Movies That Everyone Should See: “Almost Famous”

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must have seen her dancing in the sand
And now she’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand

Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back she just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad

Piano man he makes his stand
In the auditorium
Looking on she sings the songs
The words she knows the tune she hums

But oh how it feels so real
Lying here with no one near
Only you and you can hear me
When I say softly, slowly

Hold me closer tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
you had a busy day today

Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you’ll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must have seen her dancing in the sand
And now she’s in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand

Cameron Crowe was quite an exceptional young person.

The son of a college professor, he was pushed to excel scholastically as a child. He bypassed kindergarten and skipped two grades in elementary school. He would eventually graduate high school by age 15. This rapid advancement left him considerably younger than his classmates, and by the time he reached high school, the age difference was causing social issues for Crowe. He wasn’t fitting in. For solace, he turned to Rock and Roll… and writing.

At thirteen years old, Crowe had created his own high school newspaper, “Common Sense”. He was also writing music reviews for “The San Diego Door”, a local underground paper. He corresponded with fellow “Door” contributor Lester Bangs, who was working for Rolling Stone and Creem magazine. Soon Crowe was submitting articles to Creem, and other national publications. At age 15 he began working for Rolling Stone as a contributing editor.

His work with Rolling Stone would grant him interviews with Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, and The Allman Brothers, amongst many others.

When Rolling Stone moved their offices to New York in the late 1970s, Crowe stayed in California. He turned his attention to a journalistic project he had thought of… re-enrolling in high school and chronicling the experience in a book. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story”. Prior to the book’s publication, the movie rights were optioned. Crowe adapted the screenplay from his novel, and in 1982 the movie was a sleeper hit and eventually would go on to become a teen comedy classic.

The success of the film drove Crowe towards the screen. He wrote the screenplay for 1984’s “The Wild Life”, an unofficial sequel to “Fast Times”. The score was written and performed by Eddie Van Halen. The movie wasn’t a hit, but it demonstrated Crowe’s “voice” for James L. Brooks. Brooks had been interviewing Crowe about his time at Rolling Stone for research on “Broadcast News”, and he wound up giving Crowe a freelance job writing the script for an idea he had.

“Say Anything”.

When attached director Lawrence Kasdan dropped out, he suggested Crowe as replacement, and Crowe’s directorial career was underway.

Kasdan would eventually convince Crowe to bring his own story to film, as well. The two had become friends, and after seeing Crowe’s collection of memorabilia from the Rolling Stone days, Kasdan suggested that Crowe needed to eventually tell the story for his own personal edification.

Crowe’s directorial career had taken off successfully, with “Say Anything” and “Singles”, being well received, and “Jerry Maguire” being nominated for best picture. When the time came to follow that up, Crowe decided it was time for his most personal movie yet. His own story.

The story is based in a large part on an Allman Brothers assignment that Crowe had, mixed of course with other experiences from his Rolling Stones days. He spent weeks on the road with the band, calling his mother to try to explain he was alright. The Penny Lane character is based on an actual woman he knew who “trained Band Aids”, and the scene where William is “deflowered” is based on an actual experience of Crowe’s as well.

“Essentially I think I grew up making that movie, as William grew up in the movie. – Patrick Fugit

“Almost Famous” is the story of a boy’s adolescence… the transition from being a boy to a young man.

William Miller (Patrick Fugit) starts the movie as a fresh-faced innocent, protected by his mother, who still sees him as a child. She clings to dreams of him being a lawyer, calls to him after a concert with a “family whistle”, and insists on being called if anyone drinks. She’s smothering. Protective. A reminder that William is in fact, still a child.

But he’s about to grow up fast.

After connecting with local rock writer gone national Lester Bangs (played in inspired fashion by Philip Seymour Hoffman) He’s obviously green as the grass when he first crosses paths with Stillwater. He’s sweet. Honest. Earnest. Which, in turn, attracts the attention and confidence of the worldly rockers and groupies band-aids whom he encounters. William sees the music scene inside and out, the backstage dressing rooms, the hotels, the tour buses… but he also sees the world. Learning about women, life, loyalty, responsibility, love.

Cameron Crowe’s William Miller alter ego isn’t the only character in the film who grows, however. “Almost Famous” is such a great film because all the characters grow. Mrs. Miller learns to allow her children to spread their wings. Her daughter learns to forgive her. The band members learn to express their true feelings for each other. Russell, the guitarist (Billy Crudup), learns to think of others. But of particular note is Kate Hudson’s “Penny Lane”.

Penny Lane is a young girl, about Williams’s age, who is extremely worldly. She’s been involved with rock stars for years, but sees herself as a muse, and not a groupie. As William meets her, she begins to attach herself to Russell… although there are indications they’ve been involved before. As the tour proceeds, she befriends William, and gets sexually and romantically involved with Russell. Both men fall for her. Penny (her chosen alias) seems alternately very wise and very naive – flighty. She shares whimsical fantasies with William about traveling to Morocco under assumed names and aggrandizes her role in musicians’ lives.

But when William reveals to her that Russell “sold” her to another band, her heart is broken. She overdoses on Quaaludes shortly thereafter, with only William to save her. She recovers and heads home, seemingly returning to a normal life. When Russell calls her at the end of the film, however, confirming her image of herself as a muse…

She leaves for Morocco.

Personal growth stories aren’t all that “Almost Famous” offers, however. It’s also an intoxicating Rock and Roll drama. William has been given his big break, and needs to get his story. Stillwater, the band he has latched on with, is on the cusp of enormous fame. They’re just about to make it big. Currently they’re an opening act, but they’re on the verge of being headliners.

The movie uses these conflicts to frame the madness of living the rock and roll dream. The band fights and bickers, gets ripped off, almost electrocuted. They cheat on their wives, and then on their girlfriends. But along the way they’re idolized, worshipped. Fans follow them from city to city. Hotel lobbies are packed with hysterical people hoping for glimpses of their favorite stars. Drugs, women, booze, money, fame, music… it’s all here.

I am a golden god!

The music used in the film is essential as well. Crowe’s journalism experience was fueled by a love of music, and he wanted the movie to reflect that. To be a love letter to Rock and Roll. So he included a variety of songs from the artists of the era… Music is nearly constantly on. Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Iggy Pop, Black Sabbath, Yes, Rod Stewart, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix — plus of course, the music of Stillwater themselves. Short snippets pop up here and there, or sometimes partial songs, but they integrate themselves into the fabric of the movie just as songs weave themselves into our lives. William lovingly discovers the albums his sister left him. Caressing the album covers, admiring the art. Characters try to express feelings and ideas by referencing music. It’s at the core of the film.

Beyond just talking about music… featuring characters waxing rhapsodic about what they think it means, etc… “Almost Famous” demonstrates the power of music. Perhaps nowhere as powerfully as the memorable bus sing along scene. Fractured and at odds, the band rides silently away from Topeka, recovering from an argument triggered by the band’s first t-shirt (which focused disproportionately on Russell), and Russell’s AWOL night where he trips on acid and jumps off a roof into a pool at a house party. An impromptu sing along breaks out to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, and all is forgiven… the rift is healed.

Amidst the bonding experience of the shared singing, William’s journey reaches a turning point. He realizes he’s flown too far from the nest, that he’s reaching the point of no return… “I have to go home,” he tells Penny Lane, mid chorus. Penny won’t have any of it. She cuts him off with her hand and enlightens him. “You are home.” William wrestles with the realization as Penny rests her head on his shoulder. He is growing up, leaving the boy he was at home behind. In a few onscreen minutes he would become a man more literally, losing his virginity to the band-aids.

It’s a powerful scene, given its edge by the magic of music.

“Music is usually more profound than anything the actors might be saying. If you just have them be silent, and the music plays, the music gives things a greater meaning” – Cameron Crowe

“Almost Famous” is a heartwarming coming of age story, delivered within the context of 1970s rock and roll tour. While the tale of a young man growing up unfolds, we’re given a backstage pass to the rock and roll lifestyle during the decade of hard rock. It’s fascinating that it’s based on a true story. It features wonderful, touching performances across the board.

Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but the Oscar that year went to Marcia Gay Harden for “Pollock”. Cameron Crowe received an Oscar, however. For penning the amazing story of his teen years, Crowe was awarded the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

It was obviously a very personal film for him, and one that undoubtedly will touch you personally as well.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See

40 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Almost Famous”

  1. The band Fugit’s character follows is Stillwater that while based on Crowe’s Allman Brothers assignment is indeed named for the decent, real 1970s Southern Rock style band Stillwater. Additionally, the movie band version actually had songs written by Peter Frampton which is why they sound decent too like Fever Dog which I hear is “incendiary.” ;-)

    This film is fun and definitely shows two sides of the road the great music and toxic elements that take you down if you indulge in them. BTW, Hoffman’s Bangs portrayal IS phenomenal and a great mentor for Fugit’s William and true to form as the real life Bangs was a NOT a suck up interviewer to music idols but a probing, critical journalist; “honest and unmerciful.”

    The post is another great one. :-)

    • Thanks, S! Glad you enjoyed.

      I actually ran across a bunch of Bangs’ old reviews and writings as I was putting this together. WOW. They dont make ‘em like that guy any more! LOL :D

      Nancy Wilson of Heart contributed to the Stillwater tunes, too. That’s not a bad collaboration right there. Nancy Wilson and Pater Frampton. LOL. Wilson is married to Crowe….

      I love this movie… makes me feel good everytime I watch it. :D

  2. Another Fantastic Choice! One of my favorite films of all time, and probably my favorite Cameron Crowe film, OK maybe tied with “Say Anything…”. A kick butt soundtrack, amazing story and stellar cast. I’m still amazed that I was able to convince my dad to let me see this on then VHS when I was like 11-12 years old (I think it was a year after it came to home video), even then I thought it was amazing, but I loved it even more when I got older and could understand it better.

    • :D “Say Anything” is awesome, too.

      Glad you love this flick too. I think its a really really great one.

      Meanwhile, it makes me laugh – you relating about trying to convince your Dad to let you watch this – we all did stuff like that. Now picture being Cameron Crowe and convincing your Mom to let you go on tour with the Allman Brothers. LOL!! :D

  3. Great recommendation, Fogs. I totally agree with the recommendation. This film is once again gathering a well deserved awareness. Filmmaker/producer Allan Arkush gave it keen commentary in a Trailers From Hell spot this month, too:

    Thanks for this.

    • I’ll have to check that out when I get home.

      Its a fantastic, fantastic movie. It’s funny, you just tweeted that Lester Bangs review link yesterday (which I checked out) – it was all too appropriate! :D

  4. Huckleberry Finn gets on the band bus! A cross-over for the ages. The movie is deep in philosophy and idealism but you forget all about that shit because you’re having too good a time. Your review had me dig up what I remembered most about “Famous” after ten years. It would have been emotional enough had Cameron just played “Tiny Dancer” as an overlay like most movies. Making it a sing-along on the bus was a bullet to the heart. Everyone relates, everyone turns back the clock, everyone chokes up. That scene and Kate Hudson. Oh how she made me love her! She was robbed of an Oscar, unforgivable. Her retort on her lover’s betrayal may be the best on film. It made me laugh and cry. When Will tells Penny she’s been sold by her lover for “50 bucks and a case of Beer” she grows quiet but cries, “What kind of Beer?”. Is there a better line that captures this movies humor and emotion? Once again, thanks for the memories Daniel!

    • You’re welcome, my pleasure!

      Yeah, I had to make sure that both scenes made the cut here. That “Tiny Dancer” sing along is so memorable I had to break it down, and that moment you’re talking about with Kate Hudson is phenomenal. She’s so great right there. She just plays it PERFECTLY. Had to give that a screenshot!

  5. It’s great to see Almost Famous spotlighted. It’s one of my favorite movies and has a personal connection for me because it reminds me why I love music, and art in general. The “Tiny Dancer” scene is a classic and gives me goose bumps every time that I see it. Great write-up on a wonderful movie.

    • Good to hear Dan! Glad you’re a fan of this one. I am too.

      I dont think it can be helped – getting goose bumps during the bus sing along. That’s such a freaking cool scene. Gets me everytime, too.

      And you can tell that Crowe is passionate about Rock with this movie. I mean, he really truly puts his love of Rock and Roll on display, and it shines through…

  6. Wow, you explained that film almost as well as Peter Townshend could have!

    One addition I would make is that the Stillwater music was provided by Nancy Wilson of the 70s band Heart, who also happens to be Cameron Crowe’s wife. Additionally Peter Frampton, the ultimate 70s rocker, also provided some ‘Incendiary” guitar work as well as doing a decent little acting role.

    One of my all time favorite films, and absolutely a MTESS.

    • Cool man, glad to have your support. I saw that about Wilson / Frampton writing the Stillwater stuff on the “Bootleg” edition, which I watched for the first time in order to write this one up. That’s awesome. I saw Frampton playing guitar for Bowie on tour one year (Bowie gets a lot of play in the movie, and Frampton has a bit part :D ) He got to play “Do you feel like we do”, I thought that was cool of Bowie to let him do that…

  7. Great addition to your increasing list Fogs. I love this film man and despite Crowe normally cranking up the schmaltz, he gets it just right here. It’s undoubtedly my favourite of his.

    • Yeah, mine too. I think its better than “Say Anything”, although I love them both.

      This film takes it right to the edge of being “Schmaltz” (LOL) but never crosses over. In other movies, he certainly does pour it on a little thick, but not here, you’re right.

      Glad you signed off on this one Mark!

      • I bought the special edition DVD a while back but haven’t got around to watching it yet. Apparently it has an extended cut. Do you know anything about this? I wonder if it adds much more to the film?

      • I actually watched the extended cut this time for this review. I’ll have to confess, I’m not enough of an expert to recognize all the changes that were made… some scenes felt new, but I wouldnt have bet on them being new inclusions or my memory just being a little shaky. I will say it was still an awesome, awesome movie… so the extended scenes only added more goodness.

        There’s a lot of extended editions where it seems as though the just took the crappy stuff that deserved to be on the cutting room floor and tacked it back on, which has the effect of watering down the movie…. but that wasnt the case here.

        Plus the special features were great.

      • Nice one my man. This has been due a rewatch for me for some time now. I’ll get around that extended cut soon. By the way, nice touch in adding Elton John’s lyrics. That’s a particularly good scene that one.

  8. This film escaped me for some reason but I’ve been hearing how much people LOVE it lately and your review certainly makes me even more curious, Fogs! Interesting trivia about Cameron Crowe, I didn’t know about his background at all. Wow, no wonder that work experience at Rolling Stone ends up w/ him making a movie that’s musically-inclined!

    • Yeah, this one is a winner, Ruth, you should check it out if you get a chance. People love it because its awesome :D

      Crowe led a crazy, crazy life when he was young. Can you picture getting those kind of interviews and going on tour with bands and writing for one of the biggest magazines in the world before youre even 18? LOL Damn!

  9. Man, Cameron Crowe had the childhood I always dreamed of. Being able to hang out with rock stars and write for Rolling Stone… damn. And then he turned his experiences into a freakin’ amazing movie. This is one of my all-time favorites, and I am very happy to see it included as a MTESS. Hell of a writeup, Fogs.

    • Cool man, glad you liked it, especially if it’s one of your faves. I love this one too, I really enjoyed watching it again, it felt like its been too long… even though it probably hadnt been too long at all, comparatively.

      Crowe did have a dream gig as a kid, didnt he? Shit, man, can you picture doing that in HIGH SCHOOL? :D Awe-some.

      Not only did he live this one, but he went back to school and wrote “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” based on the kids he met, too, so he’s lived, like two movies!! :D

      • Yeah, I haven’t seen Fast Times in ages. I’m overdue to give that another viewing.

        Did you know there’s a “Bootleg Cut” of Almost Famous? I didn’t even know about that until just recently, but apparently it has an extra 30 minutes of footage. I need to pick that up ASAP.

      • I did, yeah. Thats what I watched when I wrote this up. First time I had seen it, and it was excellent. Unfortunately enough time had passed since I saw the theatrical cut, I wasnt 100% sure on what was added and what was always there.

        That’s a good sign though. Means the added back material is equally high calibre stuff! :D

  10. Interestingly, while Stillwater isn’t what I’d classify as “dangerous” rock ‘n roll music, this is one of those films that makes it clear how essential it is for great music to have that sort of edge. To some people, what Stillwater represents by way of the fan worship they receive and the lifestyle they live easily qualifies as “dangerous”, which gives their music teeth even if it’s tame by our standards. That’s one of the things I love about Almost Famous. Great pick.

    • Yeah, Stillwater isn’t the ‘edgiest” stuff. I half suspect that that’s because they weren’t really musicians, but were playing their own music. So they had to tone it down.

      That lifestyle takes no rpisoners though! :D It does make for a fun watch. But then there’s all the groing and learning and stuff mixed in, which makes the film heartwarming, atop of just being a fun watch!

      Thanks Andrew!

  11. One day, people will get tired of hearing me talk about ALMOST FAMOUS…but since you asked…

    You sell this film as a believer from the church of rock & roll, and as a fellow worshipper myself, it’s always inspiring to listen to such divine testimony.

    It’s funny, they say that the music we listen to between the ages of 16 and 24. For William/Crowe, I imagine that music and that definition would increase tenfold because the music and experiences with them are so intertwined. I hear a Smashing Pumpkins song come on the radio and smile because I think of hanging out with my friends during the summer of 1995…I can only imagine what Crowe thinks of when he hears something like “Tangerine”.

    Well done sir – biased as I am, I do believe this is a movie everyone should see.

    PS – In case you’re curious, this was my post on it on the occasion of my 1000th post at The Matinee:

    http://www.thematinee.ca/1000th-post-another-day-almost-famous/

    • There’s definitely something to that… I know I have a range of music years that I’m fond of, and beyond that, not so much. LOL

      The movie captures the spirit of that like no other… falling in love with music for the first time, and having it shape your youth. It’s such an essential part of this movie, and I think, one of the things that allows it to connect with our hearts so easily.

      I shall head into the drak of the Matinee to see what has been written!

  12. This is one of my all-time favorites. So full of hearts. It’s one of those rare movies in which I can connect so well with the characters that I can smile, laugh and cry with them while watching. They way I came to know about this movie was kinda funny: I used to like this girl in high school and this was her favorite movie, so yeah I had to check it out haha :)
    And you’re right Fogs, definitely a movie that everyone should see, especially high school kids.

    • No doubt, this movie is totally overflowing with heart, its true.

      It probably does have a little more value to people at that stage of life (as a coming of age movie) but I think it would appeal to all age groups! There’s no reason for anyone not to be able to get behind this movie! :D

      • I suppose so, ’cause I actually think no matter how old one is we are going through some kind of coming-of-age period. Like me, I’m not in high school anymore but somehow still feel like I’ve not passed that phase yet. We keep growing and changing ’till we die, don’t we?

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