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.