Almost Famous, at its core, is a coming of age film. We watch the story unfold through William's eyes, and we accompany him on his transformative journey. William, however, is hardly your average fifteen-year-old kid. For one thing, probably not too many of his high-school peers got to cruise around the country on tour with a bunch of rock stars and groupies (sorry, Band Aids). William's forced to grow up quickly, learning about everything from responsibility and trust to professionalism, love, and heartbreak on the way.
Of course, William's not the only character who grows throughout the film—it seems like just about everyone changes for the better by the time all is said and done.
Cameron Crowe chose to emulate the title sequence of To Kill a Mockingbird, perhaps the greatest coming-of-age story in American cinema, to set the coming-of-age tone from the very start.
William isn't only a learner in this coming-of-age tale; he's also a teacher, helping other characters in the story realize their own potential, too.
Cameron Crowe has described Almost Famous as his "love letter to rock and roll."
Crowe, like his young protagonist William, lives and breathes rock and roll, and the heart and soul of the movie, fittingly, is the music itself. In 1973, however, rock and roll was at a crossroads. The movie, in part, is a commentary on the infiltration of big business interests into the music and on the commercialization of an art form that had been built on rebelliousness, uninhibited expression, and anti-establishment sentiment.
Think of it this way: a lot of people in 1973 were afraid that the freewheeling spirit of rock and roll was being tainted by moneygrubbers who just wanted to exploit the music for some moolah. Almost Famous celebrates the true essence of rock and roll: the purity, integrity, beauty, and inspirational quality it can have at its best, according to its fans.
When Stillwater struggles most, it is because the members have lost touch with their passion and love for the music.
William ends up doing the best thing a rock journalist could do for a struggling band: he helps them rekindle their passion for the music.
In his acceptance speech for winning Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars, Cameron Crowe shared that Almost Famous is not only a love letter to rock and roll but also to his family. Crowe's own mother, like William's mother, Elaine, did not allow rock and roll in the house when her children were growing up. Crowe's mother and sister, just like William's, also had some serious disagreements, and they did not reconcile until much later. But just like Elaine, William's own mother cared deeply about her kids.
Stillwater is kind of a family, too, if you think about it. And like any family, they have their spats. Ultimately, though, they emerge intact and stronger than ever—just like William's family. At the end of the day, our families are our families, and family trumps all.
The rock stars and Band Aids have combined to create their own funky family together on the road, creating a community where everyone is accepted, no matter how weird they are.
In some ways, Stillwater is the big, musical family William never had.
Ah, to be cool.
William spends a lot of the movie wrestling with this idea—what it means to be cool, what it means to be uncool, and the importance of finding one's identity. Meanwhile, his rock star counterparts are obsessed with the appearance of cool, pressuring William to portray the band to the fans in the most flattering manner possible.
Lester Bangs, on the other hand, has it all figured out: being cool is overrated. In their frantic clamoring to be cool, many of the characters in Almost Famous lose touch with their true identities. As they approach fame, Russell, Jeff, and the rest of Stillwater get especially caught up in the superficiality of coolness, losing touch with the very reason they play music in the first place—you know, for the love of it.
In the movie, there is a constant comparison between the world of rock stars and the "real" world. When Russell and the band lose touch with this "reality," instead becoming preoccupied money and coolness, things go downhill for them in a hurry.
When Penny puts on her Band Aid persona, she is supremely confident. But underneath the fur coat, there is a vulnerability she keeps hidden away.