In Cameron Crowe’s brilliant movie Almost Famous, a sage rock guru (played with boozy slyness by Philip Seymour Hoffman) offers the young William Miller, high school student cum aspiring rock journalist, a fifteen-year-old about to embark upon a decidedly atypical coming of age journey, a profound piece of advice.
“You cannot make friends with the rock stars.”
Would that we all needed this advice.
And William, remarkably, heeds it. He follows the fictional band Stillwater across the country, rocking out, taking notes, occasionally getting swept into wacky misadventures, but most of all watching as the band both breaks into the big time and threatens to come apart at the seams.
At one point, lead singer Jeff Bebe, played by Jason Lee as a man who has passionately embraced platitudes, an artist who believes in the Byronic myth, proclaims “Rock and roll can save the world . . . all of us together . . . But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music. And the chicks are great.”
In the end, William keeps himself aloof; he sacrifices his friendship for objectivity, and honestly describes Stillwater in a Rolling Stone story as the midlevel, mediocre band that they are. Rather, it is Penny Lane, the ‘Band Aid’ William mistakes for a groupie, who falls for Bebe’s vision. Key moment: she reverently lifts his pen from his notepad when she deems William too focused on notetaking during a concert. As she tells William, she is there “for the music.” And she slips into the myth; she falls in love with the guitarist, enigmatic rock god Russell Hammond, a charming man not expecting such commitments, and ends up sold to Humble Pie for fifty dollars and a case of beer. And so she attempts suicide.
What of Mormonism can we find in “Almost Famous?” The movie, viewed in this light, is about the places where we find meaning. Stillwater’s tour bus is one, Neverland, in its way; its inhabitants driven by romance and art and idealism. They cling to “the music,” and find beauty there. Cameron Crowe clearly loves it for that; but knows that the myth of the music lacks the power that in their more innocent moments his characters ascribe to it. Despite what Jeff Bebe says, the music is not life; it can do nothing for Penny. Russell leaves her, the band moves on to a new city, and Penny is left behind, cast out of Neverland into the world.
The world. This is a word in Mormon lexicon that often describes a place to fear, and Penny Lane certainly suffers desolation in the Stillwater-abandoned New York. Russell’s rejection severs her connection to the glory which sustained her, and in staring at that sun she has missed the altogether mundane way that William has fallen in love with her. But when she overdoses, it is he, not Russell, who saves her life, for there is no room on Stillwater’s bus for the casual details of everyday existence. Russell avoids Penny rather than dealing with her heartbreak, and when he, the self-proclaimed “golden god,” visits William at his mother’s home, it is with awkwardness and hesitancy and timidity; he does not know how to confront the fierce protectiveness of her love. Rock in Almost Famous finds meaning primarily in its own exhilarations, in its personal territories of stage and studio, and is uncomfortable elsewhere.
There are lessons to be learned here about boundaries of the sacred. Mormonism is as any religion, vulnerable to the dangers of rock and roll. Not the if-you-play-Stairway to Heaven-backwards-it-teaches-your-kids-devil-worship threat, but the Stillwater threat; that of becoming overly fascinated with ourselves and drawing the boundaries of the sacred to match up with cultural comfort zones. I remember driving to church once about ten years ago and instinctively switching the radio from Smashing Pumpkins to a classical station. At some level I believed that the Spirit prefers Bach to Billy Corgan, and that therefore while Monday or Thursday is okay for Billy, on Sunday, when one wants the Spirit, one must listen to Bach. Now I’m not so sure, on either count.
The point is not that it’s silly or hypocritical to prefer Bach on Sunday, but rather that I think there’s a danger in becoming too comfortable with ourselves, too settled in routine and familiar ways of seeking the sublime, too quick to believe that since there’s an organ in the Tabernacle (but not on Stillwater’s stage), there are no electric guitars (nor rock and roll) in heaven. One thing I love about Mormonism is the Thirteenth Article of Faith, the one which declares that, contrary to apocalyptic premillennialists who see only evil outside the borders of their faith, we are to seek after the lovely and praiseworthy outside of our own beliefs, folkways, and religion. This means that the “world” is not so menacing as we fear; and that there is joy to be had by meeting God in unexpected and seemingly mundane places. Jan Shipps has told us of a nineteenth century Utah wherein barn raising and ditch digging were invested with the holy, sanctified and made a form of worship entirely proper to undertake on the Sabbath.
William Miller is abandoned by Stillwater after his article is published. Only Russell tracks him down, wandering down foreign suburban streets to find William and apologize, to find some sort of meaning in truth and relationship. And when William asks him what he loves about music, Russell says, “To begin with, everything.”