What does it mean to be nearly famous? Most of us will never know, but in case it ever becomes an issue, Cameron Crowe’s new movie gives us at least two possibilities. One is the near-famousness of Almost Famous‘s mostly fictional sludge-metal band “Stillwater,” who in 1973 opens 50,000-seat coliseums for then-giants Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Stillwater plays before throngs of adoring fans, but the crowd, by and large, has come to see someone else.
Another version of near-famousness is that of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old rock critic who, under the tutelage of the legendary Lester Bangs, travels with Stillwater to research a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine. The prospect of a cover by-line in America’s most-circulated music periodical is William’s version of breaking into the big time, and his affiliation with Stillwater and abiding acquaintance with Lester Bangs are a sort of near-famousness, too.
But take artists like Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, or arguably lesser luminaries like Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and AC/DC’s Bon Scott which is to say, those pop stars who became legends mostly by dying. If posthumous fame is the most enduring variety, then to be near-famous in its purest form is to be living on borrowed time. Stillwater lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) calls attention to this as the band, with the fresh-faced William in tow, flies to their next performance. Their plane catches the edge of an electrical storm, and buffets violently from the turbulence. Unruffled, Russell jokingly croons a few bars of “Peggy Sue,” but when a visibly worried pilot comes back to tell the band he’s going to try landing in a field, for a minute it looks like Stillwater’s fame may actually end up like Buddy Holly’s. Their story momentarily resembles his: they’ve released a couple of albums but only a single hit (a Spinal Tappish bit of acid metal called “Fever Dog”), so that their untimely deaths will probably be followed by the co-attendant ruminations of the world at large on potential genius and failed promise.
The impending crash puts Stillwater’s members in a confessional mood. Thinking they have precious little time left, they start coming clean about their own shortcomings and pointing out everyone else’s failings. It’s not enough that William explicitly spells out the movie’s main conflict for us this being a love triangle involving his unrequited affection for groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), her dependence on Russell, and his seeming infatuation with himself. We also learn from lead singer Jeff BeBe (Jason Lee) that the band resents Russell’s sense of artistic superiority and that one of the members even had an affair with Russell’s more serious girlfriend at home. Driven by a sort of directionless search for what is “real” (he says as much earlier on when, after a show, he wanders off to a keg party being thrown by ordinary fans), Russell instigates these confessions when he declares his love for the band. And sure enough, the band comes out with what they “really” feel.
For all its overwrought humor, this is an intimate and revealing moment. As they approach posthumous fame, the band members also approach genuine understanding, as they finally learn the truth about each other and themselves. Trouble is, after the final, most shocking confession of all when one of the band’s lesser members, who’s had maybe one spoken line before this, admits to his homosexuality the plane steadies and the pilot opens the cockpit door to sunny skies all around. “We’re going to live!” he exults, not noticing that the band members are less than pleased. They’re now going to have to live with what they know about each other and what they’ve revealed about themselves. What happens next is predictable enough: after the plane touches down, the band hardly mentions the conversation again. What originally seemed like a path to understanding only adds to their compendium of awkward secrets.
In one sense, this is just a less-than-fresh joke. Still, much of the movie’s humor centers around this kind of trouble in pinning down identities. One of its better gags comes when William and his sister (Zooey Deshanel) are riding in the car with their pathologically overprotective mom, Elaine (Frances McDormand). Determined to see her children grow up to be intelligent and substantial, Elaine herself a college professor has skipped the precocious William over two grades in school. Because she is a little embarrassed at her own zeal, though, she has only told him that she’s skipped him over one, so that he thinks he’s 12 years old when he’s only 11. The truth comes out in the car. But four years later, William is backstage after his first attempt to interview Stillwater and meets Penny Lane for the first time, and they have an awkward exchange about their respective ages. Anxious to be taken seriously, William lies and says that he’s 18. Penny doubts him and he changes his answer to 16. This satisfies her. “The truth just sounds different,” she says serenely. Perhaps he lies so well because he once believed this particular fiction, the same one that his mother concocted for him years before. And perhaps Penny is so eager to believe him because she happens to be 16 herself. Her trust makes him feel guilty, though, because he finally tells her the truth.
This joke is partly made at the expense of Penny Lane’s touchy-feely interest in pet-rock-style mysticism; she and the other groupies talk a lot about astrological signs and auras and past lives. But Penny’s apprehension of William’s lie as a truth that “sounds different” also reminds us that in the absence of legible auras, anyway understanding another person often depends on his understanding of himself. In any case, preconceptions, expectations, and projections regularly interfere with the process of communication. Penny seems to want to believe in William’s lie, simply because it would make him more like her. As the old saying goes: we see the world not how it is, but how we are.
As William develops a crush on Penny, his struggle to understand her and the movie’s struggle to grasp how people discover one another becomes more urgent. In one of his more assholish moves, Russell reveals that he cares little for Penny when, during a card game, he “sells” her to Humble Pie (another big ‘70s rock band) for fifty dollars and a case of beer. He feels bad later, but never tells Penny the truth, or apologizes. Terminally deluded, Penny believes that Russell loves her and simply has a hard time showing it, and it falls on William to set her straight, which he does reluctantly. What follows is by and large stock dialogue as William and Penny have a heart-to-heart in Central Park, the moral of which seems to be that nice guys finish last. Oblivious to William’s affection for her, Penny wonders aloud why Russell can’t be more like him, and William, meanwhile, expresses a kind of doting concern for her in a feeble effort to hint at his feelings without confessing them outright. (He finally tells her later, but only once she is so addled on Quaaludes that she is unlikely to remember.)
Like much of the movie, this exchange is guided by a fairly simplistic apprehension of the concerns and tribulations of adolescence, but at the same time it conjures some of the problems that arise when one person tries to grasp another person’s identity in an environment caught up in the rituals of fame: the Stillwater clan has become so enmeshed in a mishmash of sayings, monikers, and rules that Penny has never told William her real name. That she finally does so seems to testify to a closeness that she and William share. Unfortunately, what the movie wants to be one of its most poignant scenes Kate Hudson cries softly as the sun dapples through the trees of Central Park, catching her tears and making them sparkly and crystalline, and all that stuff is a bit undercut, since it’s trying to make us believe in a version of intimacy that’s little more than trading of names and ages. Maybe in the deceptive world of fame (or almost-fame), this is the best version of intimacy available, although it’s easier to attribute it to the characters’ superficiality, and maybe a certain starry-eyed idealism on Cameron Crowe’s part. But if this inability to connect is indeed endemic to the systems and rituals of celebrity, then maybe we can be thankful that most of us will never come anywhere near being famous.