Almost Famous, conclusion

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…

Almost famous, a Billy Mac movie review

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.