“Penny, our friend, has gained another year. But long ago she threw it in gear.” Cameron Crowe first details the soulful and selfless side of Penny Lane, the heroine of his 2000 coming-of-age classic, with a poem. “She says she’s retired but we’ve heard it all before. She chose us, in Penny Lane we trust. She is a fan of this band, much more so than us.”
Loosely based on the director’s own teenage years as a music critic, Almost Famous follows William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a precocious 15-year-old journalist who accompanies the up-and-coming rock band Stillwater on their tour bus across America. Also on board are the group’s devoted muses, the Band-Aids, led by the free-spirited Penny (“God’s gift to rock ’n’ roll”) played to perfection by a beguiling Kate Hudson.
Crowe’s film not only succeeds in capturing the self-destructive behaviour of touring musicians, it’s also a potent love letter to the music itself and the escape it can provide a person. The story is told through the eyes of an idealistic kid who sees the real world, witnesses its cruelties and heartbreaks, and yet still manages to find that small glimmer of hope, initially in the form of Penny’s warm embrace.
Hudson auditioned four times for the role, turning down several other parts in the process. “[Cameron] saw me as the sister,” she later explained. Her persistence paid off: she was awarded Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes for her astonishing performance. I remember being captivated by Hudson from the very moment she appears outside the concert hall, stepping out of the shadows to reveal to William that she and her friends aren’t “groupies” but “Band-Aids”.
Her blonde curls and purple sunglasses are positively luminous in the dark sky, and her soft voice and bewitching eyes are enough to make William fall in love with her. Hudson brings a familiarity to Penny. She’s a girl we might have come across growing up, or a woman we’ve always dreamed of meeting, one who presents a lively exterior but is secretly terrified of showing vulnerability. The more time she spends with William, the more her defences crumble and the more open she becomes.
Penny is a role model. She’s ambitious and passionate, someone in tune with the spirit and attitudes of the era; though over the course of the film she slowly turns into a victim of its most disillusioning, misogynistic aspects. Hudson’s performance is heartbreaking, but what makes her character so relatable is that she is infinitely more complex than her breezy, fun-loving personality suggests.
This is most poignantly realised in the scene where Penny is shown dancing on a trash-covered concert hall floor, a single red rose swinging from her fingers in time to Cat Stevens’ ‘The Wind’. It feels like her own personal elegy for rock ’n’ roll and the life she is living. When she sits down and looks around the empty room, she realised that she is once again entirely alone. She’s dancing on the grounds of heartbreak, reflection, injustice and love, and it’s perfect.
Published 1 Mar 2020
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