Let's analyze some of the symbols from Almost Famous (2000) or its more extended version Untitled: Almost Famous – The Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition) (2001) beyond its popular façade of a love letter and sentimental ode to rock and roll by Cameron Crowe, who before becoming a director he began writing music reviews and worked as a journalist on the road for Rolling Stone magazine when he was just a 15 years old student in Palm Springs, California.
Not only Crowe has been a well documented rock and roll writer — he submitted the liner notes for various rock classic albums as Biograph of Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd's One More From The Road or Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same- — he also turned into an interesting writer/director of generational films as his debut Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Say Anything (1989) or Singles (1992) about growing up and conflictive relationships using a confessed influence of Billy Wilder's humanism.
And Almost Famous wasn't an exception in the Crowe's modus operandi, for starters, this coming of age story inside the rock and roll circuit shares many of his usual marks, for example, Almost Famous has a scene in an airport and other inside a plane entering a zone of turbulence, other of his previous films as Say anything, Singles or Jerry Maguire had scenes in airports or airplanes too. Another constant in Crowe's filmic work has been drawing in script very humane and special femenine characters, and in Almost famous he would reach his maximum creation in the delusional groupie Penny Lane, being Claire Colburn in Elizabethtown (2005) a very competent runner-up and a sort of Penny Lane's doppelgänger, although withouth the first's self-destructive edge.
Focusing on Almost famous we happen to know enough well Cameron Crowe's strange teenage years, due to the semibiographical nature of the story through the central character William Miller, the 15 years old student and precocious writer of rock and roll pieces, performed by a baby face doe-eyed Patrick Fugit in his first major role. He is a regular guy although he tends to feel different from his school mates, mainly in cause of the oppressive rules at home dictated by his widow mother Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand) who has already alienated William's sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel), a rebellious girl also devoted to rock and roll style. When Anita decides to get out of home with her boyfriend she gives her entire collection of records to the naïve William, who allievates his stressing Oedipal life under Elaine's puritane codes listening to them in his bedroom at night.
Then a very important character appears in William's world, the infamous rock critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who can relate to William perfectly: Bangs' mother was a Jehovah's Witness and his father had died when he was young. In 1969, Bangs began writing freelance after reading an advertisement in "Rolling Stone" soliciting readers' reviews. His first piece was a negative review of the MC5's album Kick Out The Jams, which was published. Bangs was fired from Rolling Stone in 1973 by Jann Wenner over a negative review of Canned Heat. Bangs moved to Detroit to edit the legendary magazine Creem, which is shown in the movie read enthusiastically by William, so when both writers meet, the connection is instantly produced after chatting about Lou Reed's missteps (Lester's allegiance with the ex-leader of The Velvet Underground came from 1968 in San Diego) and Lester Bangs becomes William's mentor.
William is going to need Bangs' advice about rock and roll lifestyle and the dangers of "the industry of cool", because he's suddenly hired by Rolling Stone to cover a new group called Stillwater which is on the road looking for success and their band leaders, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) want William to act as a promotional scribe for the group, although he's often mistrusted and defined as "the enemy" because William is really an objective witness of this modest rock band struggling and touring with a homely manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor), and only supported by their fanbase and the band-aids, three groupie girls who accompany them on tour, underaged women who use nicknames as Polexia Aphrodisia (Anna Paquin), Sapphire (Fairuzza Balk) and Estrella Starr (Bijou Phillips), friends with the queen bee of the band-aids, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).
William cannot help developing a love interest towards the enigmatic Penny Lane, who refuses to tell him her real name and who has designed a glamorous unreal world inhabited by her fantasies and filled with booze, drug use, a bohemian vamp wardrobe and promiscuous sex with rock stars. Penny uses William's bond with Lester Bangs as the excuse to approach Stillwater's members and befriend them, esspecially Russell, the egocentric and talented front-man, whilst Polexia will be Jeff's girlfriend on the road; one night in the boring city Greenville William loses his virginity to all the groupies and the day after he feels so disoriented emotionally that he cries sitting in front of the locked up doors of the love nest that is the hotel room shared by Penny and Russell, unable to reconcile his mother's moral teachings with his recent experience in an amoral world of carefree sex.
We get to see more inter-band fights for the power and the increasing decadence of all the characters travelling in a bus named Doris, although this gritty side is made up greatly through the sweet scene of the musicians, the girls and William singing together Elton John's song "Tiny Dancer" after a crazy party in the suburbs of Topeka.
Crowe shows us the rock and roll circus as a male dominated scenario, which ironically can serve as an insufficient outlet from the patriarchal society whom pretends is rebelling against, but in her own way Penny Lane becomes a symbol of a new matriarchal alternative that is formed in her mind and that clashes with the corporate machismo from managers and rockers, instauring instead a complex femenine world whose rules belong to her but are rewritten continually, which few of her friends can understand, only William ends loving Penny accepting her faults and her personal decline in this intoxicated environment, saving her when she tries to overdose herself with champagne and Quaaludes in The Plaza hotel in N.Y.; now in the next scene in the park Penny Lane, the frivolous groupie, has died, and a new girl, real and frail, appears before our hallucinated eyes.
Penny Lane needed to believe she loved Russell to not think she was her groupie and William needs to believe he loves Penny as well in order to keep believing in rock and roll. The farewell scene between a deteriorated Penny looking through a small blurry window on the plane waving to William who frantically starts to run from a terminal window to another terminal window afraid of losing her is one of the most romantic moments in modern cinema, the realization of a dream who won't repeat ever more and she placing her outstretched fingers on the window watching William running through her hand becomes a moment of knowledge for these atemporal characters from a chaotic past era definitely lost.
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool," Lester Bangs says to a confused William who must decide if to write the truth or a fabrication of his story with Stillwater, and the moral that all of us learn in the end is maybe the coolest people use to choose to be not cool, because the uncool people are smarter.
In similar demythification lines, as Lester Bangs wrote once about his biggest musical hero: "Lou Reed is my hero because he stands for all the fucked up things that I could ever possibly conceive of -which probably only shows the limits of my imagination."