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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Immortalization of Lester Bangs

"Be honest, and unmerciful."
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(Tiziana Fabi/AFP/GettyImages)

(Tiziana Fabi/AFP/GettyImages)

By Jeremy D. Larson

Philip Seymour Hoffman defined a rock legend, and, for better of for worse, made a lot of people want to be sardonic, surly rock writers. It was an emblem of what Hoffman could do best: make the uncool incredibly cool.

One of the greatest things about Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous is its tireless pursuit of something pure. It tries to ferret out those moments where – finally unburdened by social or moral strictures – a certain kind of clarity appears and defines your formative years. The film highlights a group sing-a-long to “Tiny Dancer” on a bus, losing your virginity to a trio of hippie Band Aids, and finding out that reporting the honest-to-god truth about a band is the best kind of journalism. It’s about finding the moments that make nostalgia so addictive as we get older. It’s a really good movie.

You have the young kid William Miller, a bastion of naiveté, whose sheltered upbringing and overbearing mother make his encounters with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll one of cinema’s biggest cannon balls into the deep end. As a precocious rock writer cutting his teeth interviewing bands and struggling to get published, the movie shines a light on one of his idols, a veteran writer and editor at Creem magazine, Lester Bangs. He’s introduced as someone who hates The Doors, loves The Guess Who, and gets his rocks off playing Iggy Pop at the crack of dawn on the radio.

When I was a kid, I watched Almost Famous hoping that one day I would be Lester Bangs or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Foolish of me to think that I – or anyone for that matter – could be on the level of those two men. I know now that there are few in this world, past or present, who could ever match the talent of Bangs, Hoffman, or Hoffman as Bangs.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin in the early ’90s, I never got my hands on much music criticism or music writing. But when I saw Almost Famous at 15 or 16,  I had a massive paradigm shift. Apparently there was such a thing as honesty in music? And there’s varying degrees of honesty in music? And some music, most music is just 100% BS? Take a poll of music writers and they’ll admit, perhaps with gentle coercion, that okay, yes, Almost Famous actually sort of spurred me to want to pursue this. It’s pretty much a cliché.

Hoffman as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous did for me what it did for many kids of my generation: he glamorized the idea of a rock writer. You could be around the rock stars, you could be a jerk, you could know it all if you could state your opinion in a kind of deprecating, “uncool” kind of way. High school guidance counsellors dreaded hearing the words: “I want to be a rock writer.”

Of course not everything was glamorous and idealistic about Bangs. Every word of warning, every sage caveat about the music industry spilled like acid from his mouth. His purity had been sullied by years in the business. Hoffman put Bangs’ irascibility and contrarian nature on his sleeve, shaking his damn head at the doe-eyed William Miller, knowing what this kid was about to get into. Instead of pragmatism there was bitterness, instead of optimism there was fatalism. Ahh, this was the dream.

In truth, Hoffman so precisely captured Bangs scraggled, jaded, vigilantly passionate persona in this movie that it remains to this day the definitive screen portrait of a rock journalist who helped define rock journalism.

I started out wanting to be an actor, and idolizing Hoffman’s performances as the tragic and lovable loser, from Rusty in Twister, to Brandt in The Big Lebowski, to Scotty in Boogie Nights. Maybe it was Hoffman’s preternatural ability to tap into the kind of impervious “uncool” that Bangs championed, but he made Bangs a real person for me and many other writers who would go on to read and absorb Bangs’ reviews, interviews, and essays of music criticism.

In the tragic passing of Hoffman, I have him to thank for so much. But, like many, his talent and ability to capture the essence of Lester Bangs was truly an inspiration. Without Hoffman, Bangs’ star would be just a little less bright.

It is Hoffman who delivers Bangs’ mantra to the young William Miller, which should be pasted on the desks and laptops of every writer in the world: “Be honest, and unmerciful.”

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