A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. If you’re interested in participating, send your essay or pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next in the series, a look at Cameron Crowe’s American rock n’ roll drama Almost Famous.
Within the first twenty minutes of Almost Famous, writer-director Cameron Crowe establishes a distinctive view of America in 1973. As William Miller—the youngest child of widow Elaine Miller—actor Patrick Fugit operates as the eyes and ears of the viewer. Able to catch the briefest of glimpses into a world teeming with drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll, Fugit takes on the safest profession within an industry that his mother has had done her best to protect him from: that of a critic.
Under the tutelage of famed music writer and raconteur Lester Bangs—as portrayed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—William associates himself with the 1970s musical era with an abandon spurred on by his sister’s hand-me-down record collection. Bolstered by such seminal recordings as Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, and Bookends, William’s aspirations towards faithfully capturing the ethereal power of popular music in prose leads him on a journey across the greater United States that captures the very euphemistic essence of Manifest Destiny.
While on tour with the fictional rock band Stillwater, a caricature perhaps best described as an approximation of the overall aesthetic of Creedence Clearwater Revival mixed with the sound of The Allman Brothers Band, William loses his innocence in more ways then one. Enraptured by the raw power of going on tour with a real live rock band, empowered by his budding talents as a writer, and seduced by the alluring talents of one Penny Lane—played as a pseudo-groupie, or Band Aid, by Kate Hudson—William begins to drink the Kool-Aid and goes on an electric acid test of his own design and ambition.
Except not everything is sunshine and roses on the long, arduous American highway. Sometimes desire for something does not equal entitlement to it, and the members of Stillwater soon learn that lesson in spades. As lead guitarist and musical savant Russell Hammond begins to spar with lead vocalist and upstart neophyte Jeff Bebe—portrayed by Billy Crudup and Jason Lee, respectively—the dream becomes a nightmare. Soon, Russell begins antagonizing William over his article for Rolling Stone in passive aggressive maneuvers meant to put William in his place as an outsider. In response, William begins to loosen his grip on what he thought his entire journey with the band was meant to come to symbolize.
Inherently an uncool poseur by definition of his professional title as a critic, William is set adrift in a sea of wanton artifice and ephemeral style. Despite his best efforts to fully equate himself with the semblance of an ideal identity, Fugit comes to evoke the very essence of everything that is socially undesirable. Dweeby and uncompromisingly effete, William looks exactly like you’d expect someone to look who desires to write about art. Divorced from any actual musical output or technical prowess as an artist himself, William uses words, clauses, prepositional phrases, and sentences to approximate the prowess of his idols on the stage.
At the beginning of the film, William’s older sister Anita Miller (Zooey Deschanel) leaves her younger brother in 1969 with some sage advice and a stellar vinyl collection, cradling his face in her hands and promising, “One day, you’ll be cool.” From that moment onward, with the crooning strains of “America” by Simon & Garfunkel serving to set the mood, the viewer begins to see an idea of America that might yet be possible. Provided the fact that the average daydreamer can rouse themselves from any lingering nationalistic delirium, America is still out there, wild and untamed.
Stillwater may have drunk from the Kool-Aid of patriotism too deeply, but in William’s unaffected thirst for individualism, the Westward expansion of the early 19th century is reignited as a 20th century rock opera. Popular music icons Peter Frampton and Nancy Wilson serve as the official songwriters for the entire catalog of original compositions written for the film’s soundtrack, and in their hard-earned vision the kind of artistic expressionism free of any circumscribed direction is laid bare.
When William finally returns home after his odyssey abroad with Stillwater, and the cloying cloister represented by his mother’s home is returned to as refuge, Almost Famous reckons with the fleeting mecca represented by the open road. Operating within the confines of a cross-country road trip across America, the context of self-discovery is tinged with a certain patriotic expansionism that feels thoroughly of its time and place and reaches beyond any temporal setting. The film takes place in 1973, but in its timeless exuberance for reinvention and experimentation, in art and identity, Crowe has made on of the most American-made films in the early 21st century.
After leaving Russell and the viewer with the perennial question, “What do you love about music,” to which the lead guitarist of Stillwater responds uniformly, “Everything,” the expansive nature of an American identity is reflected through a sampling of the music that it inspired. Free-ranging and expressive of the previously unarticulated, Almost Famous oftentimes represents the ideal United States that could be. No matter how unrealistic it might sound, the refrain of Russell’s all-encompassing enthusiasm is the reverberation to a national identity that should be the ideal to be sought after by all of the country’s constituents.
“Fever Dog” may forever remain a would-be radio friendly radio hit, but in its unabashed optimistic squall, the song feels as though it may very well have been the latest single put out by John Fogerty. In its fervent warble and unrepentant plea, Stillwater’s greatest hit gives voice to a generation-less era of American exceptionalism. Divorced from the thematic context of its source, the centralizing themes explored in Crowe’s 2000 feature echoes well into another century of political and social upheaval and progression. Music has always been the truest form of human flexibility and development, and in its cinematic representation in Almost Famous, the desire to explore uncharted territory persists well-over one hundred years after Manifest Destiny initially spurred the colonization of the Western United States, and it’s never sounded as good.
Featured Image: DreamWorks Pictures