It’s All Happening, or is It?: Reflecting on Change (or the Intentional Lack Thereof) in Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS
10 March 2013
Cameron Crowe is known for his special blend of the coming-of-age film. In these films the young (at least, young at heart) idealist gets his or her first-hand look at the harsh reality of this contemptuous world. Furthermore, in Crowe’s films this sensitive, ethical youth may falter slightly when exposed to the world’s cynicism, but eventually stays true to his/her ideals. The protagonist(s) is always an anti-hero and an Everyman (or woman) who, in the end, takes ownership of the deeply rooted values within and stands for his/her convictions. Thus, one of the most poignant things about this recursive theme in Crowe’s work is how it suggests life is about growth, discovery, and development, but not necessary about change; essentially, in Crowe’s films, the protagonists fundamentally stay the same.
Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000), a semi-autobiographical film, is no exception. Set in 1974, Almost Famous is the story of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a fifteen year-old prodigy who gets asked to write an article for Rolling Stone on the popular rock band Stillwater. This means William will have to leave his San Francisco home and travel with the band while they tour America. William’s overprotective mother does agree to let him go, even though the idea of her son being exposed to drugs terrifies her. William embarks on this adventure a bit naive and unaware of the experiences he will have with Stillwater, a band made up of Russell (Billy Crudup), Jeff (Jason Lee), Ed, and Larry. Also on the tour are Band Aids, redefined (or renamed) groupies, including one particular woman known as Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Instantly, William is smitten by Penny, but her hot and cold relationship with Stillwater’s drummer complicates several lives, including William’s. Feeling pressured by Rolling Stone to compose a brilliant piece on Stillwater, William does his best to write, but faces obstacle after obstacle when surrounded by the reckless, partying rock and rollers. With time running out on his deadline, William struggles to stay true to himself amid a gaggle of wildly affected and dangerously affecting individuals.
William, Crowe’s young idealist, is rather reserved, straight-laced, obedient, and passive at the start of the film. He is also characterized as good-hearted and genuine. Raised by his mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), William is less rebellious than his sister…that is until he accepts the job writing for Rolling Stone.
William knows how important it is that he interview Russell, the label-created front man of the Stillwater band, and that interview is, symbolically, the event that Crowe uses to mark William’s growth throughout Almost Famous, but it is also the event the writer/director uses to communicate that his ideological protagonist will develop but will not change. William diligently follows Russell around, tape recorder in hand, to get his interview, but gets rejected each time. Through this unsuccessful chase, William discovers new ways of adapting to life as a journalist with a rock and roll band, like writing on post-it notes and scraps of paper in rare moments when he receives a usable insight into the rockers’ lives. Very unlike the polished way William usually writes, he, at one point, sits in an empty bathtub with his notes all around him and tries pulling his article together. With his tape recorder on hiatus, William opens himself up to new approaches.
This young idealist eventually realizes Russell is not going to grant him the interview he needs, and William breaks down. Finally understanding how cynical the world can be, William, for a moment, becomes jaded. His disparagement continues when he returns home to San Francisco and Rolling Stone discards his article, claiming it was too affected by his personal relationship with the band. William rewrites the piece, but the band claims the second article paints them in a bad light, and they deny its accuracy, making it unprintable. Torn, William finds himself compromised and unable to please one side without disappointing another. He returns home and literally crashes on his bed. Surprisingly, Russell comes to William’s house, thanks to Penny. This seems to be all William needs because he pulls out his tape recorder and finally gets the interview he painstakingly worked for.
The moment is about far more than a tape recorder; the tape recorder merely represents a hardworking value William has, and his refusal to discard it. This film is William’s coming-of-age story, and he does grow up at hyper-speed in this short time he is on tour with Stillwater; however, through the discoveries William makes about life, the world, people, and himself, he does not change. He grows, he learns, and he has new experiences beyond his wildest expectations, but, in the end, none of that changes who William is. Sitting on his bed, tape-recorder in hand, finally interviewing the man he set out to talk to at the start of his journey, Crowe shows the audience, metaphorically, that William has stayed true to himself, despite what he now understands about the conformity and compromise in the world.
While this film is clearly William’s story (actually, Crowe’s, figuratively speaking), there is another character, a female counterpart, that also communicates this “Crowe-ian” theme of unchanging idealist versus the world; that character is Penny Lane. The audience comes to know Penny as a Band Aid for Stillwater, who is desperately in love with Russell. She talks to William about moving to Morocco, but cannot free herself from the unfulfilling sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle she leads as a Band Aid. Early in the film, she tells William, “I always tell the girls, never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. And, if you never get hurt you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” To draw out Penny’s growth, Crowe uses windows as a motif; often times Penny will be inside looking out a closed window. This repeated symbol typically suggests isolation and compliments the loneliness and separation from emotion Penny suggests feeling the aforementioned quote.
The first time the audience sees this is when Penny is on the tour bus with Stillwater. A group of high school girls are jogging on the side of the road and Penny watches them through the bus’ window. She initially waves to them, but then gives them the middle finger and mocks the group. At this early point in the film, Penny is very immature and closed-off, and she thinks of herself as superior to others because she is under the false impression Russell loves her. Her misperception clarifies when her fun-loving and free ideology slams into reality. After realizing her friends are not really friends to her, the band has no use for her, and Russell does not love her, Penny matures. This is evident by a later scene when Penny is, once again, looking out a window. This time, Penny is on an airplane headed home and William stands inside the airport’s terminal waving goodbye to her. Penny places her hand on the glass and watches William run along with the plane as rolls down the runway. Penny is still staring out a window, that has not changed, but this time she is not playing the jester; Penny has grown.
At the end of the film, Penny unexpectedly reappears en route to Morocco and tells the airline attendant she would like a seat by the window. Penny’s final request in the film assures viewers that, although she has grown and discovered a better sense of herself and the world around her, she is a wiser yet unchanged idealist.
Typically, it seems the coming-of-age genre promotes change as a positive and natural rite of passage in adolescence, bridging childhood and adulthood. Cameron Crowe seems to take a different approach. While Crowe’s characters develop in his blend of coming-of-age films, Crowe does not change his characters. Instead, Crowe creates anti-hero adolescents who grow, discover, and develop, but ultimately hold true to their fundamental, guiding principles, finding security from within to withstand pressures from the outside world. And, Almost Famous is, perhaps, one of the best examples of Crowe’s particular take on the coming-of-age film.