Hold Me Closer, Lester Bangs: Almost Famous At 20

It was twenty years ago today Cameron Crowe taught the band to play… well, almost.

On September 13th, 2000, I had driven almost an hour to find a theater that was showing Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s fourth film, on the opening night of its limited release. I was alone because I couldn’t convince anyone else to make the trek with me. I had spent the earlier part of the evening hanging out with friends, so I was at the latest show that theater had. Because of this, I was one of (maybe) ten people in the screening.

And that was fine, because I remember one thought rushing through my head as my brain absorbed every ounce of the film: “This movie feels like it was made just for me.”

As the film made it’s very short theatrical run, I probably saw the movie 20 times; sometimes by myself, sometimes having dragged along people under the promise that they needed to see this movie. You know the scene in Garden State where Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff, “You gotta hear this one song… it will change your life”? That was me, only I wasn’t an adorable seizure victim/galactic queen who was super into The Shins. I was a chubby 21-year old with an upsetting amount of comic book t-shirts, so I was, understandably, less convincing.

Dreamworks had no idea how to market Almost Famous, and because of that, it failed miserably at the box office, making only two-thirds of its $60 million budget back. And yet, no one can deny what an incredible success the film was. It earned Cameron Crowe an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, turned Kate Hudson (who, along with Frances McDormand, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) into a megastar, and single-handedly brought Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” into the public lexicon to the point where people think they have been singing the song for fifty years when, in reality, it only became a truly popular song when it was sung on Stillwater’s bus (something Elton will admit, in concert, as he thanks Cameron Crowe before playing this song).

Almost Famous is also one of the few films where the extended director’s cut (named Untitled) is better than the theatrical cut. Instead of releasing the stupid fucking Snyder cut of Justice League, HBO should just show Untitled to show people a good fucking movie. In 2000, Roger Ebert called the film the best film of the year, and of course he’s right because he’s Roger Goddamned Ebert. However, it’s also the best film of the century so far.

And it’s personified by one brilliant scene.

Let me set the stage as best as I can:

Almost Famous is Crowe’s quasi-autobiographical telling of when he was a rock journalist for Rolling Stone while also being a high school student. Crowe changes a lot of names, but admits that most of the scenes are based in some part of reality.

The film’s protagonist is William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year old wunderkind who loves rock music despite the disapproval of his overprotective mother (McDormand). Getting his first assignment for Rolling Stone, Miller is tasked with writing about Stillwater, (a band Crowe has said is an amalgam of Led Zepplin, The Allman Brothers, Lynryd Skynyrd, and Eagles) a mid-level band (think Kings Of Leon) dealing with rampant infighting.

Miller’s days on the road with Stillwater are an overwhelming experience: the band is pressuring him to write a piece making them seem like true stars, while William is also falling hopelessly in love with Penny Lane (Hudson), a young devotee and follower (she uses the term “Band-Aid” opposed to “groupie”) of the band who is in love with their lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, never better). There’s sex and drugs and airplanes and fighting and so much rock and roll. William is missing deadlines and his high-school graduation, and finally has one last night to finish his piece. Not knowing what to do, he calls his mentor and friend Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

And now you’re caught up.

Before we talk about this scene, it’s important to me that we discuss just how perfect the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was.

There are few actors who brought as much humanity to their roles as Hoffman did, and that’s why he’s one of the greatest actors to ever appear on screen. His IMDb page is just filled with role after role where you think, “Oh shit, he’s so gooooood in that.” If a movie he was in was bad, he was the best part about it. Hell, if a movie was great, he’s probably the best part about it, also.

Despite only being in Almost Famous for four scenes (apparently, he was only on set for a week and battling a major cold while doing so), Hoffman’s Lester Bangs is the heart of this film. It would be easy to credit the performance to Crowe’s fantastic script, but Hoffman brings Bangs and his love of music to life. While not a straight impression, you see Hoffman channeling the great rock critic’s spirit.

It’s upsetting that Hudson or McDormand didn’t win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, as the Academy chose the talent but undeserving Marcia Gay Harden for fucking Pollak. It’s a tragedy that Hoffman didn’t win the Best Supporting Actor that year. And the fact that he didn’t even get nominated?

Well, that’s just proof that Christ died in vain.

So, we’re finally here. At one of the greatest scenes in all of film.

As we watch Lester talk William into doing what he already knows he has to do (writing a fully honest piece on Stillwater), we’re watching a masterclass in writing and acting. Hoffman is just Hoffman here; let’s face it, if he wasn’t exceptional, it would be surprising. But Fugit, in his film debut, is giving just as good as he’s getting.

Fugit is the only actor who, sometimes, feels like he’s being outshone by the star power of his scene partners (Hudson, Crudup, Hoffman, McDormand, etc.). But in this scene, he is fucking perfect. He has one line, two simple words, that he needs to deliver with absolute emotional honesty in order to make his character, and the entire movie, work. And when he says, “Me, too”… well, it’s over. Call the ballgame. We’re done. He wins.

Hold me closer, Lester Bangs.

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