They misinterpreted the moral of the best rock 'n' roll film of all time.
Frank Trapper / Contributor
Regarded as one of the best rock 'n' roll movies of all time, Almost Famous has lost its cred online. Blogs publish listicles like "22 'Almost Famous' Quotes That Explain Why I'm Leaving Home to Become a Stewardess," while Pinterest pages are filled with pictures of Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) and her famous line: "It's all happening." Vanderpump Rules star Scheana Marie even got the phrase tattooed on her arm. Penny looks beautiful—she resembles a prototype of the Coachella flower crown princess, which is basically what Kate Hudson was as a 20-something—but the GIFs miss the film's harsh message about rock culture. Like Marilyn Monroe and Joan Didion before her, Penny has been reduced to a stereotype.
Penny is not actually the center of the film. Almost Famous tells the story of 15-year-old William Miller (then-unknown Patrick Fugit). While his classmates finish high school, he accepts an assignment from Rolling Stone to profile a B-list rock band called Stillwater, modeled after 1970s rock gods the Allman Brothers. They take William on tour. He looks up to them; he's a pale, nerdy virgin, and they're bearded rock stars with an endless supply of women like Penny. She sleeps with the lead singer, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), but tells William that she identifies as a "band-aid." She and her friends don't just fuck rock stars—they make them, advising their songwriting process and inspiring their music.
Writer/director Cameron Crowe, of Jerry Maguire fame, based Hudson's character on a real woman called Pennie Lane, whom he met as a teenage Rolling Stone reporter in the 1970s. "I didn't want to do a tragic portrait of groupies with needles in their arms," Crowe told Rolling Stone in 2000. "I didn't remember those people as vividly as the ones who would go on and on about Exile on Main Street. You'd wonder if they could get off on sex as much as they did on rock… Only later did I realize that they all broke the rules, got emotionally roughed up, and came back for more."
Crowe introduces Penny as the peak of cool. She dons the long fur coat and round gold-rim glasses seen on the motion picture's now iconic poster and runs toward the top of a ramp, where her fellow band-aids wait to get backstage at a Stillwater concert. "It's all happening!" Polexia (played by Anna Paquin) shouts. "It's all happening!" Penny yells back. William, the teen journalist, waits below them on the ramp. He clarifies he's a reporter, not a groupie. Penny interrupts him and walks down toward him. "You're not a what?" she asks like a pit bull in defense mode.
She dismisses William for assuming she just fucks musicians, but recognizes their shared interest in rock. Penny sneaks William backstage, where she gives him the advice she "always tells the girls": "Never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt; if ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends." She promises she only cares about Russell's music. After she finishes improving his artistry, Penny vows to live in Morocco for a year.
Some 40 years ahead of her time, Penny is the human embodiment of an aspirational Pinterest post—at least for the first half of the film. Crowe slowly unveils the downside to Penny's lifestyle. William's mentor, the groundbreaking rock journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) warns him of Stillwater and their pals, "God, it's gonna get ugly, man. They're gonna buy you drinks. You're gonna meet girls, they're gonna try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs. I know. It sounds great, but these people are not your friends. You know, these are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars."
William obliviously falls for Stillwater and their girlfriends anyway, until he overhears Russell selling Penny to another band for $50 and a pack of beer. He confronts Penny, and she refuses to believe him. "You've seen what's happened. Russell and I fell in love," she insists. "How much, I don't know... but this is the first time I've fallen for someone, really fallen... since Iggy [Pop], and I'm not happy about it." In a moment worthy of an Oscar, she breaks down. "What kind of beer?" she says, wiping away the one long tear falling down her face. Russell disbars her from the tour, but Penny crashes an afterparty. He pretends he doesn't recognize her. She goes back to her suite at the Plaza and overdoses on quaaludes. William saves Penny, but she's a completely different person to the glamorous It Girl at the start of the film. What's cool about being sold for beer by an asshole musician in a B-rate band?
William turns to his mentor, Lester, and he tells him he knew how William's journey would unfold. "We're uncool," he explains, before saying the true moral of the film: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."
Penny grasps the importance of being uncool on her own. She quits tour life and returns to Seattle. As the film concludes, she books a ticket to Morocco. She finds redemption, but at the cost of learning the brutal reality of rock 'n' roll.
Almost Famous's message has been lost on contemporary viewers. "If you're looking for some bohemian rocker-inspired costume inspiration, this is perfect! Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson, in the film Almost Famous is known for her cool boho vibe and THAT fur coat," wrote a fashion blogger on eBay. Part of the issue may stem from Hudson's public image. Although she received an Oscar nomination for Almost Famous, she followed it up with How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. She has agreed to play an awards-buzzy role in Lee Daniels's Richard Pryor biopic, alongside Oprah Winfrey and Eddie Murphy, but most of her public outings involve promoting her athleisure wear brand Fabletics. When audiences see movies, they associate characters with the actors inhabiting them. Emma Stone is a bubbly ingénue, and Dwayne Johnson a relatable beach bodybuilder. For most of the past decade, Hudson has been an aspirational Coachella mom off and on the screen.
It's logical for viewers to confuse the complexity of Penny, but it also makes sense that Hudson received an Oscar nod for the role. She understood the complexity of her role in 2000 and the horrible aspects of 1970s rock culture. "There's a sadness and vulnerability to Penny Lane's character," she told Rolling Stone. "I spoke to the ex-wives of some rock stars—whom I won't name—and there is a sadness and a mystery to all of the crazy things they did. It was fun, but it could also be painful for a woman in that world at that time."