‘Almost Famous’ Is a Tribute to Rock and Roll Statutory Rapists
[NOTE: All uses of "pedophile" have been stricken from this piece. Helpful CLRVYNT contributor Dan Weiss points out that ephebophiles are adults who are sexually attracted to adolescents, whereas pedophiles are attracted to prepubescents. Our managing editor hangs his head in shame.]
As much as our managing editor was shocked that someone who has worked as “the enemy” for as long as I have had never seen Almost Famous, I’m equally as amazed — after sitting down at his request / command / threat to watch Cameron Crowe’s 2000 celluloid love letter to the days when classic rock was known as simply “rock” — that, back then, music journalists were able to do their job with any amount of efficiency. How deadlines were met when this shit was hammered out on typewriters and submitted via Pony Express is beyond me. Back in the ’90s, when yours truly first started in this game, the internet was just beginning to emerge from exclusive use by the military. It was an undefined mass that many were excited by, but having an email address and online access didn’t mean much if most other people didn’t have an email address and you had to glom up your home phone line in order to watch information reveal itself at the rate of a handful of pixels a second. But, hey, at least we had fax machines!
I also started — and, for all intents and purposes, have continued — in this racket writing primarily about underground metal, hardcore, punk and other forms of extreme music. Which means I’ve been dealing with the broke-est of the broke since time immemorial, and have never been able to relate to the commonly held belief that, as portrayed in Almost Famous, backstage is a non-stop party that overruns entire floors of posh hotels, where all available space is littered with chemical and alcoholic enhancers and inhibitors, and nubile young ladies are ready, willing and able to do whatever’s necessary to keep the party going. Underground extreme music was (and still is) a completely different beast. Not because its participants don’t like to have a good time, but because the idea of what constitutes a good time is different for a band formed by record collecting, gear and music nerds struggling to survive, compared to the supposed debauchery of the Golden Age of Rock’s chart-topping elite. And while things are different these days, many of those on the distant periphery of rock stardom will still tell you they can’t relate to the place of the perpetual partying in the creation of art. Admittedly, and as far as I’m personally concerned, a good amount of what the general public assumes to be regular “party like a rock star” bullshit is indulgence beyond my interest and experience. And you know what else Almost Famous puts on display that is way outside the purview of this particular hack? Sex predators and statutory rape! And a-way we go!
From the onset, it’s very clear that age is a major thrust to the stories being told in this movie: a teenage journalist, teenage groupies, a “young” band on the rise, youth unshackled from the parental nest, and so on and so forth. The whole thing is a coming of age story, and blurring the lines about age — read: outright lying about it — is a driving force to many plot points. From the start of the film, William (Patrick Fugit)’s mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand) is revealed to be lying to the world about her precocious son’s real age in order to protect him from the bullying that gets directed at kids who skip grades. Sure, Elaine’s heart was in the right place, but pulling a move like that essentially painted a target the size of the former Twin Towers on her son’s back. (Ask my wife sometime about the shit she endured after skipping two grades in elementary school!) Add to that the forcing of her no sugar / no meat / no contemporary music / no fun philosophy on her kids while claiming that anyone who would poke fun at him for his “choices” aren’t his real friends ... man, Will Smith was right — parents just don’t understand. This bit may seem a bit far-fetched (how does a kid wake up one day and not realize he is two years younger than he was when he went to bed?) and more a result of parental overprotection. As well, throughout the film, William may not outright lie about his age when approached by Rolling Stone, but he doesn’t come clean about the fact that he’s a newbie to the world of regular deodorant use and dealing with hair in funny places until he actually shows up at the office to go over his assignment with the magazine’s editors. Ultimately, however, none of the above is really as big a deal as other chronology obfuscation activities appearing in this film.
When the majority of the principal cast is introduced during the scenes outside of and backstage at the Black Sabbath / Stillwater gig in San Diego, William and veteran groupie / Band-Aid Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) are initially evasive about their real ages to one another. Eventually, she basically admits she's 16 — albeit, a well-seasoned 16 — while he eventually cops to having only been on the planet a mere 15 years. Now, it’s never actually revealed how old Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and the other members of his band are, but let’s do a shit-ton of inferring using what we know about common life experiences to suss this out for argument’s sake.
We can assume that the already once-divorced Hammond is already at least a year into having an ex-wife. I’m being generous with that estimation when you consider that he and his ex have apparently come to a place of friendship. Anyone who has ever tried to rebuild a relationship and remain friends with an ex after a breakup — let alone a divorce — knows this sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight. It’d take even longer to reestablish things post-divorce with him being in a touring band in the 1970s, an era without cell phones, texting, Skype and/or FaceTime to help with communication. Add to that his being in Stillwater, a band on the cusp of what is at least their second album. The idea of overnight success is just that: an idea. So, we can assume there must have been a few years in there where the members came together to form the band, write songs and eventually get signed. Sure, Black Sabbath released an album a year for the first few years of their existence, so some slack can be cut on this point, but on the other hand, Stillwater had to have been somewhat long in the tooth to own their own tour bus. As well, I could’ve sworn there was mention of Dick (Noah Taylor), the band’s tour manager, saying something about having basically being on the road for the majority of 10 years' time, though it’s unclear if he’s referring to 10 years as Stillwater’s TM or working in the business in general. All things considered — and taking into account the luxuriousness of the band members’ moustaches, beards and sideburns that indicate there are more than a few rings in the tree stump — Russell would have to be at the very least in his mid-20s, maybe even his early 30s on the top end.
So, at the Sabbath show when everyone meets everyone else and Russell wants William to relay a message to Penny that, “We want her around, like last summer,” reading between the lines, it’s basically saying that he and the band had her as part of their harem on a summer tour the previous year. This implies at least a yearlong history of "relations" with a minor. In most states of the union, this would make Russell a statutory rapist at best and a full-blown ephebophile at worst. And even if Penny, as it’s brought up, was the first Band-Aid to “put an end to the sex” and have it now be about “just blowjobs,” it still means she was being passed around by the Stillwater camp shortly after leaving her tweens.
And it goes both ways in this movie. During the scene where the Band-Aids are bored in a Midwest hotel and William is trying to write while everyone else is partying, Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) doesn’t seem to have an issue with that fact that he’s only 15 when she turns to her fellow gaggle of groupies and proclaims herself hell-bent on “deflowering the kid.” While Sapphire’s age isn’t revealed, it would be logical to assume she’s a bit older than the others, as she makes a distinction about the age difference between her and William, seeing him as “the kid” he actually is. She certainly has no hang-ups with acting like a modern-day Texas school teacher by pulling him away from his work and forcing herself on him. She may present herself with the proverbial heart of gold when she speaks up for William’s good character during a conversation with Elaine, but the rampant drug use and the way she phone flirts with the dude from Rolling Stone indicates there’s a bit of sexual predator to her as well.
But back to Russell Hammond, who, in his role as the de facto leader of Stillwater, displays his egomaniacal and controlling sides in the way he relates to his bandmates. He puts on the rock ‘n’ roll airs by inviting William to tag along, but continually refuses to grant the interview that would allow him to actually do his fucking job, and passive-aggressively pines for Penny in light of all the mayhem that follows this entourage around. He’s often captured staring at the 16-year-old groupie with a longing desire and a near-winsome ache before his gaze transforms into the look of someone planning how to murder and bury the pieces he cuts her body into. Penny often catches him staring at her lasciviously and, as most teens hanging in the backstage throes of their rock ‘n’ roll heroes, seems appreciative of the attention. William will catch them ogling each other, exchange glances with Penny and get stare-downs from Russell, who looks like he’s trying to non-verbally get the point across that she is his. And it goes on and on over the course of the film. This movie is second only to a season of 24 when it comes to sidelong glances and their potential double and triple meanings. When Russell loses Penny and her fellow Band-Aids in a poker game to another band of classic rockers (Humble Pie, it turns out. Wonder if the studio’s legal department or the band itself ever considered any of this information?), well, there shouldn’t be much to say about how much he values his supposed love / muse / underage road conquest by ponying her up in a game of chance in order to get them off the scene before his unknowing ex shows up for their big New York City gig.
So, what’s the point or moral of all this? Admittedly, I don’t know. At Almost Famous’ heart, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale that’s supposedly based on director Cameron Crowe’s experiences touring with the Allman Brothers, Zeppelin and the Eagles, amongst others — a love letter to the music that backstopped his coming of age, as it were — with the Russell Hammond character designed as a composite of various members of those bands. Really, the only people who actually know how much of this has any bearing in reality have probably OD’d or already written tell-all books, a few of which I should have read before diving into this matter. The sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll part of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will forever be half-truth, half-reimagination, but there are obvious parts that I hope are not based in reality. Certain critics have bemoaned Crowe for holding back on the real debauchery of the era in this film. I don’t know what more they’re looking for or wanting, but with undertones involving multiple incidences of statutory rape, our hope is that anyone choosing to go back and watch / rewatch this hasn’t had the experience ruined and the entire movie reframed in consideration of the above realizations. It’s still a good flick to while away a couple rainy day hours, but whether it was a gross oversight or not, the predatory sex offender angle should open the door for a few discussions around the ol’ bong sometime, even if you just want to call me out for being a hornets’ nest-poking sack of shit. They used to say that rock ‘n’ roll is a young person’s game, but c’mon, man — there are limits.