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An Analysis of Almost Famous

Almost Famous is a comedy-drama film released in 2000 telling the story of William
Miller and his travels with the fictional rock band Stillwater. Almost Famous has a story
that follows the Hero’s Journey outline (for the most part), even though it may not appear
so at first glance. Let us analyze the archetypes of the story and how they fit into the
journey.
The hero of the story is a young adolescent William Miller, who is used to living a very
restrictive and guided lifestyle and whose mom may be guilty of “helicoptering” over
him. This is brought to light by the rebellious older sister Anita (“This is a house of
lies!”), who openly rebuked her mom’s repeated berating of Anita’s choice in music,
boys and habits. This finally forced her out of the house, but not before she passed on her
entire music collection to William. From the hero’s journey perspective, this was a mini-
“Threshold Crossing” for the hero, as his life changed after he started listening to classic
rock.
Elaine Miller, the mother of William Miller, is the threshold guardian. She was a major
influence on William’s background and how he was brought up and she did not like the
idea of William leaving with the band for Los Angeles, initially refusing the idea flat out.
“As long as I know, this is just a hobby”, she says while dropping William off at the
Black Sabbath concert. William eventually gets past this obstacle.

A few years after Anita walks out, we see William meeting his mentor, Philip Seymour
Hoffman’s rock journalist character Lester Bangs, at a record store. Lester acts as a
herald to his new world and offers him counsel for much into the story. Lester gives
William his call for adventure in the form of his assignment of writing a piece on Black
Sabbath. We notice that there is no refusal or hesitation on the part of the hero at any
point, as he’s fully aware of the path he’s ready to pursue. When he goes to the concert,
he meets a bouncer who refuses several times to let him go to cross to his threshold,
making him a threshold guardian of some sort. When he eventually gains entry
backstage, that is the moment where he truly crosses the Threshold; one can tell that there
was no turning back for him at that point. He also meets several other characters in the
story at that point. One of them is Penny Lane, a “Band-Aid” as she calls herself. Band-
Aids are different from groupies as in “they’re there for the music”. Penny Lane is a bit
of a Temptress in Hero’s Journey nomenclature, as she charms William into coming
along with the band to Los Angeles. Later on, when he asks to go home, she replies with
“You are home”. He also meets the band members of Stillwater, who can be classified as
shapeshifters, due to their love-hate relation with William. (Curiously, this was also
predicted by William’s mentor Lester Bangs, who prophetically asked him to guard
himself from fake friends as Rock and Roll was full of them.) Some of the band
members, like drummer Ed, band manager Dick and manager’s manager Dennis also
provide Comic Relief and could be classified as tricksters. Once William gets the Rolling
Stones gig, his journey has well and truly begun.
On the road, William faces many tests and encounters. His mother repeatedly calls him at
various points to check on him and to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble. Many times it
is quite evident that William is holding himself back as he imagines his mother’s reaction
to him being involved in something scandalous. After promising his mother that he would
be home in time for graduation, he failed to get to San Diego before the day of the
ceremony and Elaine went alone to the event. Elaine then starts to realize that her son
may be slipping away from her hands, and even has a mini-emotional breakdown in one
of the class she teaches, screaming “Rock stars have kidnaped my son!”
The biggest problem William faces (and which is also the backbone of the movie) is his
repeated attempt to interview the lead guitarist of Stillwater, Russell Hammond, which he
finds to be surprisingly difficult due to Russell’s unpredictable behavior. He also faces a
problem of his growing love for Penny, which she never reciprocates in the same way.
Penny wants the attention of Russell, who thinks of Penny as nothing more than a fling.
This is evident when he allows Penny and the other Band-Aids to be traded off in a game
of Poker.
Midway through the movie, William and Russell find themselves at a house party full of
teenagers where Russell drops acid and William makes himself responsible for taking
care of the now-heavily drugged Russell. He later proceeds to climb on to the roof of the
house and proclaim “I am a golden god!” before jumping off the roof into the swimming
pool. Next morning, while being escorted out of the house by Dick, Russell mistakes
William for being a cop and yells at him.
William faces his biggest ordeal when Penny overdoses on Quaaludes after being rejected
by Russell in New York. William’s own love for Penny made him follow her when she
left the restaurant in tears, and luckily for her his presence of mind saved her life. In this
case, he receives a reward for the ordeal when Penny thanks him and reveals her real
name for the first time, something that no one else is aware of. She lets him take her to
the airport and catch a flight back home to San Diego.
Soon after, he faces a near death situation, quite literally. This occurs when the plane
carrying William and the band members faces severe turbulence, which made it seem like
the plane was surely about to crash. This results in everyone on board bringing their
personal issues with each other out in the open. William at that point confesses his love
for Penny and admits how hurt he was with the way Russell treated Penny. That was the
lowest point for the band and there was palpable tension among the passengers of that
flight.
William was told by his mentor, Lester to be “honest and unmerciful” earlier, so this
applied to his Rolling Stones piece on Stillwater. He was further given license to do so by
Russel at the airport when he leaves the band to go to the Rolling Stones office. He
chooses to do so instead of protecting the interests of the band and its public image.
Another factor that highlighted Russell as a shapeshifter was the fact that even though he
gave William the permission to write freely on his article for Rolling Stones, he later
proceeded to refute the fact-checker about the authenticity of the article. At the end of the
movie, after an emotional encounter with William, he changes his stance again and calls
up Rolling Stone to confirm William’s initial article.
As for William the hero, he has his near-death experience (as per the Hero’s Journey
format) when he submits his article on Stillwater and later is informed that his story has
been rejected by the band. The band members (specially lead singer Jeff Beebe) were
vary of their public image and had expressed so multiple times throughout the movie.

The fear of being portrayed for what they actually were on the very prestigious Rolling
Stone magazine overcame them, and it prompted Russell to dismiss the fact checker’s
claims. This depresses William to such an extent where he spends the remaining amount
of his time locked up in his bedroom, burnt out and yet, transformed by his experience.
His road back starts with Penny tricking Russell to visit William, and Russell apologizes
to William and finally agrees to an interview, while William reconnects the guitarist with
himself and his passion for music. This also results in Russell giving the confirmation to
Rolling Stone for his piece and Stillwater getting to be on the cover of Rolling Stones
magazine, which was the lifelong dream of the band members.
The closing scenes of the movie shows closure for everyone. In the Hero’s Journey
depiction, this was the restoration of the worlds/mastering of the two worlds. William sits
down to breakfast with Anita and his mother, who have reconciled. Russell, Jeff and the
other band members are also getting along, ditching the plane for their old bus Doris.
Lastly, Penny is seen at an airport ticket counter, getting her wish to live in Morocco.
To summarize, Almost Famous is not a movie that fits the Hero’s Journey framework
very easily, but there are several interesting character archetypes and events that suit the
structure, and hence make it suitable for this assignment. This would explain the positive
reviews this movie has received and why it stood the test of time.

Vasant Menon