Blessed with a pitch-perfect name for his métier, Lester Bangs wrote on the subject of rock music–writing, for him, being a matter of slamming two nouns together so their heads rang, and pitch being something that was better off bent than perfected. Pugniloquent in style, high in ideals and low in taste, he was to rock and roll what Manny Farber was to the movies: the tough, exuberant, touchstone critic of a popular art form. Little wonder that Bangs (may his memory be a blessing) has now been resurrected as the conscience of Almost Famous: Cameron Crowe’s fictionalized memoir of going on the road at age 15, to report for Rolling Stone on the tour of a mid-level rock band.
On one level, Almost Famous turns Crowe’s teenage exploits into the story of a love triangle, played out with costumes and music from 1973. On his first night backstage at a rock concert, boyish William Miller (Patrick Fugit) falls for both a guitar king (Billy Crudup) and the queen of the band’s entourage (Kate Hudson). William’s enthusiasm for the guitarist–the chisel-featured, resplendently mustached Russell–is all a matter of quick, spotlighted glimpses of legs striding to the stage, a chaos of arms and faces simmering somewhere below, a sudden glare, the start-up roar, and then Russell grinning cockily toward the wings, to show that his latest screeching lick was ripped loose just for William. In a flash, the movie shows us how William, who is congenitally uncool, wants to plug into Russell’s swagger. It’s reason enough for infatuation.
With Penny Lane, the adolescent sophisticate who rules the “band-aid” girls, William’s longed-for plug-in also entails a whiff of sex. From the moment William first meets her, waiting in the dark outside the arena’s stage door, he’s reduced to murmuring and staring. The camera, as if similarly struck dumb, seems always to be hovering near Penny’s tidily pretty lips, or getting tangled in her angelic blond curls (which have a counterpart in the fake fur that sprouts down the bosom of her coat). Penny has eyes only for Russell; but she takes on William as a protégé, maybe because he amuses her, or maybe because it’s good, for once, to feel more powerful than a man. William doesn’t shave more than once a week, and his bowl-cut hair still resembles the mop of a little kid. On the other hand, he can speak in complete sentences when pressed, stumbling over the words only a little, which makes him a flattering and somewhat useful mirror to Penny.
Russell, too, cultivates William, and for similar reasons. “Just make us look cool,” he says confidingly to the big-eyed kid, as a first move in controlling a journalist who is, on the face of it, infinitely malleable.
Meanwhile, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is always available on the phone to William, always ready to remind him that he shouldn’t make friends with the people he writes about. Rock and roll has been captured by marketers and publicists, says Bangs, including in his diatribe those puff-writers who pretend to be reviewers; so a true fan, one who cares about the soul of the music, must paradoxically keep his distance. “Be honest and merciless,” Bangs tells William, establishing (more than once) the movie’s theme: Almost Famous is about the practice of criticism. It’s a very rare subject for a film–one that’s all but unknown, so far as I know, in a story with such a Dionysian setting. And maybe that explains why the love triangle seems curiously lacking in passion. Its function (apart from providing the semblance of a plot) is principally to illustrate the perils and necessity of violating the critic’s first rule.