slip away? Because time goes in only one direction. Big-band music ebbs away for rock, which ebbs away for hip hop. Albums move aside for streaming. Newspaper culture is supplanted by the internet. Rolling Stone itself goes from being counterculture to broadly important – a unifier, a gathering place at the junction of music, celebrity and politics, a preinternet web – to peripheral.
It’s all happening, again. Still. Always. Those of us who were there, who got to experience for a second how fun it was, should count ourselves lucky but not dwell on it too much, because utter irrelevance that way lies. Great art, like great moments, fills you with both longing for it and nostalgia about it, even while you’re in it. The minute you know it’s all happening, it’s not happening any more. That, my friends, is life.
Here’s the main reason I adore Almost Famous. It’s a hero’s journey for the uncool. “One day you’ll be cool,” William’s sister (Zooey Deschanel – Crowe had a genius for casting this film) tells him, which sets him on his way.
At his lowest, Bangs sets him straight: “They make you feel cool, but hey, I met you – you are not cool,” he says.
Then near the end (rule of three!), Bangs delivers this gift: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re not cool.” I’m almost crying right now.
Finally: William’s mom. Crowe and McDormand give us a mom for the ages, with an Act 3 phone speech destined to be an audition monologue for the rest of time. So go, watch this movie. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid. It’s not too late for you to become a person of substance.