What 'Almost Famous' Gets Right About Fandom & Storytelling
Penny Lane dances alone: She spins and sways, arms outstretched. Around her lies the wreckage of the previous night’s concert, a landfill of empty cans and cups that becomes her private ballroom as Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” scores her spontaneous choreography. The music plays even after she’s finished; she sits on the floor surveying her kingdom, smelling a rose from an imaginary suitor. In the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous , Kate Hudson’s character spends much of the film comforting the men around her, but in this moment she exists for herself, dancing in the mess that the men of the band Stillwater left behind, turning a trash heap into a crystalline palace.
This year marks the second year that I've been able to call myself a professional journalist: I report and write stories, and they get published. Over that time, two new journalism movies — Spotlight and Truth — have premiered, but Almost Famous is the one I've consistently come back to as I've delved deeper into film and music writing. I was seven or maybe eight when it premiered — not that it matters much, since I didn’t see the movie until nearly 10 years later, midway through high school. I didn't connect to it within its own context, is what I'm saying. At the time I saw it, I was a young woman circling around the idea of what it would mean to be a writer as a job, rather than a hobby, and Almost Famous offers the quintessential model of successful teen journalist. It was William Miller (Patrick Fugit), Cameron Crowe’s quasi-autobiographical lead (there were, and still are, few female journalists portrayed in television and movies) rather than Kate Hudson’s iconic Penny Lane, that I clung to.
As the woman on screen, Penny might fit under what we now, often condescendingly, term a groupie. Sociologists have studied the girl-with-the-band phenomenon, determining that women are more often socialized to see themselves as accessories to, rather than members of, the band. But that wasn't how I, as a viewer and music lover, placed myself within Almost Famous' narrative. But what's easy to miss in the film — what I missed, my first time through the film — is the way that it allows each character the space to try on that identity. William constructs himself as the wunderkind journalist, while Penny invests her identity in the carefree girl-with-the-band. Every character in Almost Famous has a stake in the narratives they weave in relation to others, and telling their own story allows them to place themselves in the middle of a the story, to bridge the gap between the famous and the almost-famous.
Like many women, Hudson’s Penny resents the “groupie” label, preferring the far more medical “band-aid.” Hers is one model of fandom, the one that exists in the service of the band — caretaker, emotional doctor — in the guise of supporting the music, while William Miller (Patrick Fugit), the budding Rolling Stone writer at the center of the narrative, models another, the journalist. William-as-journalist is a groupie in search of his own audience, a groupie giving voice to other groupies. Both band-aid and reporter are defined by the kind of work they do in service of the band, yet Penny is treated as disposable, replaceable, even a commodity to be exchanged (as Penny and the other band-aids eventually are, lost to another band in a poker match), while William acts as a bridge between his fellow fans and the object of their affection.
Penny Lane first appears silently on screen as William stands outside a Black Sabbath concert, waiting to interview the band. Her companion Estrella Starr (Bijou Phillips) asks William, “What band?” As in, who’s he waiting for? “I’m a journalist,” William asserts. “I’m not a...” He pauses, struggling to even mutter the word. “You know... a groupie.” The words themselves weave an incantation — simply telling his audience he’s a journalist seems to lend him some credibility.
The band-aids scoff in response, denying that they’re groupies, either — a groupie sleeps with the band, they explain, but a band-aid is just there for the music. They implicitly shame those who do sleep with the band, seeming to imply in this scene that sex-positivity and fandom are mutually exclusive. Yet their behavior, still seen through William's skeptical perspective, undermines their assertions of artistic integrity; the band-aids turn into a shrill gaggle the moment Black Sabbath’s town car rolls past. And the car, well, it doesn’t even slow. The holes in their narrative show through at this moment — maybe it’s not just about the music, maybe they love the people who make the music, too.
I resented what I perceived to be this manic-pixie-dream-groupie in Almost Famous. It felt reductive of fan culture, especially among women, where a "fangirl" is so frequently used as a derogatory term. Female fandom has often been treated as something to disdain, and it’s hard not to see this in sharp gendered contrast when the difference is so biological. In Almost Famous, women mother, while men write the stories. But revisiting the film, something didn't quite fit in the neat narrative I'd devised. In a scene later in the movie, William confronts Penny about Stillwater's upcoming trip to New York, warning her not to follow the band on tour. She tells William he's "too sweet" for rock and roll, and suddenly he's the one full of pretense and bombast: "Where do you get sweet? I am dark and mysterious and pissed off, and I could be very dangerous to all of you. I am not sweet. I am the enemy!" It's hard not to see through his speechifying, and Penny smiles at him as she might a petulant child. But then he reveals that the band had used the band-aids as a stake in a poker match, losing them to a band named Humble Pie in exchange for $50 and a case of beer.
The scene reveals a crack in the varnished persona that is Penny Lane. Clearly struck by the revelation, she looks away, collecting herself. Then she looks back with a faint smile: "What kind of beer?" she asks. She's not simply subject to the whims of the band and Russell Hammond — she reclaims the story, making it a game. Everything the film takes from Penny, it gives back in her ability to tell her own story. She plays a character that is Penny Lane, but as William points out, no one knows her real name. He's not even sure where the "real world" she occasionally references begins. There might not be a strict division between the real world and the one they've each devised through words and music. Penny might be disregarded by Russell's narrative, but she reigns supreme over her own. That's why the Cat Stevens scene in the empty concert hall stuck with me for so long after I first saw it — there's no one around to tell Penny who she is, be it band-aid or groupie or stake in a poker match. It reveals the essential nature of the fangirl: a woman's ability to place herself within a narrative that might hope to estrange her.
Writing is having your say. Writing is stringing together the narrative, telling the story. We do it every day; it’s how we translate our colossal inner lives into the minutia of words. It’s how I wrote this essay, picking just one route through the messy complexity of gender and fandom in Almost Famous. It’s the narrative that Cameron Crowe devised to tell his own story. So many artist profiles feature the writer in some way — just think of Miranda July's Rihanna story for T Magazine or Vanessa Grigoriadis's profile of Nicki Minaj. But it's also why there's no categorical method to define the characters in the film: Groupie and journalist might not be mutually exclusive titles. And it’s why William and Penny chart such parallel paths through the film — the music writer might not be able to do his job without fandom, while the fangirl is really telling a story of her own. Journalist, band-aid, Penny Lane, stage persona, it’s all a narrative we tell about ourselves to translate our selves to others.
Images: Dreamworks (2)