William Miller is our central character and protagonist, the main man of Almost Famous.
Okay, maybe "man" is a strong word. When we first meet William, he's an eleven-year-old kid. For the majority of the film, he's just fifteen. As an aspiring rock journalist, he's quite precocious, but he's still totally innocent in just about every way. Nevertheless, after lying about his age to land a gig going on the road with the band Stillwater, William is forced to grow up quickly.
William is a serious rock writer—but he's also a massive rock fan. He's thrilled to have the chance to hang out with some of the world's biggest rock stars as well as with the coolest groupies—sorry, Band Aids—around. And the kid isn't even old enough to legally drive. For much of the movie, William has this look of awestruck bewilderment plastered on his face, which reads something like, "I can't believe I'm actually here." His appreciation is genuine.
Unfortunately, the actual assignment proves more challenging than he imagined. First of all, William's time frame is limited: he must return home before his high school graduation. Those pesky little academic responsibilities, we know. Second, the young journalist is repeatedly unsuccessful in his attempts to secure an interview with enigmatic guitarist Russell Hammond—the true talent of Stillwater. Third, William is falling deeper and deeper in love with the mysterious Band Aid Penny Lane, who has meanwhile rekindled a romantic relationship with Russell. We know the hormones don't exactly help, either.
As William develops a connection with Russell, Penny, and the rest of the Stillwater family, it only becomes harder for him to fulfill his professional obligation to complete the story. Now he has a choice: he can remain a friend to the band, giving in to their pressure to have him present them in a favorable light; or he can become "the enemy," as singer Jeff Bebe puts it, writing an honest, critical exposé of Stillwater.
These are the moments that separate the men from the boys. Literally. William comes of age in a major way over the course of Almost Famous, receiving a crash course in everything from love and friendship, to professionalism and what it means to be "cool." Fortunately, he has some of the best teachers in the business. Lester Bangs, Penny Lane, his mother Elaine, and even Russell Hammond show William how to stay passionate, compassionate, and true to yourself. Even if that means you're "uncool."
Ultimately, young William emerges a much wiser person than he was before. But that spark of innocence, as well as his idealism and his unadulterated love for the music, remains intact. In this sense, William also plays the role of teacher. No, he doesn't "get the girl" in the end; Penny Lane will be held down by no man. But William's love for her literally saves her life, helping her find within herself the strength she needs to rediscover her true identity and leave the world of rock and roll.
Meanwhile, Russell, Jeff, and the rest of Stillwater, in their struggle to appear cool, lose touch with their love for the music. It takes a true fan, a genuine lover of music like William—who is there for all the right reasons—to help get them back on track.
We guess he really is the man.
Penny Lane is the most iconic character in Almost Famous. Heck, in many ways, she is Almost Famous. This Band Aid extraordinaire is deeply mysterious, yet effortlessly disarming; immensely confident, yet infinitely vulnerable. There's a reason why William falls in love with her pretty much from the moment they meet.
To the untrained eye, Penny Lane might seem like a groupie. She'd be the first to tell you, however, that this would be a profoundly inaccurate assessment. "Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous," Penny tells a confused William, when he makes this mistake. "We are here because of the music; we inspire the music. We are Band Aids."
Thus, Penny plays the role of artistic muse for Russell Hammond, the talented guitarist of Stillwater. "He's my last project," she tells William, hoping she can do her part to inspire greatness from Russell.
William, meanwhile, is totally mesmerized by the enigmatic Band Aid. In many ways, Penny embodies the music they all love so dearly. She's captivating, soulful, and romantic, full of heart and emotion—the very essence of rock and roll. Rock and roll is nuanced, and so is Penny; with Penny Lane, there is always more than meets the eye.
When Penny Lane dons her nighttime sunglasses and trademark fur coat, she becomes Penny Lane the legendary Band Aid. This Penny Lane is a total showstopper, fearless and mysterious, exuding confidence from every pore. But underneath the coat, behind the sunglasses, there is a certain vulnerability, openhearted and bittersweet. She is Joni Mitchell's "River," and she is "The Wind" by Cat Stevens.
Of course, things get complicated when Penny falls in love with Russell. Her mantra to her fellow Band Aids is one of non-attachment—people will come and go, but the music will always be there for you. Needless to say, this is much easier said than done, and it's questionable as a long-term philosophy of life.
When Russell breaks her heart, it's the end for Penny Lane the Band Aid. Whether or not her overdose was intentional, the result, either way, is the death of the Penny Lane persona. Revealing to William her real name—Lady Goodman—and leaving New York for home, she hangs up the fur coat for good. Her Band Aid lifetime has run its course.
In the film's final montage, we see Penny finally on her way to Morocco. She is going to take control now and create a new identity for herself. Before she leaves, however, she puts Russell in touch with William, as one last act of compassion toward the two men who drew so much inspiration from her. For Penny Lane, regardless of her Band Aid persona, will always remain heartfelt, powerful, and soulful—just like the music she once inspired.
Russell Hammond is the guitarist—and the real talent—of Stillwater. On stage, with an axe in his hands, he is an effortless powerhouse, the heart and soul of the band. Off stage, he is unassuming, carrying with him a quiet mystique. He is both magnetic and enigmatic, a bona-fide rock star.
Of course, that's where the trouble is. Russell's the coolest dude in the room, but he doesn't ever really show his true colors. We get the sense that he means well, but all he ever seems to do is make life difficult for those around him. He clashes with Jeff and the rest of Stillwater. He repeatedly defers William's request for an interview, ultimately stabbing the young journalist in the back by pulling the plug on the entire story. And he breaks Penny's heart without so much as a second thought.
But for some reason, everyone keeps coming back from more.
The thing is, just like William and Penny, we too are captivated by Russell. Heck, we like Russell. For much of this allure, we can credit the amazing performance of actor Billy Crudup. Cameron Crowe actuallt wrote the role with Brad Pitt in mind. Now, don't get us wrong, we love us some Brad Pitt, but it's hard to imagine this guy in the role of Russell Hammond. Crudup's performance, on the other hand, is effortless, nuanced, yet totally charming—just like the character he plays.
But despite his tremendous charisma and allure, Russell is a profoundly conflicted individual. He feels trapped in Stillwater, unable to realize his full potential as an artist. However, he still feels an obligation to his band-mates, as a superior musician, to stick it out for their sake. This is where some of his narcissism shines through, which infuriates the already jealous Stillwater singer, Jeff "Walking-Inferiority-Complex" Bebe.
For much of the film, we see Russell wrestle with these pressures, all the while losing touch with the passion for rock and roll that made him great in the first place. He begins his "I'm on drugs" episode in Topeka with a search for what is "real." Needless to say, "real" is probably the last word that comes to mind when we picture Russell on the roof of a fan's house screaming, "I am a golden god!"
What is real, however, is the next morning, when the band, and Penny, and William—all of whom Russell has alienated—embrace him back into the family to the tune of "Tiny Dancer."
In the end, Russell does the right thing. Of course, he needs Penny—who has moved on from Russell and the Band Aid life completely—to guide him there. He tells Rolling Stone the truth. And he gives William a proper interview, finally opening up to the young reporter—and by extension, the world.
At the end of the day, Russell's road is not without casualties. He blows it big-time with Penny, and he very nearly blows it with William, as well as with his band. But he has a good heart, and he ultimately understands that he needs to be a better lover, band-mate, and friend. We think Elaine Miller put it best: "There's hope for you yet, Russell."
Based on Cameron Crowe's real-life mentor of the same name, Lester Bangs is William's spirit guide—a veteran rock critic, whose cynical, hilarious perspective on music—and life—is instrumental in the young journalist's development.
Lester is unafraid to voice his sarcastic perspective on everything from Jim Morrison ("a drunken buffoon posing as a poet") to the current state of music ("99% of what passes for rock and roll these days, silence is more compelling")—but he is also deceptively heartfelt. "Lester had a strain of compassion that he begrudgingly indulged," Crowe says of the real-life Bangs. "A sentimental guy that would puke if you called him sentimental." In Almost Famous, this compassion and sentimentality shines through in Lester's guidance of William.
Lester doesn't have to take William under his wing, but perhaps he recognizes something of himself in the young journalist—a certain idealism, a purity in William's love for the music. As someone who knows what it takes to be a successful music critic, as well as someone who intimately understands the challenges of being uncool, Lester is there for William in a way that no one else can be, In fact, as Lester declares, "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you're uncool."
Lester helps reassure William in this tender moment, providing perfect advice for the young journalist as he searches for the strength to complete his story.
As a rock critic, meanwhile, Lester believes that his primary obligation, always, is to the music; he will not allow for the integrity of rock and roll to be compromised by the rock stars. The musicians are too preoccupied with appearing cool to actually focus on the music itself, Lester argues. That is why he advises William to be "honest and unmerciful" to Stillwater.
Lester also anticipates the commercialization of rock and roll, the business interests that have begun to co-opt the music for the sake of profit. The Dennis Hopes of the world, he believes, are the sworn enemy of rock and roll. And just like the musicians obsessed with their own stardom, this money-first attitude is compromising the integrity of the art form.
The late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman captures Lester's essence in Almost Famous marvelously. It's clear how significant a figure Lester was in Crowe's own life, just as he is for William here. Though the real-life Lester Bangs passed away in 1983 from a drug overdose—just like the actor who portrayed him, 31 years later—he lives on in spirit in Almost Famous—in all his jaded, romantic, cynical, wise, and totally "uncool" brilliance.
You really don't want to cross Elaine Miller. She'll lecture you to death.
Elaine is William's mother, a college professor with a knack for calling 'em how she sees 'em. She is an intellectual, she's fiercely independent, and she makes it absolutely clear which elements of society she deems immoral. This list includes—but is certainly not limited to—rock and roll, which she does not allow in her home. This environment is simply too stifling for Anita, who cannot stand her mother's restrictions and her preferential treatment of the precocious William.
Elaine's dream for William is that he will become a lawyer, and she gets pretty bent out of shape about his new-found passion for rock writing. But she manages, nonetheless, to support him the best she can. Though William probably hears her mantra of "don't take drugs" in his sleep, it's clear that Elaine cares deeply about her son and will do her darnedest to keep him on the path to success. She already lost one child—she would be devastated if it happened again.
Eventually, however, Elaine realizes that rock writing is, in fact, William's dream. She wanted her kids to succeed on her terms, at the expense of their own passions and aspirations, and that's what drove her daughter away. When Elaine and Anita reunite at the end of the film, each woman understands that the other was just doing the best they could. They just needed a bit of distance and time to see.
In the end, William and Anita turn out to be extremely independent, intelligent, and passionate individuals—just like their mother. Though she can be overbearing at times, Elaine always shows tremendous love for her kids. Her goal is to help them become the best human beings they can be, by equipping them with the substance and rectitude to navigate what she sees as an increasingly immoral world.
We think, ultimately, she succeeded.
When Anita Miller gifts her little brother her entire record collection upon leaving home, there was no way she could have known the full extent to which this action would influence him. Anita opens young William's eyes to rock and roll. From then on, William's destiny is set.
As a teenager, Anita clashes with her mother. She's fed up with all the restrictions and limitations mandated by Elaine: in the Miller household, everything from bologna to rock and roll is banned. Anita has a boyfriend, Darryl, in whom she confides. "Darryl says that you use knowledge to keep me down," Anita tells her mother. "He says that I'm a 'Yes' person and you are trying to raise us in a 'No' environment."
Compounding Anita's frustrations with her mother is Elaine's expressed favoritism toward William. "Your Dad was so proud of you," Elaine tells her son. "He knew you were a predominantly accelerated child." "What about me?" asks Anita. Elaine sighs. "You are rebellious and ungrateful of my love." That's heavy for any kid to hear.
Unable to handle this "no" environment any longer, Anita decides to leave home, explaining her decision to do so with a song: "America" by Simon and Garfunkel. Music is Anita's main refuge amidst the angst and aggravations of being a teenager. So it's a big deal when she entrusts this special part of herself to William. "One day, you'll be cool," she tells her little brother, knowing with utmost certainty that it'll be the truth.
What would Stillwater be without its loud, insecure, and totally hilarious lead singer? Absolutely nothing, Jeff Bebe would say. Jeff has got some charisma, but he's desperate for the same level of attention received by the more vastly more talented—and infinitely more mysterious—Russell Hammond.
Perhaps Jeff's plight is summed up best when the band nearly leaves him behind at a gas station. "Oh, it's okay, I'm easy to forget. Just leave me behind!" he shouts, starting to run after the bus. "I'm only the &$*#!@ lead singer!"
It's clear Jeff is hungry for attention from the way he talks to William—he's the only guy in the band who actually gives an interview—down to the way he dresses—all blinged out belt buckles and bright colors. As he primps for the San Diego show by greasing up his hair with shaving cream, he waxes poetic about the meaning of rock and roll. It's only later that he realizes how ridiculous he sounds: "'Rock and roll can save the world?' 'The chicks are great?' I sound like a dick!"
In his hunger for approval, there are times when Jeff definitely gets petty. He blows the whole T-shirt incident out of proportion, seizing the opportunity to give Russell an earful. Much of his frustration comes from the fact that he feels like he doesn't get the credit he deserves. "I work as hard, or harder, than anybody on that stage," he tells Russell. "You know what I do? I connect. I get people off! […] And yet," he continues, "why do I always end up feeling like I'm a joke to you?"
Maybe some of Jeff's concerns are valid. But he just can't help getting petty again, discrediting everything he just said by telling Russell that his "looks have become a problem."
Aboard the airplane, Jeff's jealousy comes out again. "You act above us. You always have," he tells Russell. "You just held it over us, like you might leave. Like we're lucky to be with you. And we had to live with it, man." There's no doubt that it would be challenging to always live in the shadow of your artistic partner, and in this moment, yeah, we sympathize with Jeff—especially given Russell's recent lameness. But though these two are polar opposites, from the way they act to the way they dress, Jeff and Russell are brothers. They'll fight, but they will always come back to one another.
In the movie's final montage, it looks as if Jeff and Russell have indeed moved on and gotten over their differences. They get back to playing music not for the popularity, not the girls, and not for the cool factor—but for the love.
One of the original Band Aids, Sapphire gets more screen time than any of her counterparts, aside from Penny Lane. When we first meet her, she has kind of a wild goth vibe going on—probably because she had just been hanging out with Black Sabbath. Of course, in Tempe, just before she runs into a wall, we see her rocking a cowboy hat, so we get the sense she's a pretty free spirit.
Sapphire delivers a few pieces of very important news throughout the movie. First, she happens to be the one who picks up the phone in Tempe when Elaine calls, trying to reach William. "Is this Mary Anne with the pot?" Sapphire asks. Elaine is not amused. She explains matter-of-factly that she is William's mother, and that she "knows what's going on."
Sapphire doesn't back down, though: she calmly tries to reassure a worried and frustrated Elaine. "You should be really proud of him," Sapphire says. "[…] He respects women, and he likes women, and let's just pause and appreciate a man like that. You created him out of thin air, and you raised him right, and we're all looking out for him." She pauses before signing off. "This is the maid speaking, by the way."
Sapphire is confident and self-assured, and she has no problem doing what Russell later fails to do: she holds her own against Elaine Miller, the most intimidating mother around.
At the end of the film, Sapphire has a crucial conversation with Russell. She gives him an update on Penny and explains that everybody knows what he did to William. Ultimately, she reminds Russell what it means to be a true fan—"to truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts"—and she reminds him that he deeply hurt two of his biggest ones. Sapphire is passionate and poised (when she wants to be), and she has no problem telling it like it is.
The original manager of Stillwater, Dick Roswell has been a part of the Stillwater family from early on. He's a little rough around the edges, but he's fiercely protective of the band. We learn that Dick was brought in by Russell to manage the band because of their friendship. Unlike Hope, it's clear that Dick really cares about the band and everyone in it.
That doesn't mean he can't be a little scummy at times. He is the one who initiates the sale of Penny and the other Band Aids to Humble Pie—for $50 and a case of beer. Later, aboard the airplane, Dick divulges a secret to the band. "I just want you to know," he confesses, "if I took an extra dollar or two here and there… it's because I knew I'd earned it!" But Russell, Jeff, and Larry all share that they had been sleeping with Dick's former lover, anyway, so maybe it evens out?
With Stillwater's growing popularity, the record company smells money—that's where Dennis Hope comes in. Hope is Stillwater's new manager, sent in by the corporate machinery to squeeze every last dime out of the band. He is pragmatic, condescending, and 100% in it for the money. He is everything that Lester Bangs warns William about: the embodiment of the all-business, money-first mentality that is strangling the true artistry of rock and roll.
During confession time aboard that shaky airplane, Hope confesses that he committed a hit-and-run in Dearborn, Michigan. "I don't know if he's alive or dead," he explains, "but I'm sorry. Not a day goes by I don't see his face." We guess this shows that he has some semblance of a conscience, but it seems to be too little, too late. He quits his role as band manager just minutes later.
The band is quick to move on from Hope and reject the corporate exploitation of the music.
Based on the real-life journalist of the same name, Ben Fong-Torres is an editor at Rolling Stone magazine. He is William's primary point of contact on the road, checking in with him periodically and ensuring the young journalist stays on task. The actual Ben Fong-Torres knew Cameron Crowe was a youngster from the time he first offered him an assignment for the magazine, but the Ben Fong-Torres of Almost Famous has no clue about William's true identity—that is, until the end of the film.
Fong-Torres is a professional, an individual who takes his job very seriously. He is sympathetic to William, but at the same time will not allow the ineptitude of a new journalist to compromise the reputation of his magazine. "You're not there to party," he reminds William. "We've already got one Hunter Thompson."
Polexia Aphrodisia is one of the original Band Aids and a close friend of Penny Lane. Most notably, she gives William a play-by-play of Penny and Russell's interaction at the Riot House, revealing to a shocked and jealous William that he was Penny's excuse for coming. Polexia is also one of the primary instigators of young William's "deflowering"—a moment he probably won't soon forget.
Trivia: Anna Paquin, who plays Polexia, was originally cast to play the role of Penny Lane.
The quiet rhythm section of Stillwater, Larry and "Silent" Ed don't say a whole lot throughout Almost Famous. In fact, Ed has just one line in the entire movie. The two are solid musicians, but they aren't exceptional; they seem to align more with Jeff than they do with Russell in the band's internal power struggle.
Both guys get a bit more airtime in the director's cut, which includes a hilarious interview William tries to conduct with way cranky Larry:
"Larry Fellows, how would you describe your role in Stillwater," William asks. "What is the chemical you add to the chemistry?" "I'm the bass player," Larry responds grimly. "Right," says William, growing flustered. "And when you take that away, what would be missing stylistically? What chemical?" Larry looks at William for a moment, confused, before answering: "The bass?"