Beware, beware, Rolling Stone magazine…
Music, inarguably, is the hero, the emotional engine in Almost Famous, the Cameron Crowe-written, -directed (and -lived, as the story is autobiographicalish) film set in early 1970’s San Diego. (Don’t deny you got goose bumps, in spite of yourself, during the Tiny Dancer sing-along-on-the-tour-bus scene. Maybe you teared up during the Tangerine-soaked happy ending?)
Rolling Stone magazine, too, is a touchstone in Crowe’s story—feared, loathed, and coveted. A thing to beware of, as told by the always striking Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing Lester Bangs, the rock critic, Creem editor, and mentor to the movie’s young protagonist and aspiring rock journalist, William Miller. “Don’t let those swill merchants rewrite you,” Bangs warns fifteen-year-old William, who has been handed an assignment by Rolling Stone to go on the road with the up-and-coming rock band, Stillwater. Indeed, the magazine’s music editor, Ben Fong-Torres—this being a different era in magazine journalism and, in the end, a movie—tracks William down by (push-button) phone, having seen some of his “good, solid stuff” in local papers, to ask if he has “any ideas.” Watch the credulous Fong-Torres and incredulous William negotiate (yes, that’s Rainn Wilson, doing an early sort of Dwight Schrute):
And so, with a promise to his widowed mother—Frances McDormand, hilarious and endearing in a Mama-Grizzly-meets-Helicopter-Mom role—to be gone “no more than four days” (a promise which, as the movie moves along, morphs into “be home by graduation”), William gets on the bus for Stillwater’s “Almost Famous ‘73 Tour.” The music fan/reporter sets off equipped with note pad, pen, messenger bag, Sears cassette tape recorder with mic (a Smith Corona Galaxie Deluxe awaits on his desk in his bedroom at home), his virginity, and these additional bits of advice from Lester Bangs:
You got an honest face and they’re going to tell you everything. You can not make friends with the rock stars. If you’re going to be a true journalist, a rock journalist, first you’ll never get paid much but you will get free records from the record companies .They’re gonna buy you drinks, you’re gonna meet girls, they’re gonna try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs, and I know it sounds great but these people are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars. They’ll ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it and then it just becomes an industry of cool.
You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful.
To Stillwater’s lead singer, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), young reporter William is “the enemy” who “writes what he sees,” the kid who “looks harmless” but “represent[s] the magazine that trashed Layla, broke up Cream, ripped every album Led Zeppelin ever made”—although, Bebe concedes, “it would be cool to be on the cover.” Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), Stillwater’s lead guitarist whose “good looks are becoming a problem” for the band, is more trusting of William, assuring bandmates to “say what you want, he won’t write it” and, at one point, asking William, off-the-record, to “just make us look cool,” to which the ever-earnest William replies, “I will quote you warmly and accurately.” To Stillwater’s biggest fan, not-a-groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William is “too sweet for rock and roll”—and a way to get time with Hammond (whom William confesses to Lane that he, too, “likes,” before asking her to keep that “between us because I am a professional.”)
And of course one roots, throughout, for this budding “professional,” as he navigates between road life and real life, having doors repeatedly slammed in his face: a stage door, to his lame protest, “Sir, I am a journalist;” multiple hotel room doors (“Go away,” shouts Hammond, the elusive interview, “I’m in a truthful mood”), and, eventually, the door to Rolling Stone itself, as the draft William files (or, transmits via “mojo,” which Fong-Torres explains is “a very modern machine that transmits pages over the telephone” and “only takes eighteen minutes a page”) is dismissed as a “puff piece,” and then the presumably more honest and unmerciful rewrite is spiked after Stillwater’s Hammond denies everything in it.
In times of reporting trouble and writer’s block, we see William turn to the seasoned Bangs, who at one point laughingly explains how to handle Fong-Torres’s questions about the story’s progress: “Tell him, you know, it’s a think piece. About a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom. He’ll wet himself.” Watch, here, as the smarmy Fong-Torres pretty well wets himself, offering to “get [William] a thousand more words” and confirming the piece is “in consideration for the cover” (repeating, for emphasis, “the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”)
In the end—after William follows the band from Cleveland to Topeka to Greeneville to New York City, babysits Russell Hammond through a bad acid trip (the “I am a golden god!” scene), falls in love with Penny Lane and out-of-love, at least a little, with Hammond, writes in the quiet of a hotel bath tub, endures a “deflowering” at the hands of Lane’s fellow non-groupies, rescues Lane from a quaallude OD, and misses his high school graduation—William gets (thanks to the crafty, big-hearted Penny Lane) that interview with Hammond…
WILLIAM MILLER: So, Russell, what do you love about music?
RUSSELL HAMMOND: To begin with, everything.
…and, finally, the cover of Rolling Stone:
Almost Famous, chock full though it is of journalistic relics (although, Creem is mounting a newsstand comeback!), was no mawkish nostalgia trip for Crowe; it is a story—an Oscar-winning screen play— about relationships, trust, money and motivation, told with heart, told in scenes, in moments (when a certain sort of music was having its moment). One such moment—memorable, at least, for those who work in journalism—comes when Stillwater’s lead singer, enraged after being reached by a Rolling Stone fact-checker and realizing that, in William’s story, the bandmates look “like buffoons,” screams (to the band, himself, the universe): “He was never a person! He was a journalist!”
And here, one more moment (cue those goose bumps):
Last week: The Big Clock
Next up: Ace in the HoleLiz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR. Tags: Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, music journalism, Rolling Stone, Summer Movie Club