Youth and Young Manhood: The Failure of Father Figures in Almost Famous
Almost Famous is almost twenty. Cameron Crowe’s rock and roll coming-of-age flick follows William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a young, talented music journalist who joins up-and-coming band Still Water on tour.
The semi-biographical story gives us a glimpse into the realms of rock, love and the heartbreak of the real world. One thing William is looking for in the film is entire absent, a father; someone to help him navigate the transition from boy to man and what Almost Famous shows us, is men are almost entirely unsuited for that task.
When we’re introduced to William, he is a boy raised by women. His mother Elaine (Francis McDormand) is a lecturer who gifts her son with a keen and inquiring mind while his big sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) gives him her record collection expanding Miller’s cultural universe.
Before William heads off on his adventure proper, Cameron establishes him as merely a boy. Firstly, and most obviously, by showing us Miller as a child. But William’s boy-ness is highlighted further when we are told he is two years younger than his classmates who are having growth spurts and growing trainee moustaches and when he tries to tell Anita’s boyfriend to take care of her. In the latter instance, the boyfriend shirks of the ridiculous situation of a boy brother performing the function of a father. Already we see the distance between boy and man.
Though William has received fine guidance from the women in his life, hitting his teenage years, he is still trapped as a boy with little idea of how to become a man. He is looking for the freedom, admiration of his peers, artistic success and achievements manhood would bring. Enter, the first father figure, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
What Bangs provides to William is manifold. As messed-up and self-destructive as he is, Bangs can give William the fatherly support neither his sister nor mother was able to.
He validates William’s passion for journalism — counter to Elaine’s desire for him to become a lawyer — and expresses to William he shouldn’t worry about being cool he should be honest with himself and the world. Anita’s last words to William before she runs away are “one day you’ll be cool”.
He also gives William positive feedback (“Your writing is damn good. It’s just a shame you missed out on rock ‘n roll.”) and encouragement in the form of an assignment. In doing so, Bangs at once comforts William, rewards him and gives him something to aim for — he is on the right track. But Bangs also recognises William as a child (“Fucking, nothing about you that is controversial man. God, It’s gonna get ugly…”) and warns him about the danger of the journey ahead. Dangers William will, in the time-honoured tradition of advice passed from man to boy, run into all the same.
Though Bangs opens the door to William figuring what kind of man he wants to be, he has also told William a truth about the adult world; it’s riddled with falsehoods and cynicism. Bangs, despite his honesty, encouragement and similarity with William can’t yet be who the boy identifies with. The world he presents is compromised. It might be true, but it isn’t what William wants.
His assignment — 3,000 words on Black Sabbath — starts Williams journey towards manhood, but we once again see his boyishness in his Mother dropping him off at the gig, telling him not to do drugs and shouting I love you. Embarrassing for a boy; entirely unnecessary if he were a man. We also see a bouncer tell William to “go to the top of the ramp with the other girls”, the first indication the world he is entering is divided between the men and everybody else, with William repeatedly falling into the not-men section.
This scene is pivotal because we see “the men”, in the form of Still Water, literally invite William in their world and William’s initial clumsy attempts at manhood. First in his awkward attempt to win the approval and validation of the band, who clearly, with their handsomeness, confidence, coolness, talent, sex appeal and facial hair embody some ideal form of masculinity. And secondly, in William lowering his voice to convince the editor of Rolling Stone, Ben Fong Torres (Terry Chen), he is a serious, grown-up journalist. William’s first attempts at gaining respect amongst the men involve flattery and lying, exactly what Bang’s warned him not to do.
But now William is in. His mother reluctantly grants him some freedom and he enters the world of men, meeting a range of potential father figures who unknowingly provide him with examples of the disappointment that really makes manhood.
At this point, William foolishly places all of Still Water on a pedestal. He’s a fan and he wants them to like him. He needs validation from them. Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), as the lead singer, provides the first good example of the hollowness of the concept of what it is to be a man and the self-awareness of its fragility in how he reacts to William.
Jeff represents the facade of manhood. A belief in your own greatness which deep down you know could be false. When he meets first William, he dubs him The Enemy because of his role as a journalist. William seeks the truth and won’t simply love the band like the Band-Aids they surround themselves with. Jeff is concerned with how he appears in the eyes of others.
But quickly he sees William as a means of promotion and a way to self aggrandise. He is the first member of the band William interviews and he goes from being deeply suspicious of Rolling Stone to singing with glee when he is told he’ll be on the cover. He is pretentious but shallow (“it’s a voice that says, ‘Here I am… and fuck you if you can’t understand me.’ And one of these people is gonna save the world. And that means that rock ’n’ roll can save the world… all of us together. And the chicks are great.”) and just wants to appear cool.
He is the aspect of manhood unable to admit to weakness and cares only about appearance. However, he doesn’t just need William to write a “sanctimonious story about the genius of the rock stars” he needs to prove himself to the other men around him. In particular, to Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).
Jeff demonstrates the self-delusion of masculinity. Russell is clearly who William most admires. In part, it’s because of his elusiveness and mystique. Russell isn’t just talented and enviable, he is also a mystery. He represents the unknown aspect of some future manhood. His distance for the band represents, his effortless skill and aloofness is a siren song. William can’t help but to be drawn to Russell and want the same for himself.
Russell isn’t scared of William like Jeff. Like Bangs, he recognises William is just a kid. He defends William’s presence when Jeff wants him to leave the room and, importantly, he’s honest with the kid. He lets William backstage, into the world behind the lies.
In asking for William’s trust, he makes William an accomplice. He is no longer on the outside, a boy in the world of men, he is one of them. But that trust makes his eventual betrayal even worse.
Russell isn’t just admirable in his talent and honesty. His relationship with Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is something William wants. Of course, what could signify manhood more than to be desired by a beautiful woman? Russell’s relationship with Penny is a heightened form the admiration William is searching for, of what he believes a man would have. While Jeff seeks the approval of the crowds, Russell has the concentrated love of Penny, leader of the Band-aids.
This envy and respect of Russell is confused, however. There is an almost Oedipal aspect to William’s anger and jealousy of Russell’s relationship with Penny while at the same time as him wanting the approval of the guitarist.
William is visibly hurt when Russell, after an acid-fuelled binge (“I AM A GOLDEN GOD!”), calls him The Enemy. When this happens, when William is first abandoned by Russell, he turns to Dick Roswell ( Noah Taylor), band manager and in theory, the man everyone should turn to when they need help. William asks Dick to help him finish his interviews so he can get back home.
The problem is Dick, realistically, isn’t very good. He gets into the band by friendship and not skill. He presents as the pragmatism and problem-solving capability men supposedly have. But in truth, he is barely holding everything together. He is lying and blustering his way through, like Jeff, lying to himself. William is unable to achieve his goals because of Dick inability to get things done.
Stranded in the world of men, of those he admires, the reality of it all starts to set in, William’s only way to escape it is to get his final interview. Dick fails to help William get his interview and fails to save the band for corporate interference. This directly allows William to start seeing the cracks in what he is being presented. He starts to see firsthand the danger and compromise Bangs had warned him about and say he wants to go home, staying only because of Penny’s assertion he already is home.
Later, when Russell seemingly demonstrates his love of Penny doesn’t equal William’s, by selling her to Humble Pie for fifty bucks and a case of beer, William is mad at Penny both for still loving Russell (and not William) and wishing Russell was more like him (“You’re so sweet. God, if there was more of you in him.” — “Don’t tell me this stuff. I want to like him”). He then admonishes her for playing into the fabricated reality he is becoming increasingly aware of. His disappointment manifesting and aimed at the wrong person.
Ironically, one of the clearest steps William takes into manhood, the highly coveted but hollow act of losing your virginity, is given to him by women. During a rainy leg of the tour, William is once again resigned to stay with the girls on the tour, and the Band-Aids decide to deflower him out of sheer boredom. Despite the men claiming they tried to help him in this rite of passage (“We showed you America. We did everything but get you laid.”) once again, they let him down, even on the most arbitrary definition of becoming a man.
In the huge revelation scene where everyone thinks they’re going to die, the lies these men tell themselves are exposed. Jeff’s envy of Russell is revealed to be his knowledge of Russell thinking he’s better than the rest of the band (and Jeff loving Russell’s wife), Russell can’t handle the idea he isn’t respected when he tries to lie about his relationships with the band and Penny, drummer Ed (John Fedevich) admits he is gay (as though being straight in any way a measure of manhood), and William openly confronts the entire group for their selfish behaviour and failure to see what is right in front of them. For seeking something they don’t realise they already have.
The myth of the world of men is shattered and we can see all these characters are merely boys lying to themselves, each other and the people around them. They are no longer figures William admires. Before this, we only see small glimpses of this truth. In particular when Williams mum speaks to Russell on the Phone. His rock star persona quickly erodes under her motherly discipline and his deference is boyish.
Disappointed in what he found in his heroes, in the failure of these characters to fill the gap of a father figure and show William how to act, he turns back Bangs.
Bangs confirms the worst. Previously he had told William to be wary of the false reality of the cool, of pretence, self-delusion and the desire to be loved at the cost of others. But now, Bangs admits he is uncool like William. Their awareness of the need to be seen as important doesn’t make them any freer of it. In doing so, Bang introduces William to the true world of men; boys with broken hearts just lying to get by.
It’s cold solace however. William has to give up his freedom on the road and admit he isn’t loved or admired. He can still garner some purchase in manhood by completing his article and being honest, by making some achievement. And here is where he faces his ultimate betrayal. Russell, the man who allowed William a glimpse into the dishonest world of men, denies the story and William’s work is lost.
Once again it’s up to women to fix things. William’s sister finds and rescues him, taking him back to the safety of home and boyhood. Band-aid Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) admonishes Russell for letting down Penny and William (“What do you care? I mean, we all know what you did to him. I mean, everybody knows.”) while Penny tricks Russell into meeting with William.
Finally, with William at his most vulnerable but under no illusion of the greatness of the man he once admired he can pin Russell down and get the answers and the honesty he has needed since the beginning. He knows now, the difference between boys and men is false. What matters is the difference between what you tell yourself and who you really are.