The most important thing I've ever learned about music writing came out of the mouth of Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Almost Famous."
As the scabrous rock critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman plays the part with a perfect mix of grumpiness and unkillable enthusiasm for what great music writing -- and music -- can tell us about ourselves. As he talks the young turk William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit) through his big Rolling Stone assignment, Hoffman's Bangs is a compass guiding Miller on the wildest ride of his life.
But he's guiding him toward a particular job: to document and understand everything he sees, and never get seduced into thinking he really belongs there. Hoffman's performance took a disheartening truth about the writing life, and made it feel like this outsiders' understanding was a deeper reward than sex and drugs and private jets.
Lester Bangs: Aw, man. You made friends with them. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.
William Miller: Well, it was fun.
Bangs: They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.
Miller: I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn't.
Bangs: That's because we're uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don't have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we're smarter.
Miller: I can really see that now.
Bangs: Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love... and let's face it, you got a big head start.
Miller: I'm glad you were home.
Bangs: I'm always home. I'm uncool.
Miller: Me too!
Bangs: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool.
Miller: I feel better.
Bangs: My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.
This was the first time I'd heard a great actor describe genuine uncoolness as a virtue. Even today, interviewing musicians never ceases to be this weird dance between loving someone's art so much that you want to jump inside and be overwhelmed by it. But you also have to document it as it is. You're there, but you're never truly supposed to be there. To love and defend music, you have to get at its real heart, and that means being set apart from it.
That sense that there's truth in isolation and observation made me want to have this job. I knew I wanted to be a music writer after seeing Hoffman as the grizzled Bangs, cutting right to the marrow of Miller's not-belonging, but then introducing Miller to the underground of uncool people wringing something deeper out of music.
His turn as Bangs was one smallish role in an incredible career that came to an impossibly sad end this weekend. But it was the one that gave me my first glimpse of what good criticism can achieve -- not coolness, but truth, and that lasts longer. And it's a damn shame that Hoffman, who articulated hurt and humor and truth on-screen like few others, won't be home anymore to remind us of that. (Watch the scene below.)
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