Rock and Roll in the 70’s wasn’t just about the music. It was a culture, an identity. Right up there with your social status, your Zodiac and other aspects of identity was the omnipresent “what bands are you into?” It was a powerful statement about who you were and what you were into.
A lot of 70’s parents didn’t get that. The cool ones did or at least tried. It was key to getting along with your kids, at least understanding them.
My parents didn’t like the music, but they understood that it meant a lot to me even if they didn’t understand it. They certainly didn’t understand what would make me sit in my room for hours on end, a stack of LP’s scattered in front of me, admiring the album cover art and dwelling on the lyrics as my head bobbed and swayed to the music. The music was my friend during the difficult adolescent years. Often it was my only friend. That my parents understood.
There were plenty who didn’t. The parents who failed to recognize the societal and cultural impact of the music on the youth, and instead focused on the sometimes-unfortunate accompanying drug use, rebellion, promiscuity and other factors that made them feel that they were losing their kids, they didn’t get it. To us, it was all about the music. The parents didn’t have to get it. It wasn’t for them. It was ours.
Enter 2000’s Almost Famous, the movie about Rock that brilliantly depicted the Rock N Roll landscape of the 70’s.
William’s oldest sister has had enough of her overbearing mother. They fought constantly about her lifestyle. She was too free, too rebellious, too sexual and too into “that music.” The sister moved out. Before she hopped into her boyfriend’s Z28 she took young William aside and told him, “Someday, you’ll be cool. Look under your bed. It’ll set you free.”
Under young William’s bed was a bag stuffed with vinyl. The Beach Boys, Zeppelin, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Stones, Hendrix, The Who. Some of the greatest of all time. There was a note.
Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your future. His sister was a student, a disciple of the sound and William had just had the torch passed to him.
Flash forward a few years and William is now 15 and an aspiring Rock writer. Through his work for Creem, he scores an opportunity to do a piece on Black Sabbath by his DJ Guru Lester Bangs, brilliantly played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But William can’t get into the backstage door and by a chance of fate meets Penny Lane, a presumed groupie, that gets him in the door. Penny Lane is a “Band Aid”. We quickly learn from Penny, portrayed by the uber-adorable Kate Hudson, that the Band Aids are not groupies, just dedicated lovers of the music that travel with the band as fans.
“Groupies have intercourse with the bands to feel close to someone famous. We travel with them as fans, as lovers of the music. We inspire them.”
A noble distinction indeed.
Penny Lane, who eventually forms a powerful, sexually charged but never consummated relationship with William, introduces him to the band Stillwater and a connection is made with the lead singer (Jason Lee) and the guitarist (Billy Crudup, a very underappreciated talent IMO). The band is suspicious of William, to them the critic and the journalist are the enemy and the Devil. But they like him and reluctantly invite William to go on tour with them. William turns this into an opportunity, and he solicits Rolling Stone, the bible of the music scene, to commission him for 3000 words on the up-and-coming (almost famous) Stillwater. The stage is set. All he has to do to get the interview with Russell is get permission from the same overbearing mother that drove his sister out of the house. Not an easy task.
William embarks on a journey, a quest for the interview that will make him a journalist. An interview with a band that wants fame and all that comes with it. What unfolds as William travels from city to city, constantly badgered by his despondent mother (the brilliant Frances McDormand) and her omnipresent insistence that he “not do drugs” is a familiar story to me; the dynamics of the bandmates, the players (Band Aids) and the forces that inevitably seek to divide them played out before me as a teen as Superband after Superband disbanded after experiencing the collateral damage of fame. They are of course differing artistic visions, conflicts over who is in charge or the biggest star, drug and alcohol abuse, all the stuff that any fan of music has witnessed. Stillwater sees what is happening to them. They are hyper-aware that they are on the precipice of fame. They are also very aware of the elements that broke up other big bands and are present enough to recognize each incident as such and acknowledge it openly. They are at a point where their star could rise exponentially or crash into obscurity. Add to the mix their skepticism yet tacit acceptance of William, the 15-year-old “devil” could either be the best thing that ever happened to them in their quest for fame, or he could destroy them. Not unlike passing a car wreck, you can’t look away.
If you do, you will miss the real.