Industry of Cool

Why is Almost Famous one of my favorite movies?  Because, every time I watch Almost Famous, I pick up something new.  If you haven’t seen it, see it, it’s “about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom,” or so William Miller, the film’s protagonist will tell you.  The story really focuses on William, a Rolling Stone writer still in high school, as he follows Stillwater, a fictional band in the 1970s.  If you think this film is just about a rock band in the 1970s you are gravely mistaken.  The film functions as a coming of age story, which explores some popular themes like, first love, music and adolescence.  I don’t want to talk about any of those things though; I want to explore my favorite theme in the film, the idea of “cool”.  Some form of the word “cool” finds its way in the original screen play twenty five times and is uttered fifteen times in the uncut version.  The movie is about being cool; it is the main motive of nearly every main character in the film.  It is a subject that fascinates me, because let’s face it, for most of my life it has been my main motivation as well.  Almost Famous, addresses the desire to be “cool” on three fronts, the uncool, William Miller, the cool, Stillwater, and the guy who doesn’t care, Lester Bangs.

“One day you’ll be cool,” William’s sister Anita assures William, as she leaves home.  William, only eleven at the time, is far from cool. William skipped two grades making him the youngest in his grade.  The kids at school make fun of him for not having pubes, they don’t include him, and they call him the narc behind his back.  In high school the tormenting does not stop as he tells his mentor, rock journalist Lester Bangs, “They hate me.”  Anita, though, did not just leave him with an empty hope of one day being cool, but she also left him her record collection, the key to his eventual coolness, or so William hopes.  After meeting with Lester, Lester gives him an assignment to write for Cream Magazine.  While trying to get backstage to interview Black Sabbath he meets Stillwater, a band that almost immediately takes him under their wing.  He also meets the mysterious Penny Lane, who he falls far instantly.  Now backstage at a rock concert surrounded by beautiful women and rock stars, he finally feels cool.  The next day Anita’s boyfriend drops by, in the past he had been very dismissive of William, comments “You seem cooler,” giving William a high he never experienced before.  As he tours America with Stillwater, he goes to parties, has sex and sees the world but none of that remains.  In the end he sits alone at his typewriter, with just Polaroids.  The rock band that made him feel so cool no longer needs him.  In a late night phone call to Lester, Lester reminds him “You are not cool,” William responds, “I know, even when I thought I was I knew I wasn’t.”

Stillwater portrays the “cool kids”.  Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.  They drink with Bob Dylan, they have girls thrown at them and rock out to sold out audiences.  They do have something in common with William though; they too thirst for the idea of “cool”.  Jeff Bebe, the lead singer, worrisome of a Rolling Stone writer tracking them disses Rolling Stone claiming they “trashed Eric Clapton, broke up Cream, ripped Led Zeppelin, and wrote that lame story about the Allman Brothers that bummed Duane out before he died” however he ends his moans with “But it would be cool to be on the cover.”  Bebe displays a direct contradiction over being too cool for lame Rolling Stone and thinking how cool it would be to be in Rolling Stone.  Furthermore, Bebe never misses an opportunity to give William an interview, which he laces with rock cliques like “rock n’ roll can save the world,” “we play for the fans,” and “the chicks are great.”  While Bebe plays the part of the superficial front man, he is not alone in wanting to be seen as “cool”.  Russell Hammond, the guitarist with mystique and true star of the band, off the record communicates to William “I’ll tell you the truth…Just make us look cool.”  In a sincere moment Russell conveys a true insecurity he harbors to just be cool.  After, William writes his story, it horrifies Stillwater.  Jeff Bebe, exclaims “We come off… as buffoons…is it that hard to make us look cool,” once again alluding to their deepest held motivation, to just be cool.  Their road manager tells them they have to deny the story to Rolling Stone explaining “Let’s identify the goals; t-shirts, foreign markets, merchandising, happiness, realizing your dreams, cool.” Cool not coincidentally ends his plea as that strikes the band member the hardest.   They crave mystique even though they are rock stars they still fear not being cool enough.

Lester Bangs, an established rock journalist, plays William’s mentor.  He has been around the block and functions as the wise man in this story.  When William tells Lester, that his fellow classmates hate his guts, Lester flippantly responds “you’ll meet them all again in the long journey to the middle.”  Lester loves music but condemns “cool”.  He waxes poetic about the state of rock n’ roll saying “they are trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb…and the day it ceases to be dumb it ceases to be real…and then it just becomes an Industry of Cool.”  Lester uses the term cool disparagingly, the only person in the film that does so, to him cool is something fake.  He later muses to William “we are uncool, and while women will always be a problem for us most of the great art in the world is about that very problem.”  Again Lester rails against the idea of cool, as something empty, it lacks character.  Lester goes further declaring “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when you’re uncool.”  Once more lamenting “cool” as a superficial quality that holds no weight to what is really important.

Among the tapestry of Almost Famous there is a great thread of what it is like to be young and to just want to be cool.  Cool still motivates me; I don’t know why I still chase such an enigmatic quality because at the very least it doesn’t seem very cool.


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