On the road with the band there was a lot more to write home about than the Music.
Twenty years ago on September 13, 2000, the semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age hit Almost Famous appeared on the big screen and went on to achieve widespread critical acclaim. It has stood the test of time and is just as good to watch now as it was then.
The film takes us back to San Diego, 1969, where an 11-year-old, baby-faced William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit) is struggling to fit in thanks to awkward, confronting adolescence. His strict mother, Elaine (played by Frances McDormand), acts as an old-world anchor and has banned both William and his older sister Anita from listening to rock music and following pop culture for fear that they will be led astray by bad influences.
The story jumps ahead to 1973, and despite his mother’s reservations, William aspires to be a rock journalist. He seeks out renowned rock journalist Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who gives William an assignment to review a Black Sabbath concert. William’s introduction to life on the road – including sex, drugs, rock n’ roll and so much more – kicks off as a result of the concert when he meets the band Stillwater and manic pixie dream girl, Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson).
There is so much to love about this film. It is a starry-eyed, salacious story about making things happen for yourself and enjoying the journey – there is no destination. It is about whimsical, dream-filled youth. It is about throwing caution to the wind and embracing the good, the bad, the ugly; the real and the envisioned.
Based on director and writer Cameron Crowe’s own early experiences writing for Rolling Stone, Crowe delivers us a film with real heart and deep-seated detail. The posters in William’s bedroom in the background subtly tell a story. The Rolling Stone offices are based on photos of the very same offices from that time. The props, too, transport us to the 70s. (A replica of Crowe’s tape recorder was made for the film.)
Crowe leaves no stone unturned. The audience unconsciously acknowledges all of these little things while watching the film. This, in turn, amounts to a genuine, conscious appreciation and full immersion in the target period and the loves, lives and losses of the characters.
The characters are mesmerizing and many of them convey this wonderful sense of immortality that we perceive of many rockstars and the Hollywood lifestyle. They are everything we have wanted to be at one point or another in our lives. Cool, quirky, confident, talented, creative, spontaneous. They embody the dreams of our youth and so intrinsically are the story. Character-driven films have always been my favorite and Almost Famous is right on the money.
There is this great scene where the band is on the road singing along to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. It is a still, wholesome, celebratory moment in a life of oft fast-paced chaos. And yet, the live-in-the-moment lifestyle, particularly in this scene, suspends time. When Russell shouts “I am a golden god!” from the rooftop, there is a truth to that. At least, that is what we would like to believe. Flying high, adored and admired, being forever young, wild, and free.
Stillwater is a composite of bands and musicians who Crowe met whilst working at Rolling Stone. The guitarist in Almost Famous, Russell Hammond is said to be based on Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers, who Crowe went on tour with in 1973.
A few days ago, the following video was posted to YouTube in which Crowe takes us down Almost Famous memory lane. He speaks to the special experience making the film, including the three Stillwater albums they created – testament to those love of details we mentioned and his commitment to producing an authentic experience.
Crowe talks about the movie being a celebration of journalism which perfectly dovetails with Patrick Fugit’s comment that Almost Famous is “a film that you really ha[ve] to have a conversation with.” It is for you and about you and how you perceive the world, along with its characters. It also transcends simply being a conversation between you and the film and becomes one that can be shared, because we can all relate to it in one way or another. After all, “[t]he only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” It resonates with the indie-loving crowd while being a big-name, star-studded film. There is a real intimacy that stays with you.
It would be remiss of me not to mention how good the writing is, how quotable this film is and how full of quality one-liners it is. Some of my favorites moments were captured in this Paste article – here are my top 5:
- “I always tell the girls never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, you always have fun. And if you ever get lonely, you can just go to the record store and visit your friends.”
- “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”
- “Adolescence is a marketing tool.”
- “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your entire future.”
- “The more popular we get, the more I can’t walk on them, the bigger their houses get, the more pressure… you forget, man. You forget what it was like to be real, to be a fan. You can hear it in a lot of bands who’ve been successful – it doesn’t sound like music anymore. It sounds like… like lifestyle maintenance. I used to be able to hear the sounds of the world. Everything, to me, used to sound like music. Everything. Now I don’t hear it. You know what I’m trying to say?”
If it is not clear from all my gushing why this story still holds up, it is because I think a lot of us carry it with us – the hopes and dreams of the characters and the drive to be something, or mean something, or experience something, bigger than ourselves.
As we coast along in our day-to-day lives, Almost Famous is a time capsule that reminds us how much potential life has to offer and the hope we hold onto in an attempt to harness it.