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."