Stillwater is at a crossroads at which point 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.
Real is a big thing to Stillwater. Russell really is about the music. Beyond the fans, the industry and the personality conflicts, the thing that is real to him is the music. Enter the most memorable segment of the movie, when an exasperated Russell, reeling from a band argument, heads out on his own on a quest for “something real”. William accompanies him, and it is at this point that the culture of devotion and love for the music by the ones that matter, the fans, is accurately and beautifully depicted. He ends up at a house party with a huge sample of his true demographic; partying long-haired teenagers who seek refuge in a keg, recreational drugs, and music. Russell is ecstatically welcomed to their party and this party is so much like ones that I, and most every baby boomer in 50 states attended. The party goers don’t swarm him, beg autographs or perform any other typical celebrity worship, instead they just welcome him. They get to know him. They share their love for music, his and every other band. They just connect in a “just say whoa” kind of way. These were my favorite people of my youth. There was no pretense, no posturing, no fights. Just good, mellow and let’s face it, stoned people having a good time talking and listening to music. It was just what Russell needed. It was real.
Of course, the party eventually gets out of hand when Russell takes acid, culminating in one of the premier moments of the film when Russell climbs to the top of a garage and deafeningly declares that he is a “Golden God!” and jumps into the pool.
In the morning, the real-world calls as the bus shows up and the band retrieves their out-of-it guitarist. Tensions are high. They are pissed at him, and he doesn’t care. The tension on the bus as they travel to their next gig is thicker than LA air pollution. As they sit in angry silence, Elton John’s Tiny Dancer comes on the speakers. As the song builds the band and Band Aids gradually lose their scowls, stop glaring at each other and begin to move. Gradually at first, then a little more. Then the drummer taps to the music and by the time the chorus hits and Elton belts out “hold me closer tiny dancer” they are all smiling and singing along. Goosebumps are had by all. And there it is, the point of it all, the thing that made the most sense to me. The music, in all of its magnificence has not only the power to inspire, but it can also heal. The band is reminded at this moment why they are doing all of this. It’s about the music. It’s always been about the music.
William never gets his interview. Russell tells him as they part ways to write what he wants. William does. He tells the truth, following the advice of Lester Bangs. “Tell the truth. All of it. And be merciless.” Rolling Stone loves it, despite the realization that the writer of their cover story (the goal of the day was to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone after all) is 15 years old. All is good in the world until the band (not Russell) get spooked about the possible fallout of the story and tell Russell to deny all of it, crushing William and his credibility. The story is squashed.
There is a happy ending. Russell, in his adherence to the “real” eventually tells Rolling Stone that every word was accurate after all. But not before going to see William and giving him the long overdue interview.
As you can probably tell, I love this movie. I turned a simple Billy Mac movie review into a think piece on my love for the music and the era. I suppose I’m so into this movie because I am also on a constant quest for the real. I have never been comfortable with pretense and superficiality. Maybe that is the best way to summarize my feelings on music today; beyond my hatred for over-production, auto-tuning vocals, unimaginative and uninspiring lyrics and music that seems to have no effort behind it is my belief that the artists of the era made the music unapologetically their way. It was quality. It was eternal. It was the hallmark and peak of their creativity and artistic vision. The music of yesterday was better, even on scratchy vinyl. I can say this because it survived the ultimate test. That of time.
One last thing…