"One day you'll be cool."
So begins William Miller's story as a fledging rock journalist in the autobiographical film by Cameron Crowe. While SAY ANYTHING is Crowe's most recognized film, and JERRY MAGUIRE his most quotable (and possibly the most quotable movie ever), ALMOST FAMOUS remains his best. A deeply personal, honest, and passionate movie about what we love about music, ALMOST FAMOUS is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is perhaps the movie that best sums up why I write, indeed the essential drive behind all young writers and old writers alike, from those just starting out to those still burning to those whose dreams precede their ambition to those looking for a new spark. It also cuts to the heart of youth and the desire to be accepting while trying to balance authenticity in a world of manufactured cool.
Art isn't cool. The very nature of being real is to risk being uncool, to bare yourself for others to see, to expose your soul, and let the world have as it may at you. Writers are not cool. Most musicians, the real ones, are not cool. Jazz isn't cool. Books aren't cool, movies aren't cool. Nerds definitely aren't cool. You know what is cool? Cigarettes. Binge-drinking. Reckless partying. And most importantly, not caring. These are what's cool. They will also kill you. If not physically then emotionally or spiritually, or in other ways you won't expect, because to be cool is to divorce yourself from reality.
Every character in this movie tries to divorce themselves from the real world. Penny Lane, the film's central wonder, played to perfection by Kate Hudson, keeps talking about the "real world," trying to avoid it at all costs, while simultaneously being unable to stop talking about it. "When and where does this real world take place," William asks her, to which she changes the topic again. Penny isn't the only one avoiding reality. The members of the fictional band Stillwater also avoid confrontation, trying to maintain the illusion that they are in fact the world's oyster while beneath them conflict brews like a poison, threatening not to break them up or end their careers, but merely to expose them as frauds. Posers. Uncool.
William's overprotective mother has a thing or two to say about being real, while pushing her kids away from her because of exactly that. Who wants their mother to remind them not to do drugs every time they leave the house? Nobody intends to become addicted to a particular lifestyle. Fate has a way of choosing for us but still we fight back to forge our own paths, and so we must. When William's sister, Anita, leaves home to become a flight stewardess, but really just to escape her mother's confinement, she thinks she is seeking to live her own life by her own rules, and she does well to do so, but at the cost of a relationship with her mother. William himself gets caught up in the world of the tour, forgetting to call home, missing one test, then another, then graduation entirely. He wanted to be a lawyer, his mother keeps reminding him, but now it doesn't look like he wants that at all. Who could blame him? A young, talented writer, thrust into great opportunity, the life of the road, the music, loves, experiences. These are what make us who we are, equally as they happen to us as much as we respond to them.
The coolest character in the movie is the one who knows the most how uncool he actually is. Lester Bangs, famous rock critic, in a massively underrated performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is William's idol, the one who starts it all. Lester sees himself in William, but he knows the lure of coolness will take a toll on the kid before it's all over, and he, in a rather surprising move, lets William go ahead anyway. Haven't we all wanted someone like this in life? Someone to tell us of the danger we're about to walk right into, but to recognize that we're going to walk into it, that we must, and to provide us with the means not just to escape when we need to, but to actually navigate? Eventually life will kill you, be it sooner or later, and avoiding all risks is never a way to be alive. Would you rather burn out bright or fade away? How can anyone even answer this question until you've already done so?
Nobody tests William's commitment more than Russell, the guitarist for Stillwater, whose elusive tactics and unpredictable behaviors make it near impossible for William to complete his assignment. Russell thinks he is bigger than his band, and in many ways, he is. He is more talented, more beloved by fans, and more in tune with his intuition than anyone else, but he is also troubled, caught in a cycle of lives, and left to confront himself daily as he slips farther and farther away from where he started in the first place. "What do you love about music?" William asks each member of the band, never getting an answer. Russell more than anyone else gives him the slip, while befriending him on a personal level.
It's uncool to care, but one must care if one is to live. Cool is an illusion, a marketing tool meant to attract a perpetuation of new customers as older ones rearrange their priorities and grow up. The tour must end eventually and the real world rears its ugly head, but not yet. "You are home," Penny tells William in the film's centerpiece scene, a sing-a-long to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," perhaps one of the most endearing movie scenes of the last decade and a half. Isn't this what rock and roll is all about? Being at home in a strange land, amongst friends you don't really know, and strangers you feel you've loved all your life. It appears to be an illusion, a trick, but it's more real than most of what we encounter.
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."
The above quote from Lester Bangs comes at the film's low point, after the tour is over and William is home, left without a story or any trace of his experience beyond his memories, falsified by the band he thought were his friends. All that's left when you strip away the lights, the stage, the drama, is your uncoolness, and if you can't allow yourself to have that, what can you have? William's story begins with him wishing to be cool, and it ends with him being more uncool than anyone else, but better for it. He's different when his sister sees him again. He looks terrible, but he looks like he knows something he didn't before.
To embrace uncoolness is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, and that is where true art comes from. Ironic, perhaps, that the masks we wear to gain acceptance are the very things that keep us from becoming accepted. Only when we can strip ourselves of pretence, from the illusion of needing to be cool, can we find ourselves, and only when we find ourselves do we find anyone else. A twist of fate it would appear, that what intuitively feels wrong would turn out to be right.
ALMOST FAMOUS is a movie that needs to be seen alone once, and with others again. 14 years after its release, it still holds up as Crowe's most honest examination into the nature of humanity and the soul of art. The movie doesn't try to be cool, even when it happens to be so, but rather it merely opens itself up to us, letting us into its most secret places, whispering its own sense of mis-belonging to our insecurities and reminding us that it's okay to be real. That it's necessary to be uncool. This, not the stage, is where it's all happening.