ELAINE: I skipped you an extra grade. You're eleven.
Well, that's a rude awakening if we've ever heard of one. We know that William is a precocious kid, but this is still pretty devastating news for little prepubescent William. Why does Elaine want him to grow up so quickly?
ANITA: Look under your bed. It will set you free.
Given his immense passion for rock and roll, we cannot understate the impact of Anita's record collection on William's development. From this moment on, his path is set.
LESTER: You'll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.
As a seasoned rock journalist, Lester's take on life is pretty cynical. This initial conversation marks the beginning of his mentorship of the young, naive William. What would have happened to William without Lester's guidance?
ELAINE: Don't take drugs!
Elaine's motherly quip appears again in a note passed on by the concierge at the Tempe hotel—played hilariously by Eric Stonestreet, now famous for his role as Cam in Modern Family.
WILLIAM: Actually I'm sixteen.
PENNY LANE: Me too. Isn't it funny? The truth just sounds different.
WILLIAM: I'm fifteen.
William reveals his true age to Penny pretty much from the get-go. It turns out Penny isn't much older than he is... but the world of rock and roll sure makes them grow up quickly.
WILLLIAM: How 'bout Stillwater?
Doing his darnedest to put on his grown-man-voice on the phone for Ben Fong-Torres, William tries valiantly to seem older than he is. When Ben finally meets the 15-year-old William in person in the Rolling Stone offices at the end of the film, all he can do is laugh.
RUSSELL: When did you get so professional?
William finally corners Russell and surprises him with a series of sophisticated questions about life, love, and music. The fact that William is not taken seriously by the band—or by Penny Lane—begins to weigh on him.
WILLIAM: Sweet? Where do you get off? 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 the enemy!
In love with Penny and frustrated by the fact that no one takes him seriously, William finally loses his temper. He realizes that he has a certain amount of power as a rock critic, and he finally threatens to use it.
William, hopelessly in love, watches as Penny gets her stomach pumped to the tune of "My Cherie Amour" by Stevie Wonder.
He can't even legally drive, but William has already saved someone's life. For all her overprotectiveness, maybe Elaine is sort of right about some things. This is a tough situation for anyone to be let, let alone a couple of teenagers.
ELAINE: Yes, it's poetry. It's poetry of drugs and promiscuous sex. Honey, they're on pot.
It's clear from the beginning of the film that Elaine does not approve of rock and roll—or the culture that surrounds it. As William learns, she's not completely wrong—some of the stuff that goes on behind the rock-and-roll scenes really is kind of iffy—but why is Elaine so overprotective?
LESTER: These people are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.
Lester urges William to remain objective and critical when writing about the musicians. Rock and roll is about the music, first and foremost, Lester explains. It's not about popularity or looking cool.
ELAINE: Look at this—an entire generation of Cinderellas, and there's no glass slipper.
Elaine sees the rock-and-roll lifestyle as a dead end, a vice that will ruin her son's potential. Again, she's not completely and totally wrong—sure, William does end up just fine, but it also seems like the rock-and-roll lifestyle can be a dead end up if you let it become one.
RUSSELL: We play for the fans, not the critics.
When William first encounters Stillwater, Russell and the rest of the band make it abundantly clear that they aren't there to talk to a rock writer—or "the enemy," as Jeff Bebe calls him. The members of Stillwater eventually lose touch with this mission, however, as they fight amongst themselves over relative popularity and struggle with the pressures of the spotlight. They forget the very reason why they are there to play in the first place.
RUSSELL: And you can tell Rolling Stone magazine that my last words were…I'm on drugs!
From the rooftop of the Topeka party house, Russell makes a bold claim. Apparently "I dig music" isn't the right choice for LSD-soaked last words. Here, Russell falls victim to the drug scene that crippled so many great musicians of the era.
LESTER: Tell him it's a think piece about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.
Lester knows exactly what kind of story Rolling Stone wants: a pseudo-intellectual critique of the band itself, rather than an honest, imaginative discussion of the music.
DENNIS HOPE: If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.
New manager Dennis Hope represents the music industry: a piece of the corporate machinery that sees profit in rock and roll and will stop at nothing to capitalize on it.
Of course, the irony of Hope's argument is that Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones, is still going strong at the age of 70, not because of the profit (how much more money can he possibly make?), but for the love.
LESTER: You're coming along at a very dangerous time for rock and roll. The war is over, they won. And they will ruin rock and roll, and strangle everything we love about it.
Lester Bangs is firmly in the music-first camp. He does what he can to keep the focus on the music and the artistry. But he knows the war is lost. Folks like Dennis Hope have co-opted rock and roll for the sake of profit, squashing the very essence of the art.
Penny dances alone in the Cleveland auditorium to "The Wind" by Cat Stevens.
Crowe juxtaposes the introduction of new manager Dennis Hope and his corporate, consumer-oriented approach to music with a moment that embodies the purity and beauty of what rock and roll should be. Penny symbolizes the innocence and idealism of artistic expression, what will be compromised by the music-as-business mentality.
WILLIAM: You guys, you're always talking about the fans… she was your biggest fan!
William seriously lays into Russell and the band during their near-death experience aboard the airplane. Russell betrayed Penny—Stillwater's biggest fan—just like they've all betrayed every one of their fans by letting their egos get in the way of the music.
SAPPHIRE: They don't even know what it is to be a fan. Y'know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.
Sapphire, one of the original Band Aids, reminds Russell what it means to be a fan—something that Russell has long since forgotten. He realizes he has lost touch with the very reason why he became a musician. And worse, he has betrayed his biggest fan: Penny.
WILLIAM: What do you love about music?
RUSSELL: To begin with… everything.
With William's help, Russell gets back to the basics. He plays music for the love, and that's all that should matter. That's the passionate place the best art comes from, and also the antidote to the big-business mentality the band ultimately rejects.
ELAINE: I am a college professor. Why can't I teach my own kids?
Elaine Miller is an intellectual and a professor. She wants for her kids to be smart and moral, and she wants them to reach their full potential. She wants only the best for them. Somehow, though, things don't quite work out as she planned. Perhaps she has been trying too hard to make her kids do what she thinks they should do, rather than let them figure out for themselves what they want.
ANITA: I hate you! Even William hates you!
WILLIAM: I don't hate her.
ANITA: Yes you do! You don't even know the truth!
William doesn't want to get in the middle of the conflict between his mother and sister. That's no easy situation to be in as a young kid. Of course, there's not a lot of logic going on here: as with so many family spats, emotions run high—but often over pretty much nothing.
STILLWATER: Get on my back for a piggyback ride!
Stillwater is a family, and they bring William into the fold. But like most families, Stillwater is pretty darn dysfunctional.
William's mother uses the family whistle to find him after the concert.
Every family has their little quirks, and having their very own "family whistle" is just one of the Millers' many eccentricities. But quirky as it may be, this whistle demonstrates Elaine's attention to the safety and well-being of her children.
WILLIAM: My dad died of a heart attack, and my sister believes that my mom is so intense that she had to escape our family […] I mean, they don't even speak to each other anymore […]. It's good to talk about it.
William doesn't have many friends, so he doesn't get to share his story often. It's significant for him to finally have the space to vent his frustrations.
ELAINE: Could you give him a message for me… I know what's going on.
Elaine does not approve of the rock-and-roll lifestyle in the slightest. She associates rock and roll with commercialism, corrupted values, and—worst of all—drugs. Overbearing? Maybe. Wrong? We'll let you be the judge.
Everyone on the bus sings "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John.
"Like it or not," Cameron Crowe writes in the original script, "this is his family" (source). This note refers of course to Russell, who had walked out on the band the night before.
WILLIAM: I have to go home.
PENNY LANE: You are home.
William knows he has to leave the tour and return home, but Penny knows better. In many ways, this is the family William never had. Which family is more real? Do these families complement each other?
ELAINE: I didn't ask for this role, but I'll play it. Now go do your best. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell.
Russell certainly gets more than he bargains for when he hijacks William's phone conversation with Elaine. In that moment, Elaine becomes a parent to Russell, urging him, just as she urges William, to be the best he can be, and to do the right thing.
RUSSELL: Your mom kinda freaked me out.
WILLIAM: She means well.
At the end of the day, Elaine only wants the best for the people around her. Yes, she can be opinionated, and yes, she can be a handful. But she will fight for her kids at all costs.
ELAINE: I forgive you.
ANITA: I didn't apologize.
When Elaine and Anita finally reunite, hugging and sharing a playful laugh at Anita's comment, literal years' worth of tension is released.
ELAINE: Follow your dream. You'll still be the youngest lawyer in the country.
This seems more like Elaine's dream for William than William's own dream for himself. Elaine wants her children to maximize their potential, but she's hesitant to acknowledge their actual dreams and passions. For William, this passion turns out not to be law but rock writing.
ANITA: This song explains why I'm leaving home to become a stewardess.
For Anita, and later for William, your identity and the music you listen to are permanently intertwined. Rock music speaks to Anita so deeply that she actually uses "America" by Simon and Garfunkel to explain her decision to leave home.
ANITA: One day you'll be cool.
Anita leaves William with two things when she departs: her record collection and this prophecy. Those albums would soon solidify William's identity as a lover of rock and roll and spark a lifelong exploration of what it truly means to be cool—or uncool.
PENNY LANE: We are not groupies. Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music, we inspire the music. We are Band Aids.
The first thing we learn about Penny Lane is that she is no groupie—she is a Band Aid. She is firm in this conviction and confident in her identity—which, like William's, is firmly grounded in her love of rock and roll.
LESTER: Don't let those swill merchants rewrite you.
Lester, as resident life coach and rock guru, warns William not to lose his identity. The big rock stars and the big rock magazines will try to influence William, he says. But it is William's obligation—to the music and to himself—to stay strong.
PENNY: I always tell the girls, never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt; if you never get hurt, you always have fun; and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.
Life lessons from Penny Lane?
If only she could follow her own advice. She does end up taking things seriously, and she does end up getting hurt. William and Russell make the same mistake. But, of course, it's not really a mistake—if you never take things seriously, you've got nothing to lose… but you've got nothing to gain, either. Sometimes life hurts, and if you never get hurt, you're probably not really living.
RUSSELL: See, I grew up with these guys, but I can't play all that I can play. I'm past them as musicians. But the more popular we get, the bigger their houses get, the more responsibilities, the pressure, you know—the harder it gets for me to walk out on them.
Russell knows that in some ways, Stillwater limits his potential. He is conflicted, because as a musician, he has certain aspirations. But he also has this responsibility he feels toward his band-mates. His preoccupation with this conflict, however, prevents him from fully fulfilling either responsibility.
RUSSELL: From here on out, I am only interested in what is real. Real people, real feelings, that's it, that's all I'm interested in.
For a night, Russell becomes obsessed with everything that is "real." There's an integrity or purity that he thinks is disappearing from his life and from the world of rock and roll. Of course, in Russell's pursuit of what is real, he winds up shirking his responsibilities to the band and tripping on acid on a rooftop, yelling stuff like "I am a golden god." In other words, he gets more out of touch with reality than ever.
LESTER: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.
Lester's line to William in his greatest moment of self-doubt is a profound commentary on human connection. Lester knows what it feels like to be down and out, and he's there for William when no one else is.
RUSSELL: Maybe we don't see ourselves the way we really are.
Russell finally shows some self-awareness when he learns what William wrote about the band. It's one thing to be sure of yourself and your identity, but it's a whole other thing to delude yourself about the truth. William's piece is an eye-opening moment for the band: they have the power to change for the better.
They just have to accept that there's a problem first.