The greatest communion I ever had with my 9th grade boyfriend was in watching Almost Famous. Not together, no no no. I was alone in my bedroom. This was pre-Netflix, so picture a 14-year-old perched on the edge of her twin canopy bed, leaning toward a neolithic chunk of television. The boyfriend—whom I will call ‘M’ for his privacy and also because I enjoy the neatness of one-letter nicknames—he and I were instant messaging, asking each other the tough questions night after night…“what’s up” (no punctuation of course) and “do u think I should skip tomorrow?” and “i don’t wanna do hw…what movie should I watch?” This last statement was B.S. anyway, because I always wanted to do homework, but M had a shockingly complete, multi-sentence answer: “Have you ever seen Almost Famous? It’s my favorite movie. It’s soooo good.”
M was in a band. I was in the process of forming a “band” with some girlfriends, so that M and I would be perfect for each other. M’s father was in the music business. My father, who I didn’t see very much, was not in the music business. But I did know he worshipped rock music. Once when I was eight, my dad came to visit, and all I remember from the trip is this: we’re in the car, driving down Charles Street in Baltimore, I’m in the passenger seat, silence between us, and then he cranks the radio to full volume and hollers over the music, “THIS IS THE KING OF ROCK AND ROLL!” It was years before I could identify the actual music—Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo on “Born Under a Bad Sign.” My mom and grandmother cranked the music from time to time around the house (Bonnie Raitt and Frank Sinatra, respectively), but this was different: louder than hell, close quarters, dark night. I loved it. So rock ’n’ roll was already a way to relate to men, and to myself.
I can’t remember if I lied to M and said I’d watched the movie already, or if I just pretended to know what it was about. When I became a teacher later on, a colleague told me the greatest thing a teacher could say was “I don’t know,” because it gave a free lesson in humility. Pride is something I still grapple with, but when I was 14 I can tell you right now that I would gladly have sacrificed dessert for a month than eaten humble pie. So I immediately googled “Almost Famous” and wasn’t surprised to discover it was about rock’n’roll, because loving music was the only substantive basis of my thin relationship with M. I had an idea that, if I watched it…I could better understand who I was supposed to be to him, for him, and, by proxy, for the world. I would know my role.
I heard recently that the characters of our dreams are just fractions of our personalities. If I dream of a predator and its prey, I am the predator and I am the prey. It strikes me that Almost Famous was as a dream to me. I had an uncanny experience that I’ve never had with any other narrative, whereby I identified with every character, with scenes and with snippets of the soundtrack that felt as alive as any character, so that the sum total was just a reflection of my unconscious. I was Russell, overwhelmed, yelling “didn’t we all get into this to avoid responsibility?” Jeff Bebe, wounded and childish, blurting out, “Your looks have become a problem!” Anita, adolescent and rebellious, telling her mother “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess.” William and Anita’s mother, hesitant and manipulative all at once, pleading, “Was I not fun?” The Kid, scribbling in his notepad while the band starts up “Fever Dog”, and Penny, a kid herself, smilingly stripping the pen from his hand. I even saw myself as the big abandoned concert hall, the empty space filled with confetti that Penny used as slippers to glide on…I promise I’m not smoking pot: I don’t do that anymore. But for 12 years, since I first saw Almost Famous, I’ve been chasing another kind of dragon. Imagine this. You’ve never seen a mirror before, because you’ve lived deep in the jungle, and one day you get lost, far from your home. You stumble into a part of the jungle that you’ve never seen, come across a mirror and see your reflection clearly for the first time, every lick of yourself. You try to communicate with the mirror, not knowing its properties. You ask the questions closest to your heart: Who am I? How do I get home?
This has been my experience with Almost Famous. Of course a movie can’t talk back, but can’t it? Don’t we analyze stories past and present for their messages and even if that message is “there is no message,” isn’t that still nihilism? No one would accuse Almost Famous of being message-less; if anything, some critics find the movie too light on its feet, a “puff piece,” a rosy look at rock’n’roll that flies in the face of Lester Bangs’ instruction in the film to be “honest and unmerciful.” Personally, I don’t give a flying monkey whether Almost Famous is five or ten or twenty or a thousand paces away from how gritty life on the road got in 1973. It’s not that I believe AF to be some holy grail artistically, more deserving of analysis than, I don’t know, To the Lighthouse or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Sgt.Pepper’s. It’s that Almost Famous, more than any other story I know, stirred me from slumber, and so for 12 years I’ve been going over her figure, her content, again and again, asking Who am I? and How do I get home? In 1979, Lester Bangs wrote his famous ode to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, 10 years after the album’s release; of his relationship to the album he says that “it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon.”
Of course, for William Miller, the movie’s protagonist modeled after director Cameron Crowe, that “beacon” is the music. When William is still a boy and his older sister moves out, she leaves her rock albums (contraband in the Miller household) under William’s bed. Inside the album jacket of The Who’s Tommy is an instruction: “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.” Of all the albums Crowe might have used, Tommy is a telling choice. Dave Marsh, a rock journalist not figured in the film, tells the story of Tommy’s artwork in his biography of The Who: Pete Townshend gave the artist Mike McInerney the outline of the story and some finished tracks, and McInerney imagined what the world might be like for a “Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy”. The final product is a honeycomb web of blue and white clouds layered over a void of blackness. When William lights his candle and throws Tommy on, he begins with Side 1, Track 5: “Sparks.” So here we have him: the boy raising himself out of the void to navigate the complexity of the world, inspired by The Muse. “Sparks” might seem like an ironic song title—“sparks” and we think of twinkling light, but the song itself is lyric-less. This helps us understand all the better that sparks don’t have to be visual to be palpable—that music allows us to witness life, the path. We dream our own futures.
So what does Almost Famous have to say about the Future? The beginning of the film gives a lot of lip service to doom and gloom, via the jaded prophet Lester Bangs: rock bands will sell out to big business/the record company/The Man. “They will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it,” he tells William. But the end of the movie shows us a different, less narrow kind of truth about the Future. At the end of the film, fractured and flawed as they may be, we see that Stillwater are back on the road in 1974. They will presumably stop in all the same cities, stay in all the same hotels. We know this because Crowe shows us the outside of a Topeka concert hall, with the same Topeka kids from 1973 jockeying for tickets. By contrast, Penny Lane, once so tied to the tour and Stillwater guitarist Russell, buys a ticket to Morocco to start a new life. And William is back where he started, laughing at the dinner table with his mother and sister, reunited. Almost Famous reveals that the arrow of the future points in many directions: to a new place, to home, in a circle. And the music that plays as Crowe flashes between these scenes? The chorus of “Tangerine” by Led Zeppelin.
Tangerine, Tangerine, living reflection in a dream
I was her love, she was my queen,
and now a thousand years between
Robert Plant sometimes introduced “Tangerine” in concert by saying that it was “a song of love at its most innocent stages.” Tangerine—not just living in a dream, but a living reflection in a dream. But whose reflection? The dreamer’s? Tangerine’s real self? The last line, the space of “a thousand years,” suggests that the reflection is of the past itself, when the dreamer was “her love” and she “was…queen.” In the future, we dream of the past, with longing, with regret maybe, and with wonder that we were once so young and ignorant and in that innocence so uplifted and alive. After 12 years, I’m given to understand that Almost Famous does not answer Who I Am and Where My Home Is, but it reflects back to me, as in a dream, that I longed to know those things, and that my innocence is not betrayed by time, but preserved in it.