In 1972, a 15-year-old writer called Cameron Crowe called the offices of Rolling Stone magazine with a story on Bob Dylan. Within two years he became the youngest person to ever write a cover feature for the iconic magazine.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it inspired the plot to the cult classic movie Almost Famous. Crowe, who moved on to direct Say Anything (1989) and Jerry Maguire (1996), poured his real-life stories of touring with rock legends like Led Zeppelin and The Who into this film.
Set in 1973, it follows Crowe’s alter ego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who’s taken under the wing of music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and goes on the road with the fictional Stillwater. Both men are uncool geeks only connected by their deep appreciation for rock n’ roll, but despite being filled with eccentric rockers and roadies, these misfits are some of the most relatable characters.
Precocious William is a little too close to his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), who’ll do anything to stop him from growing up too quickly. William’s sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) knows her little brother needs an extra push to get out from his mother’s wing, so her parting gift as she leaves to be an air hostess is to gift him her vinyl collection. Jump forward a few years and her curated selection of records have shaped him into an almost-man.
Musicians are supposed to be lonely and cooped up inside hotel rooms on benders, but Almost Famous is about camaraderie—both in and off-screen. The iconic scene featuring Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” is the perfect example of a group of tired friends coming together. The singalong is a reminder of the euphoria music can bring to even the most downtrodden. Elton John himself even found a renewed passion for performing the song after the film’s release.
The cast is a combination of actors who would go on to be indie darlings and Academy Award winners. It’s carried by newcomer Patrick Fugit, who perfectly encapsulates the cockiness yet innocence of youth as William. Billy Crudup (who replaced Brad Pitt, as he didn’t ‘get’ the script) plays Stillwater’s frontman Russell, a character based on The Eagles’ Glenn Frey. Russell is a self-delusion, self-proclaimed rock god with a cruel streak lurking behind the enigma of being a rockstar. The layered performance of this contradiction pulls Almost Famous away from any This is Spinal Tap (1984) style parodies.
A 21-year-old Kate Hudson stepped out of her mother Goldie Hawn’s shadow to play Penny Lane and was Oscar-nominated for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ as a result. In her breakout role, Hudson lights up the screen as a free-spirited ‘band-aid’ whose heartbreak is hidden behind a manic pixie dream girl veneer. Whilst much of her characterisation appears problematic, it’s nowhere near the underaged debauchery real-life groupies experienced—although her age is never mentioned.
Penny Lane’s adored by William, as her spirit’s every teenage boy’s dream, but she’s in love with Russell. Even when Russell trades her for $50 and a case of beer in a poker game, she still worships him. Penny was based on a group of women, including Pamela Des Barres and Bebe Buell, but she was never a groupie. As her character explains in the film, “groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music, we inspire the music. We are Band-Aids.” Hudson isn’t the sexy saucepot many directors would have chosen, but she captures the freedom of living a nomadic life of rock n’ roll.
The supporting assemble is a whos-who of cool, from Jason Lee (who generally looks like he comes from a 1970s band) to Zooey Deschanel (who made a career out of being a mini Linda Ronstadt) and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin. There are also great before-they-were-famous appearances from Rainn Wilson (The Office), Jay Baruchel (This is the End), Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), and Jimmy Fallon and Marc Maron (Glow). There are also fun cameos from the likes of Jann Wenner (co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine) and English musician Peter Frampton.
The performances at the heart of Almost Famous come from Oscar winners Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Frances McDormand. The latter plays William’s fierce but never shrill mother, and few actresses can portray someone so endearing yet vicious in their delivery. For a character with no backstory, no storyline, and no real relevance to the plot, McDormand steals every scene she’s in. Hoffman, as journalist Lester Bangs, shot his entire part in only four days, while sick with flu. Bangs is the guide for William’s journey, his cavalier gruffness becoming the soul of the journey.
Stillwater don’t only look like a band from that era, they sound like one as well. Many of Stillwater’s hits (A blend of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles) were written by Crowe and his then-wife Nancy Wilson of the band Heart. Whilst honeymooning in Oregon in 1986 they created a set of songs for a movie they knew he would one day make! Wilson also recruited Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready to provide Russell with some riffs. Their authentic sound was achieved with classic analogue mixing equipment, tube amplifiers, and tube microphones. The sound was so authentic, even Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were impressed.
More than just the concept, most of Almost Famous is rooted in fact. Crowe claims that being deflowered by a groupie, Russell’s acid trip at a fan’s house, and the near plane crash that led to the band members divulging their deepest secrets, are all based on true stories. And the classic line Russell shouts—“I am a Golden God”—is a homage to Robert Plant, who once shouted it from a Los Angeles balcony.
Despite being a critical success nominated for four Academy Awards (where it won for ‘Best Original Screenplay’) it failed to make a real dent at the box office. The film debuted in a paltry 131 theatres in mid-September and grossed $2.3M. One week later, when it was released on an additional 1,000 screens, it grossed less than $7M! Ironically, one of the reasons it failed to capture a bigger box office was due to the re-release of The Exorcist (1973). Only when it was released on DVD in 2001 did it manage to find an appreciative audience.
Looking back at Almost Famous, 20 years later, it’s easy to see why it’s still beloved by music and film fans alike. Cameron Crowe understands the spirit of rock n’ roll better than nearly any other filmmaker. While Almost Famous does sell nostalgia for an iconic era of music, it also treads the fine line of portraying the difficulty of being a working band.
Almost Famous also taps into the bittersweetness of being a teenager, where your only solace is putting your headphones on and turning your music up. William’s (and no doubt Crowe himself) coming-of-age story isn’t connected to romance or love—instead, it’s connected to music and the family one can create through finding it. The lack of sex n’ drugs and rock n’ roll was a conscious decision by Crowe. He felt that portrayals of the early-’70s often missed the quaintness of the time, as the loving naivety of the era is often overwhelmed by the tawdry headiness.
Even today, this euphoric road trip perfectly captures the self-destruction of touring musicians in the 1970s. Music isn’t about cocaine and long hair, free love and road trips… it’s about a feeling. About finding a family and your own place in the world. Nobody understood that better than Cameron Crowe when making Almost Famous.
USA | 2000 | 122 MINUTES (THEATRICAL) • 162 MINUTES (DIRECTOR’S CUT) | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • FRENCH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Cameron Crowe.
starring: Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Patrick Fugit, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor & Philip Seymour Hoffman.