Almost Famous was clearly a labor of love for the filmmaker and his most personal effort to date. It is a fictionalized account of Crowe’s start as a rock music journalist at the age of 15 writing from Creem magazine and then a year later joining the staff of Rolling Stone where he would go on to interview the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and many others. Unfortunately, his very personal journey failed to connect with a mainstream audience and despite being lavished with critical praise and awards (including an Oscar for screenwriting), the film flopped at the box office but has gone on to develop a cult following. However, one wonders if Crowe never fully recovered from its commercial failure. Perhaps he ran out of things to say, making two films adapted from pre-existing works (Vanilla Sky and We Bought a Zoo) and an original film, Elizabethtown (2005) that tanked both with critics and audiences. Regardless, Almost Famous will no doubt be regarded as his magnum opus and rightly so.
“We’re like nobody else I know,” says Anita Miller (Zooey Deschanel) early on in the film. She’s the exasperated sister of William Miller (Michael Angarano) and has directed this comment towards their mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), a very smart teacher who raises her children in a very unorthodox fashion, like celebrating Christmas in summer because it’s gotten too commercial. Yet, for someone so intelligent, she is completely clueless about popular culture, specifically rock music, banning Simon and Garfunkel because they look stoned on the cover of their Bookends album. When she turns 18, Anita leaves home but gives her younger brother a treasure trove of classic rock ‘n’ roll albums – Zeppelin II, The Who’s Tommy, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the Rolling Stone’s Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and so on, which he uses to educate himself, developing a deep love of music, both listening to it and writing about it.
By the time William (Patrick Fugit) turns 15, it’s 1973 and he experiences a life-changing event. He meets his idol Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the legendary rock journalist at a radio station where he calls Jim Morrison “a drunken buffoon,” and praises the Guess Who for having the courage to be drunken buffoons. Philip Seymour Hoffman kills it as Lester, creating one of the most memorable character introductions in recent memory. We meet the infamous writer trashing the sacred cows of rock before getting the bemused disc jockey to play Iggy Pop and the Stooges while he jumps around like a maniac to the Detroit madman’s blistering rendition of “Search and Destroy.” William and Lester hit it off with the latter recognizing a younger, less jaded version of himself in the former. He also recognizes the same passion for music that he sees in the young teen and tells him, “Music, you know, true music – not just rock n roll – it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast of scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain.” He tries to warn William away from rock journalism by claiming that “The war is over. They won. 99% of what passes for rock ‘n’ roll these days, silence is more compelling.” Ah, how prophetic words these are as they could easily be speaking about the current state of rock music. The best part of this scene is when Lester talks about the love of writing, of staying up all night, “just writin’ and writin’. I mean, like 25 pages, a dribble, y’know, about the Faces or Coltrane. Y’know, just to fuckin’ write.” That bit gets me every time and inspires me whenever I get depressed about my own writing and to keep at it.
Kate Hudson) who unsuccessfully tries to get him into the venue. It isn’t until he meets the opening band Stillwater, impressing them with his succinct insights into their music, that he is able to gain access. Little does William know that Penny and Stillwater will change his life. The latter takes him on tour with them across America, while the former shows him the ropes along the way. William’s writing gets noticed by Rolling Stone magazine and they assign him to do a cover story on Stillwater. The more William’s horizons are broadened by the tour the more questions he has, not just for the band but about life and he only finds the answers through experience. By the end of the film you feel as if you’ve really gone on a journey with these characters. By the end of it we have gained some insight into them through their various misadventures.
Almost Famous is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the talented cast, which consists mostly of young, untested talent (Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel) and up-and-coming character actors (Jason Lee and Billy Crudup). In a perfect world, this film would have shot them all through the stratosphere. Most of them went on to future success (Crudup, Deschanel, Lee) and some squandered the buzz acquired from it (Hudson). Speaking of which, Almost Famous marked a breakout performance by Kate Hudson who brings a refreshing vitality and charisma to every scene as the veteran groupie Penny Lane. At first, she is a rather enigmatic figure, refusing to tell William her real name, but over the course of the film she gives him insight into the sometimes sad and lonely girl lurking under her bubbly façade. Hudson captures the layers of Penny with her eyes, specifically the sadness in them during a few moments. This happens in an incredibly touching scene when she finds out that the love her life sold her out for a case of beer. We see all kinds of emotions play out on her face as she tries to maintain a brave front but we catch a glimpse of the hurt and then it’s gone. Penny Lane was a star-making role and unfortunately the actress failed to capitalize on it with the exception of supporting roles in a Merchant/Ivory film (Le Divorce) and a Robert Altman film (Dr. T and the Women), and instead appeared in a string of forgettable romantic comedies.
Patrick Fugit, a young unknown actor, was cast as Crowe’s cinematic alter ego and has to anchor the film, acting as our window to this exotic world from another time. It helps that his coming of age as an actor parallels his character’s coming of age. Fugit does an excellent job of conveying William’s idealistic naïveté, his secret crush on Penny and his desire to become a successful rock journalist. William represents the hardcore music fan living the dream: hanging out with the bands he writes about and enjoys listening to. Philip Seymour Hoffman nails the jaded cynicism that made Lester Bangs such a polarizing figure in rock journalism. When William meets him, the veteran writer informs the kid that he’s arrived just in time for the death rattle of rock. Hoffman has little screen-time but he knows how to make the most of it by playing a larger than life figure. You can see why William admired Lester – he’s brash, funny and opinionated. And yet, Crowe also shows the more thoughtful, supportive side of Lester when he gives William much-needed advice and guidance when he’s at a low point, telling him, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool.” Billy Crudup is memorable as Russell Hammond, the cocky guitarist who feels that he’s already gone past his bandmates in terms of skill and ability. Against his better judgment he befriends William while repeatedly putting off his request for an interview. One gets the feeling that he doesn’t really care about William, or anyone else for that matter as he just uses people but by the end of the film there is a sense that he realizes and comes to terms with the damage he’s done to others. He finally grants William an interview, which begins with the young man asking him, “So Russell... what do you love about music?” to which the musician replies with a smile, “To begin with, everything.”
Nancy Wilson of Heart and Peter Frampton, both of whom recorded and toured during this time period and drew upon their considerable experience and skills to create songs (along with Crowe) that could have easily come from the ‘70s. The band dynamic is beautifully realized in simple things like how a screw-up on a band t-shirt dredges up all kinds of old grievances between lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) and lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). The singer feels threatened by his guitarist’s mystique. We see the band begin to split apart the more famous they get as they fight to keep it real while becoming successful. Crowe and co. nail it because he’s lived it countless times and it’s burned in his brain, it’s part of his DNA.
And then there are the pre-existing songs from the era that Crowe included that also brilliantly evoke the time period and capture the emotion of a specific scene, like “That’s the Way” off of Zeppelin III that plays over the scene on the tour bus during a beautiful sunset. The most famous musical moment is, of course, the scene on the bus when after a big fight between Jeff and Russell an uncomfortable silence hangs over everyone until “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John comes on. Eventually everyone is singing along and all the disagreements are put aside in favor of the music. This scene shows how the power of the right song at the right moment can transcend almost anything and bring people together. It is one of those rare, magical moments captured on film that perfectly marries music with the visuals.
Crowe has described Almost Famous as “agonizingly true.” He grew up in San Diego and was introduced to rock music by his rebellious older sister. He skipped three grades and graduated from high school at the age of 15. He became a rock journalist by sending writing samples to Lester Bangs at Creem magazine. This led to a job at Rolling Stone. William’s experiences with Stillwater are a pastiche of experiences Crowe had with real bands, like pursuing the lead singer and guitarist for a cover story (Led Zeppelin), hanging out with a dysfunctional band (the Allman Brothers), and taking a turbulent plane ride with another band (Lynyrd Skynyrd). In addition, Stillwater claiming they were misquoted and then sabotaging William’s article really happened to Crowe when he did a cover story on Neil Young and like in the film the musician changed his mind at the last minute and allowed it to be published. The real Penny Lane came from Portland, Oregon and moved to Los Angeles to be with the keyboard player for Steppenwolf. She developed a love for musicians and their scene. When she moved back to Portland, she hung out with bands that rolled into town adopting a vintage 1940s wardrobe and led a gang of groupies known as “the Flying Garter Girls.” Crowe met her 1973 and they became friends. He ended up showing her the film in order to assure the woman that he wasn’t going to sensationalize her life: “a lot of those girls really did believe in the music and she was one of them.”
Other casting choices included a desire to cast Meryl Streep as Elaine, William’s mother but she turned Crowe down and he almost went with Rita Wilson but opted for Frances McDormand instead. The filmmaker told his real mother not to approach the actress during the production but she defied her son. McDormand remembers, “She said, ‘I find the character to be written a little shrill and I hope that you don’t intend to play it that way.’ And I said right back that I’m an actor, so it’s not going to be me or you, it’s going to be [the character].” Likewise, Brad Pitt was originally cast as Russell Hammond but he dropped out shortly before filming began and Crowe went with Billy Crudup in his place. Crowe said, “His role was the most underwritten part in the movie, and Brad had taken a flier on other scripts that weren’t fully on the page and he couldn’t bring himself to do it again.” To prepare for the pivotal role of Lester Bands, Philip Seymour Hoffman listened to audio tapes of interviews with the rock journalist.
A lot of time and money was spent on getting the period details right, from dressing all the extras in the concert scenes in vintage clothing from thrift shops and warehouses all over the country to minutia like period cigarette packs, gum packs and ashtrays full of cigarette butts in the background of scenes. The inventor of the original pull tab beer can was tracked down and hired to make dozens of cases for the film. Crowe went to even greater lengths for authenticity. The production spent $100,000 on getting a 727 plane bearing the original Eastern logo with a decent-sized airline terminal set for the scene where Penny leaves for Morocco.
When it came to the music for Stillwater, Crowe and his wife Nancy Wilson decided that they would feel like a blend of Bad Company with a little Led Zeppelin, Cream and the Allman Brothers mixed in for good measure. Once Crowe and Wilson wrote the songs they had to find a singer that could do “a certain rock accent in 1972 that no longer exists … a certain bluesy way of singing.” They found L.A.-based musician and producer Marti Frederiksen who co-wrote songs with Aerosmith, Def Leppard and Sheryl Crow. During pre-production, Wilson teamed up with another ‘70s rock mainstay Peter Frampton to teach the actors how to be rock stars, like not wearing the guitar too high and to have a “slouchy, sloppy body language.” Crowe also had the actors study live concert footage of bands like the Who and Led Zeppelin.
With a budget of $60 million, Almost Famous was expected to do as well as Crowe’s past box office successes but it struggled to break even, baffling and disappointing the filmmaker and DreamWorks. Hollywood insiders criticized the film’s large budget, lack of marquee name movie stars and an R rating, which limited its audience. The studio felt that it was simply “the right movie at the wrong time” and this resulted in poor attendance. Another DreamWorks executive felt that Almost Famous was hard to describe in 30 seconds and that made it difficult to market.
In her review for the L.A. Weekly, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Like much great art, Almost Famous is about the search for some glimmer of authentic meaning. Everyone searches differently. Lester Bangs took a swan dive into the gutter and died at the age of 33. Cameron Crowe wrote for slick magazines and studios. He kept living, no doubt very comfortably, but as it so happens, he never did stop listening to Bangs‘ voice, which is why, on his fourth try as a director, he’s gotten it right.” However, The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris was a rare gate-crasher to the party. He felt that, “For whatever reason, too much of the dark side has been left out. Mr. Crowe was not obliged to revisit Altamont, but there was something faux in the depravity of the young extras Mr. Crowe and his associates have recruited to provide atmosphere. They reminded me too much of the kids in the audience, who were too young to remember the 60′s and 70′s but are persuaded by Mr. Crowe that they ‘get’ the period just the same.” Likewise, the Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “There's a scene in which Stillwater and friends, riding in a tour bus, suddenly sing along to Elton John's 'Tiny Dancer,' which is playing over the radio. This is meant to be a scene of unabashed innocence, as everyone forgets their petty differences and simply enjoys the sensation of being a sing-along fan. But it's very hard to see these long-haired kids as products of the 1970s instead of dressed up actors from the Seattle-Starbucks era.”
Almost Famous is a film for music fans made by one and this is evident in the loving attention paid to every frame as seen through the filter of nostalgia. Or, as Crowe said in an interview, “a movie that was a tribute to the way that music makes you feel, if you can get the movie to make you feel like a song you just sort of discovered that you want to hear life eight times in a row.” A truly great film magically transports one into its cinematic world and in the case of Almost Famous it transports one back to the time period it depicts, achieving this through authentic period details like costumes, production design and music. Almost Famous is as much of a love letter to the joy of listening to and experiencing music as it is to writing about it. A good writer wears their heart on their sleeve and one can feel the passion for their subject in every sentence and this is evident in Crowe’s rock journalism and his best films. His film believes in the power of music to change how we feel about things and people and its importance in the fabric of our lives. It has the ability to move us, to make us laugh and cry – the entire emotional spectrum. You have to give Crowe credit for putting it all out there and creating a deeply personal film.
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