ALMOST FAMOUS and the Pointless Quest for Cool

For years I’ve always counted Cameron Crowe’s 2000 autobiographical film Almost Famous as one of my all-time personal favorites. Set in 1973, the film follows 15-year-old William Miller, (Patrick Fugit) a fledgling rock reporter as he goes on tour with an up-and-coming-and-struggling-with-it band, Stillwater, comprised mainly of frontman Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and “guitarist with mystique” Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Along the way William falls in love with a “Band-Aid” (and don’t you dare call her a groupie) Penny Lane, (Kate Hudson, in the role that made everyone give Kate Hudson chance after chance for like 15 years) seeks desperate advice from mentor Lester Bangs, (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a career-defining perfect turn) and dodges phone calls from his concerned mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand).

Explaining why Almost Famous is a favorite always enters that weird nebulous territory where a film’s practical, appreciable skills (i.e. quality of performance, cinematography, those kind of tangible details) are out-weighed by that strange, almost chemical response we feel when a piece of art just hits us in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. There are films and books that took me years to develop a true appreciation for, masterpieces that needed years of digestion. And then there’s something like Almost Famous, which I saw probably when I was right around William’s age, my own dreams and insecurities lining up right alongside his, my own musical tastes already trending towards the era of rock that Crowe enshrines in gold here, and something just clicked.

When you find a work of art that becomes incredibly meaningful to you, it’s not like finding something new. It’s like there was a piece of you missing all the time, and then suddenly you’ve found it and are more yourself than you’d ever been before. And you can’t imagine how you went through life with that gaping hole exposed.

But for all my love for the film, I’d only seen the theatrical cut. Crowe’s film (a critical success but financial failure) ran two hours, and even at that length it felt truncated in places. You could tell that Crowe’s heart was in the shaggy diversions and stolen moments, like the band coming together after a rough night to sing along with “Tiny Dancer” over the tour bus radio. But the film had a somewhat clipped pace, bouncing from scene to scene with little sense of time passing or how these moments connected with one another, while characters disappeared and reappeared at seemingly random intervals. None of these were dealbreakers, obviously, but they suggested that Almost Famous, as it existed, was a truncated version of itself.

Crowe’s preferred cut runs about 40 minutes longer. This “Untitled” cut has been widely available for years, but for one reason or another I never jumped to obtain it. Maybe I just didn’t want to fuck with the movie as it existed, since I already loved it so much. “Director’s Cuts” have a way of making you appreciate the gulf between artists and audiences, as what a filmmaker might prioritize is not what connects with you as a film-fan. We were all excited to finally see Richard Kelly’s complete vision of Donnie Darko and look how that turned out.

Long story short, I finally watched the “Untitled” cut. Not only is it clearly the superior version of the film, but it’s finally enabled me to articulate why it is that Almost Famous, shaggy dramedy that it is, has always provoked such visceral love and affection for me.

And it’s this: Almost Famous is a film about the war between “cool” and “sincerity”.

It’s a theme that is articulated in book-ending sequences featuring Hoffman’s Lester Bangs. In his first conversation with William, he cautions the kid that he is coming of age during “a very dangerous time for rock’n’roll.” He goes on, “You know, because they’re trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb…And the day it ceases to be dumb is the day that it ceases to be real, right? And then it just becomes an industry of cool.”

‘Cool’ is the enemy, so far as Bangs is concerned. The drive to be cool is an impediment to authenticity, to musical purity and artistic honesty. “Give me the Guess Who!” he exclaims during an earlier rant. They have the COURAGE to be drunken buffoons, which MAKES them poetic!”

Yet despite Bangs’ cautioning, ‘cool’ is indeed the quality that William and those around him can’t help but chase. In the first of William’s many aborted attempts to officially interview Russell, the guitarist asks William to turn off the tape recorder before telling him that all he wants is for the band to “look cool”. At the end of the film, Jeff laments the article that William did write, screaming to the heavens, “IS IT THAT HARD TO MAKE US LOOK COOL?!?!” But between these sequences, Crowe illustrates again and again how the band’s commitment to ‘cool’, along with all the various characters’ need to project a protected image of themselves closes them off from each other. Relationships get turned into games, and the downside of any game is that there has to be a loser and a winner. William sees this most starkly illustrated in the doomed romance between Penny and Russell, in which both participants are too preoccupied with performing their roles as Genius Musician and Muse to let their guards down enough to be honest about who they are and what they want, and it climaxes in near-disaster when a distraught Penny almost ODs in what’s either an accident or a half-hearted suicide attempt.

When William turns in his article, it’s a warts-and-all portrayal of the band that shows them in all their messy reality. Needless to say, the members of Stillwater are horrified at the prospect of people being let in past the rock star façade they’ve created around themselves. If people knew they were insecure and infighting, as capable of being horny and dumb as they are of rocking a stadium or writing a moving lyric, if people saw the real them, then it would all be over, wouldn’t it?

The band’s new manager urges them to lie to Rolling Stone and claim William made up the events in his story. This character, Dennis Hope, is portrayed by Jimmy Fallon and he appears late in the film, introduced to the characters, and us, as the smug, duplicitous face of record company capitalism snaking all that is wonderfully counter-cultural out from under rock’n’roll. He’s not interested in music, he’s not interested in anything really besides whatever he can sell to the biggest audience possible. Hell, he’s so transparent about his mercenary pursuits that you almost have to respect it. At least he’s upfront.

Stillwater falls under Dennis’ sway in the film’s second half, tempted towards the kind of get-mine-screw-everyone-else attitude that would lead music down a very bad path in the near future. Dennis, in his position within the film as the embodiment of everything wrong with the music industry (and American culture at large) explains the bottomless commercial appeal that comes with being cool.

“Let’s identify the goals here. T-shirts, foreign markets, re-negotiating your contract, merchandising. Happiness. Realizing your dreams. Money. Cool. Being the Beatles! Let’s put all of it in a pot. It all depends on mystique. Not giving too much away.”

He holds a lighter out in one open hand, and the other hand he extends in a closed fist, and says, “You can only have one. Which one do you want? Which one are you going to choose? As long as you can’t see what’s in this hand, you’ll always want it more.”

In the next moment he opens the closed fist and reveals…nothing. Because that’s what ‘cool’ is: It’s intriguing, it’s sexy, it sells well, but it is the ultimate emptiness, because ‘cool’ necessitates distancing yourself, your true, emotional self, from anyone who might shatter the illusion.

Almost Famous, with its big beating heart, argues for the opposite. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool,” Hoffman’s Lester Bangs explains during a late night heart-to-heart, and again and again the film underlines the truth behind those words. No matter how disparate these characters’ backgrounds, no matter how deep the fault-lines run between them, it’s the things they share together, whether it’s something as small as a song or as profound as moments of joy and sorrow, that define them and bring them back to one another.

All this hits me as hard as it does because after 28 years of living on this planet, I’ve made peace with the fact that I will never be cool. I’m a nerd, I’m a geek, I wear my heart on my sleeve where anyone might steal or break it, and I feel my feelings intense. There were times, many times, where I wished I could bottle up these aspects of myself, where I longed to look different, like different things, just be different. To be cool.

But that’d be dumb.

Instead I’ve found that the greatest joy comes not from trying to choke back on the things I love, but in sharing that love around. Whether it’s books or movies or music or anything really, there’s nothing better than passing something you love on and seeing that work new through another person’s eyes, no better feeling than knowing that you’ve kindled something in someone, something that you now share.

Because books and movies and music and all the arts and all the other things we make and share, these are not just the things that entertain and distract us. They are the things that sustain us, that give us the courage to go out into a strange and scary world and believe that we will come back in one piece. It’s easier to believe that when we have someone who will walk through that scary strangeness with us, and the bonds we form with others over the passions and pursuits we share, those are the bonds that enable us to pull each other bit by bit out of any great darkness.

There will always be something alluring about the thing we cannot have. The mysterious and the evasive are tantalizing by their very nature. But to make something real, to forge something that truly matters, you have to be willing to be ridiculous, and silly, and vulnerable, yeah, that more than anything. Neither version on Almost Famous ends with any great revelation or pronouncement. There’s no manifesto to follow. Just the characters who have been through something that was good and bad and ugly and beautiful all at once. Whatever the future holds, they’ll get there together, better for all the things that they have shared.

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