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On being sweet: ‘Almost Famous’ and the pipe dream of the music writer

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JUNE 22, 2023

William Miller is not a sweet guy.

In a climactic altercation between “Almost Famous” director Cameron Crowe’s biographical self-insert character and rock ’n’ roller Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Miller launches into a tirade worthy of comparison to the infamous “I’m a weirdo” monologue of “Riverdale’s” Jughead Jones. 

“Sweet? Where do you get off?” Miller (Patrick Fugit) said. “Where do you get ‘sweet?’ I am dark and mysterious and pissed off! And I could be very dangerous to all of you! I am not sweet! And you should know that about me! I am the enemy!” 

What these monologues share is a lack of self-awareness of the character uttering them, a bloated sense of masculine self-importance directed at sympathetic female characters who somehow stomach these lines without bursting into fits of scornful laughter.

Perhaps this cringiness can be attributed to boyish immaturity — the young writer attempting to enshroud himself in mythos and mystique while really being an insecure amateur. But even “Riverdale” acknowledges something that “Almost Famous” fails to see: truly gaining mystique — to become a writer and command that respect doesn’t happen overnight.

Unless you’re a sweet guy like William Miller.

“Almost Famous” is a film released in 2000 about the rock ’n’ roll scene of the early 1970s. Within the first ten minutes, we see several excellent outfits and several exasperating instances of privilege at work. 

Miller’s older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) leaves home to become an airline stewardess, much to the disapproval of her mother Elaine (Frances McDormand). Anticipating her younger brother’s impending adolescent angst, Anita sneaks him a paisley duster bag of her “banned” vinyls: Joni Mitchell, The Who, The Beach Boys, etc.

Fast forward several years later, William Miller is a teenager looking to get into the fine and stable career of music journalism. His mentor, the legendary Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), gives the lad some advice: Don’t do it.

But as Miller’s mom drives him to his first assignment covering Black Sabbath, a lot of pressing questions trail off into free-spirited oblivion.

In an earlier scene, Elaine praises her son’s precocious nature while chiding Anita for being “rebellious and ungrateful of [her] love.” Though this establishes her preferential treatment toward William, it’s unclear why she later supports his ventures as a rock music reporter. If all Anita wanted to do was listen to some records, why does Elaine drive her precious son straight to the lair of the beast — an interview with a band?

While she may be biased toward her son in general, it’s Miller’s “sweetness” that is largely referenced as the overall source of his success. 

As he tries to get backstage for press coverage, he is turned away for not being “on the list” and is told to go wait with the girls. But the girls in question are not just girls, they’re self-proclaimed “Band-Aids,” a label that does little to stop them from being manipulated by the musicians they follow. 

One such “Band-Aid” (Fairuza Balk)  picks up a phone call from Elaine meant for Miller. She tells Elaine not to worry about him, that he’s doing great at his job because he is “sweet:” he has earned the trust of the band, and in return he receives the documentable truth. He is privileged to both opportunity and information because of the kind of person he is.

While Lester Bangs stands in as the iconically caustic voice of reason throughout Miller’s journey, he nonetheless predicts Willliam’s trajectory before the plot unfolds: “There’s fucking nothing about you that is controversial, man,” he says, “God it’s gonna get ugly, man — they’re gonna buy you drinks, you’re gonna meet girls, they’re gonna try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs. …”

But it is this very “uncontroversial” attribute that makes Miller controversial in the first place.

By simply being “sweet,” not to mention male and white, Miller is able to fall into the pipe dream of the music writer: He gets on people’s good sides, he gets backstage and he gets to miss half of his senior year of high school to follow a band around because he is respected as a professional instead of used and dismissed as a “groupie.”

All of this for a 15-year-old on his first assignment.

But this is not to say that “Almost Famous” is a bad film. It’s earnest, it’s fun and, more importantly, it contains Fairuza Balk looking fabulous, making these criticisms ultimately meaningless because Fairuza Balk heals all.

So, just as “Almost Famous” is frustrating in its depiction of the music writer as a component of the rock ’n’ roll ecosystem, it also illustrates a key aspect of the 1970s scene: It was full of confusion and hypocrisy, but, for some people, it was life-changing. And, despite its problems, it was magical.

Or at least that’s what Cameron Crowe wants us to think.

Contact Lilly Sayenga at 


JUNE 22, 2023