Having written one, two, three, four ALMOST FAMOUS-driven posts and now this one, I obviously do think it is an excellent film. Its one weakness is a certain complacency, underlined by its ending. I don’t have a problem with happy endings per se, but the one it provides really is too easy. For example, it whistles past the queasiness that anyone with an iota of sexual-morays conservatism will have with the film, the sort that prompted our commenter Brian to say the film felt “sordid” when viewed a second time.
The nadir of the film is the storm-scene on the plane when everyone thinks they are about to die. All sort of hurtful confessions get made, particularly concerning who has slept with whose wife, and what the real feelings of the band are for Russell. We are by this point no longer that fond of Stillwater: we’ve seen Penny’s OD, the “band manager poker game,” and the ditching of the down-to-earth bus for the private plane.
Director and writer Cameron Crowe uses this scene and those leading up to it allow the characters to healthily confront personal truths. William confesses his love for Penny. Russell is forced to see the sin in his superior attitude towards the rest of Stillwater. Penny learns that Russell is more serious about his marriage, and much less serious about her, than she had thought. Even if he remains on the fence, it’s enough for her to choose for both of them: it’s over. She’s off to Morocco before he can see her again.
We only witness one of the reconciliations that come out of all this, but the final scenes show us that various changes-for-the-better have happened. These constitute the happy ending offered by the film—they are as follows:
a) Stillwater: humbled, and back to the bus. Apparently, the conflicts between Russell’s greatness and band’s average-ness, and those about Russell’s wife, will be resolved. Russell has realized his irresponsibility towards Penny, and so whatever happens with his marriage, the suggestion is he will no longer abuse a woman’s love the way he did Penny’s. The other members will muddle on, but perhaps also in a less selfish way.
b) Penny Lane: the free spirit will get a new crowd. Morocco. She thus decides against any attempt to pursue a relationship with William…perhaps judges that she’s ruined herself for someone as sweet as him. She’ wiser about the dangers of the sex/love confusion, having been deeply hurt by Russell. And she will no longer be lending her aide to the rock “cause.”
c) William: his career as a rock writer has begun. We find a similar ending in American Graffiti that valorizes life of the writer, although ALMOST FAMOUS at least admits the “coolness” problem. As in American Graffiti, the writer has fond poeticized memories of those whom he rose above, but who helped him “come of age.” William’s snapshots of Penny and the band, which close the film amid the beautifully warm sounds of “Feel Flows,” seem to divinize, or sentimentalize, her and the whole scene.
My objections to this are as follows.
1) Resolutions a) and c) do not really face the criticism of the music: in the late 70s this criticism will come from punk and new wave, in the longer term, it will come from folks like Martha Bayles and myself (who regard punk as an impotent and usually rather ugly cure). From such perspectives, both the humbled Stillwater and “William, writer for Rolling Stone” remain too much in bed with the artistic flabbiness of hard rock. True, Crowe is somewhat alive to this, which again, accounts for his naming the band “Stillwater.” But he nonetheless leaves us feeling that the artistry and drama somehow made it all worthwhile.
2) We have to remember that Penny Lane was only narrowly saved from death. Moreover, her suicide attempt itself may have saved her from accepting her ongoing degradation as a groupie, a degradation that, after Russell’s rejection, no “band-aide” pretenses can cover over. By remembering her primarily through William’s lenses, the film celebrates her free-spirited ways. But even aside from bringing her to suicide, are these ways so good? She decided not to respond to William’s love for her, and thus, he can wistfully recall her muse-like qualities without ever having experienced what living with such a woman would really be like.
3) ALMOST FAMOUS is right to humanize “sordidness,” to show us, for example, that a good man really could fall in love with a groupie, really could have a song like “My Cherie Amour” chiming in his heart even as he witnesses her OD-stomach-treatment.
But considered from a serious social conservative viewpoint, let us say from a Christianity-shaped, or even a non-religious Austenian one(I intend no judgment there about Jane Austen and religion, other than to note—convinced by this fine book—that the happy-marriage pursuing ethics her books model can be adopted apart from faith), this is not so impressive. Social conservatism can admit with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” that no, the “Boulevard”—i.e., rock’s sex scene, “is not that bad,” i.e., not overtly dehumanized the way a “Jesus Freak” might present it, but nonetheless argue that it really is bad for us. The real choice is not one between hyperbolic condemnation or “Tiny Dancer”/Penny Lane-like acceptance.
For the intertwining of eros with a kind of idolatry, which ALMOST FAMOUS shows us coils at the heart of the Rock scene, is something both Christians and Austenians have compelling reasons for warning against. And we should mention one thing that Plato would say about it also. Whatever the philosophy-tending proclivities present in eros as discussed by the Symposium, the Republic shows us that a “grand love” is often utilized as an excuse for the soul to indulge in all kinds of unnecessary pleasures, and that the interaction of such pleasures with such love tends to lead in a tryannic direction, that is, tends to corrupt the soul with desires for forbidden and unjust ones.
4) Let’s review just some of the consequences of all the sex-play in the film, whether the play was grandly erotic or simply indulgent. a) William loses his virginity. b) Later, we are led to realize that Penny’s being “used goods” perhaps causes her to assume that a marriage-bound relationship with William would prove impossible. Jane Austen would say she might have to assume that with almost any guy with “spine” who has a record of “respecting women,” even if her beauty may cut her some slack. c) The other groupies wind up with even less dignity. d) Russell’s marriage is obviously imperiled, and Jane would say that any future women in his life will have reason to regard him as damaged goods as well.
5) The learning brought about by the plane scene and afterwards, only occurs due to everyone’s earlier surrender to and indulgence of the circus-dream of rock. William’s article will out the truth about Stillwater. But for the truth to be fully acted upon, the characters would have to turn their backs on the dream/lifestyle (i.e., no more groupies)—and Stillwater music is simply not all that exciting if divorced from the wild and fame-drenched scene. So everyone goes through something that helps them learn about themselves, but at a steep price, and without—particularly in Stillwater’s case–gaining an ability to thoroughly apply the learning. What are they going to do? Replace songs like “Fever Dog,” with new ones with titles like “We Love our Wives” and “We’re Not Gonna Party That Hard Tonight”?
Consider Bayles on this:
…heavy metal stars…also get clean, get married, and get their lives together more frequently than their public image suggests. …it’s not easy…to adopt a lifestyle of playing their gigs and then going home for a good night’s sleep. Most of them would prefer not to advertise their newfound taste for health food and mineral water. As Nikki Sixx of Motley Crüe remarked after taking part in McGhee’s anti-drug concert in Moscow, “I was very worried that people were going to say we had turned into Pat Boone because we weren’t drinking and raising hell.”
So all in all, it is quite questionable whether the artistry, or the learning, compensates for the consequences, especially if one consequence is not being able to embody the learning within one’s artistry.
The essence of the film’s complacency is found in the way it treats William’s loss of virginity. It seems to say, “that’s just one of those things that happens in rock.” Yes, the film does show us that William does not feel so good afterwards, but the band smiles at it when they learn about it, as does Penny.
To that sort of complacency, conveyed by Crowe’s film even if it isn’t quite his, every sort of social conservative must object. And wouldn’t William’s mom Elaine, perhaps the film’s most interesting character, object also? She cultivates a secular pursuit of virtue, which reaches it heights in Lincolnian law-education and Great-Books-like liberal arts education, and which makes her household actually stricter than those of most religious families. She can tell Russell to be “strong and courageous, and mighty forces will come to your aid,” in a way that carries real moral bite. And yet, her liberal and secular virtue-cultivation proves impotent against Rock. She doesn’t see that sex, and not drugs, will be her son’s temptation. She knows all about mythology, but whatever creed she’s taught William, it does not allow him to resist the lure of Rock fame. He has not been “kidnapped by rock stars,” as Elaine at one point says, but has very much chosen to go with them. And if her creed did give him overall “spine,” it was not strong enough to keep him from losing his virginity to a trio of bored groupies.
I cannot but suggest that this unintentionally reveals that Elaine’s creed, wildly strict about many things, needs more of the up-tight seriousness about sex and love that the Bible, and to a lesser degree Jane Austen, could provide. And that weakness reflects one inherent to liberalism in general, which in its liberal-artsy mode might speak of “mighty forces,” but in all modes would prefer to avoid the words “God” or “Jerusalem.”
No, no-one was physically harmed by William’s compliance with the groupies’ sex game. (Apparently, they have kept themselves STD-free.) But if it is fine for them to exert their wiles on a vulnerable young man when bored, when they want a little spoonful, then how is it wrong for the rock star to exert his wiles on the young female tempted by groupie-dom? Is it really all good, Cameron Crowe? Whatever the participants consent in? You know better than we do, after all, some of the truly tawdry—and yes, if you know your Plato, tyrannic–stories involving groupies and rock stars. And if it is not all good, how should the line, or even the guide-line, be drawn, if not in the places where Jesus or Jane Austen would teach us to draw it?
Well, that’s a big subject, tough to consider, I admit. I’m being too tough on Crowe’s effort to do cinematic justice to aspects of his own biography. And I acknowledge that not a few good liberals and libertarians have attempted to articulate what a Sexual Revolution-accepting but genuinely decent sexual ethic would look like. But still, hasn’t Crowe’s film shown us that Rock really requires one to put all those sorts of ethical arguments aside?
That’s the deeper meaning of Williams’ “deflowering.” It is his initiation. He is not fully a member of the Rock scene, not fully “home,” until that point. This is why Penny smiles at it. Surely part of the groupies’ motivation is their discomfort that he is with them, and in some sense their peer and friend, but can still claim superiority or difference on this point. We might say Rock is essentially threatened by the virgin. It is threatened by anyone seriously seeking to make marriage the focus of and framework for love, but the virgin’s connection with the promise and spiritual bloom of youth, makes him particularly threatening, and all the more so if he has a feel for rock’s artistry.
There was a reason I began the Songbook with “Time of the Season,” that is, with the close connection between the Sexual Revolution and Rock. There will be no way to rethink Rock, to rethink music’s proper role in our society, until we are willing to seriously rethink the Sexual Revolution. A complacency about seemingly small concessions like William losing his virginity, however grounded in personal experience, prevents such thinking, and requires one to shut one’s ears to the Bible, Plato, and Austen.
And it requires one to look Elaine in the face, and shrug.