Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

April 8, 2024

Iconic, Chaotic and Timeless: Film and the Women of 70s Rock-and-Roll

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There has arguably never been a more captivating character than the wild ’70s female rock star, or rock groupie, and they have arguably never been better presented than in the movie Almost Famous and the TV show Daisy Jones and the Six. Today we will discuss these projects’ iconic stars: Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane and Riley Keough’s Daisy Jones. 

Though both of these stories have male leads, the men simply pale in comparison to their female counterparts. It does not matter how handsome or talented Sam Claflin’s Billy Dunne or Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond are — their spotlights are stolen because the women dancing across our screen with their bellbottoms and wild hair are ethereal, completely captivating. Despite being ’70s characters — Almost Famous is set in 1973 and Daisy Jones in 1977 — there is something timeless about them, something which connects deeply with female viewers. They are like older sisters, completely terrible influences, but important role models nevertheless, who inspire young girls to become the people they want to be. 

Their stories and choices are not perfect: Both girls nearly die in the glamorized whirlwind of ’70s drug culture. However, there is something about this too which is enthralling — the complete freedom and carelessness of these characters as they navigate the dangers of the world — taking free spirit to a completely new level and creating figures entirely unlike anyone else. Though there are endless amounts to analyze, we will focus on three key aspects of these iconic characters: the facades, backgrounds and downfalls, and power and the muse.

 The Facades

A facade is a superficial appearance that people hide behind. In the cases of Penny Lane and Daisy Jones, this includes their styles, monikers and demeanors. In truth it may be these fake personas that we find so captivating. Every person has their weaknesses, their struggles and doubts; however Penny and Daisy hide these away behind completely confident shields. The more we see of these characters, the more we want to know what is behind that armor. It is precisely their attempts to make themselves uncomplicated that makes them all the more complex. 

Penny Lane is a character of contradictions. She insists throughout Almost Famous that she is there for the music and not the men, despite spending the entire movie sleeping with and pining over Russell. She is a leader, the clear head of the Band Aids; however, she dutifully follows the band wherever they go. There is also much about Penny that is ambiguous — we are not sure how old she is or how long she has been in the world of rock-and-roll. She has so many different sides and personas that should come together to create a muddled character, but instead shape into a incredibly well-developed figure because of Hudson’s masterful acting. 

And indeed, as Hudson dances through the story in her trademark fur-lined coat, you cannot help but focus on her, cannot help but feel that you know her. She is the inner child in all of us — desperate only to have fun and live life to its fullest. Hudson believes this is why the movie was so popular, because these young characters, “allowed the love of music and this time, that innocence… I think it brings people hope… when they see it, they’re hopeful for life.” Except of course, Penny’s life is fake. When her friends are gone and her rock-and-roll journey ends there is nothing left. Like a child thrust out into the world without the guidance of elders, she is unsure how to function independently. Protagonist William tells her she needs to realize none of it is real, ending with a simple but critical line: “There’s not even a Penny Lane.” 

Deep down, Daisy Jones is also a child hiding under the guise of an adult. “I didn’t like myself very much when I was little,” Daisy says in the show. “So, I became somebody else.” But despite becoming someone new, Daisy never truly became an adult. When Billy yells at her, “When are you gonna grow… up?” Daisy replies, “Hopefully never.” And she doesn’t; she makes terrible, spontaneous choices, acts immaturely with serious topics such as Billy’s desire to hide his past from the media, and dances through life like nothing can go wrong. Her world is one of escapism — running away from real emotions, consequences and anything difficult. 

Daisy’s carefree personality takes physical form in her style. Her Bohemian outfits are characterized by flowing sleeves and a lack of bras; she often wears a Kimono or tunic-style Greek dress, sometimes simply a long button down shirt. But the most necessary piece of Daisy’s style is her hair. Unlike Penny who acts calmly, Daisy is like an explosive, always ready to go off. As a fiery ginger myself, I support the stereotype that every redhead has the personality to match. Daisy’s red hair is a key component of her character, a physical representation of her spunk. 

However, this all falls away with music. When Penny listens to the bands, we most clearly see her true, wild self. When Daisy sings, Keough fills her voice with all of the emotions and suffering that Daisy hides away, and her songs reveal everything she is feeling. Viewers understand these weaknesses: Daisy wants to be taken seriously, to have a family like The Six, and to prove she is not nothing like everyone in her life always told her she was. But Daisy doesn’t know how to deal with these feelings. She discusses this when song-writing with Billy, saying that when she’s sad she takes a pill, to which Billy replies that when he is sad he feels it. This is something Daisy cannot comprehend; a foreshadowing of the danger to come. 

Backgrounds and Downfalls

Daisy’s background is prominently featured in her story, as the show includes flashback scenes to her childhood. When she sings as a little girl, Daisy’s mother says to her, “No one wants to hear your voice.” Later, Daisy asks if she has any talent as a writer, to which her mother replies, “You’re a pretty girl.” The underlying messages of this line are incredibly harmful, implying that all that matters for a young woman is what she looks like, not what she dreams of or creates. Though this aspect is not as fleshed out in Almost Famous, Penny seems to have a similarly disaffected mother. Her mother’s advice was to, “‘Marry up. Marry someone grand.’” This line is also demeaning, teaching Penny that she needs a man to help her succeed in the world. 

These messages, no matter how off-handed or commonplace, will stick with a person. As Daisy says in the beginning, “No matter how confident you pretend to be… if enough people tell you you’re sh*t, you believe ‘em.” These moments with their mothers are what sparked the deaths of their real selves and the births of Daisy Jones and Penny Lane. 

Despite their good intentions — goals of becoming people more worthy of pride — a life built on rebellion is bound to spiral out of control. For Penny and Daisy it began with fake names, and moved on to drinking and drugs, with both characters ultimately overdosing and coming close to death. The psychology of this chain of events goes beyond ’70s drug culture, and can be explained with one key reason: In a world where so much is fake, nothing seems real. Consequences and danger do not exist when nothing is taken seriously. This is true even for viewers, who struggle to remember that these stories are based on real peoples’ lives. 

Penny Lane was inspired by three women: Bebe Buell, a model who was notorious for dating rock stars; Pamela de Barres, a rock-and-roll groupie; and Pennie Lane Trumbull, who in the ’70s formed The Flying Garter Girls, a group that traveled with rock bands. Daisy Jones was also inspired by a real person, Stevie Nicks, who together with Fleetwood Mac were the real band that inspired the novel: mostly from their cocaine use and dramatic interpersonal relationships. 

Drama between men and women is seen in the film versions of these stories as well: one of Daisy’s boyfriends steals her song, her best friend Simone is forced to sit on a producer’s lap and Penny is sold by the band for 50 dollars and a case of beer. Being timid was not an option for these women — not if they wanted to make their own way, or hold some power of their own. 

Power and the Muse

The ’70s was the era of the women’s rights movement, which focused on rights in politics, workplaces and families, including the passage of Title IX of the Higher Education Act in 1972, prohibiting discrimination based on sex in schools, and the decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which gave women rights over their own bodies. However, even in the ’70s, and even in the avant garde world of rock-and-roll, women were far from respected. 

Daisy is constantly fighting misogynistic ideals in Daisy Jones and The Six. She is only asked about her clothes in an interview, to which she responds, “Why are you asking me about my clothes, man? I mean, why don’t you ask Billy about that dumb looking shirt he has on?” Even the boys in the band originally sensualize her, until Daisy snaps, “You know it’s not my job not to turn you on, right?” And Daisy is not the only woman fighting these narratives. Karen, the pianist, talks about this when explaining why she does not want to go public about her relationship with Graham. “The moment they know we’re together, everything changes…” She says. “‘She was sleeping with the guitarist, so they let her in the band.’ I mean that’s what people will think… I’ve just, worked too … hard and I’m too …. good to be forever known as ‘The Girlfriend’ in The Six.” And when Karen finds out she is pregnant, she refuses to drop out of the band to raise a baby, choosing instead to follow her dreams (thanks Roe v. Wade!)

Because of these complicated relationships, the idea of the muse becomes contentious. In Almost Famous, Penny tells William, “We are not groupies. Groupies sleep with rockstars ‘cause they wanna be near someone famous…We don’t have intercourse with these guys. We inspire the music. We’re here because of the music.” Daisy feels strongly the other way, saying, “I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse. I am not a muse. I am the somebody.” And Daisy most certainly is; no matter how many times men try to put her down, she continues fighting back. There’s a great scene where she gets revenge by pushing her ex-boyfriend who stole her song into a pool at a party. And when Daisy is first approached by a record company, she declines, saying, “I don’t think I want to be shaped.” Daisy refuses to conform, always remaining undeniably herself, which is what makes her so inspiring. Many times throughout the show, we see the younger generation looking up to Daisy. When Daisy meets a fan who tells her, “My daughter wants to be you when she grows up,” she crouches down to her level and says, “Dream bigger, little bird. You can be anything you want to be.” 

The characters of Daisy and Penny are incredibly important. Their stories encourage women to follow their dreams, to not be defined by the box that people put them in and to become whoever they want to be. While the idea of becoming someone new can be a toxic mentality, sometimes it is a necessary step. Perhaps we are all stopped from being the people we want to be simply because we do not have the confidence to try; perhaps we are frightened away from our dreams by those around us or the sexist ideals that remain in our society. This may be why we are drawn to Daisy and Penny, women who simultaneously teach us what not to do, and also show us that we can become whoever and whatever we want. It is this timeless message that makes Almost Famous, despite celebrating its 20 year anniversary in 2020, still relevant today, and Daisy Jones and the Six feel like it could be set today instead of the ’70s. With such continued infatuation with the idea of women in the world of ’70s rock-and-roll, it is easy to imagine that more projects will follow suit. In the years to come, I am curious to see if any new characters can come close to the iconic stature of Penny Lane and Daisy Jones. 

Jenna Ledley is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].