Reeling Backward: Almost Famous (2000)
A densely detailed and nostalgic look at a turning point in rock 'n' roll history, but still lacking an emotional core.
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Famous people are just more interesting.
Every once in a great while, a movie will come along that is universally regarded as not just good but great, and indeed Important™ — and it seems like you’re the only one who doesn’t see the appeal.
“Almost Famous” was that film for me.
I had a very flat reaction to this semi-autobiographical story from writer/director Cameron Crowe based on his unlikely (but true!) adventures as a music writer for Rolling Stone magazine while still in his teens in the early 1970s. I thought it an authentic portrait of a place and time, as rock ‘n’ roll morphed from rebellion into a corporate industry.
But the characters aren’t very well-rounded, in particular the ostensible lead, William Miller, a stand-in for Crowe played by Patrick Fugit in his first feature film role. The movie feels like one long party, and we just know it’s going to come crashing down in the end.
It’s funny; my recollection of the movie was that the fictional band William follows around for most of the movie, Stillwater, broke up in the last act. But in fact, they stay together and, after nearly dying in a plane crash reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd, renew their bonds of friendship and seem poised for a rich new musical period.
Word is Crowe based Stillwater on a variety of bands he covered during that time, though most believe it mostly closely hews to the Gregg Allman Band — including the famous scene where charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond declares “I am a golden god” while high on acid and then dives from a rooftop into a pool. (A hotel balcony in reality.)
Brad Pitt, at the height of his youthful dreaminess in 2000, was originally cast to play Russell but had to bow out, and Billy Crudup was the late replacement. He’s fine in the role, but the way it’s written he’s supposed to be the magnetic center of Stillwater, resented by his band mates and pursued by every groupie.
Let’s face it, Crudup just doesn’t dazzle like Pitt does.
“Almost Famous” did a lot of great things for people’s careers. It established Crudup as a potential leading man, and made Kate Hudson a star (albeit fleetingly) for her role as Penny Lane, the self-appointed leader of the groupies (she prefers the term Band Aids) and Russell’s occasional mistress. She scored an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, as did Frances McDormand for playing William’s mother, Elaine — a rare occurrence of thespians getting the nod in the same category.
Another fluke of memory: I had completely forgotten McDormand was even in the film. I had a much stronger reaction to her this time around, playing a smart, willful single mom who is overly protective of William — “Don’t do drugs!” is her repeated mantra — after having previously broken ties with her daughter, who ran off at 18 to become a stewardess, but mostly to get away from her.
Zoey Deschanel plays William’s sister, Anita, one of several other emerging actors who got a boost from small roles in the movie. Fairuza Balk and Anna Paquin turn up as junior Band Aids; Noah Taylor plays Dick, Stillwater’s manager who’s in over his head (and British for some reason); Jimmy Fallon is Dennis Hope, a more established music honcho who swoops in to save Stillwater’s doomed tour, bigfooting Dick in the process; Jay Baruchel is Vic, a dizzy teen fan who follows Led Zeppelin all across the country; Rainn Wilson has an early role as a Rolling Stone editor; Marc Maron and Mitch Hedberg have cameos as, respectively, an angry promoter and a roadie.
And, of course, “Almost Famous” did wonders for Crowe’s career, winning him his only Academy Award, for original screenplay. He would go on to direct Tom Cruise in “Vanilla Sky” the next year. But then the dire triumvirate of “Elizabethtown,” “We Bought a Zoo” and “Aloha” sunk his career so low he hasn’t made a feature film in the past seven years.
Philip Seymour Hoffman has a meaty role, though one with surprisingly little screen time, playing real-life rock critic Lester Bangs. He gives William his break writing some articles for Creem magazine in his native San Diego, which gets him noticed by Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) at Rolling Stone. Without ever meeting him, Ben assigns William to travel with Stillwater on their tour and write a feature article, which he teases as a potential cover story — unaware he’s a 15-year-old kid ditching his last days of high school to make the trip.
Lester advises William to be “honest and unmerciful” in his writing. We’re the uncool kids, he advises in one of his phone check-ins with his protege over the course of the movie, and they’ll use friendship as a way to get you to fall in love with them and write things that’ll help their careers.
Indeed, this is very much what comes to pass. After getting the hand in the face from Black Sabbath, William sneaks into a concert venue by impressing Stillwater with his knowledge of their music. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), rightfully suspicious of journalists, refers to William as “the enemy,” while others in the band’s orbit dub him “Opie,” owing to his youthful, wholesome looks.
But eventually they let him into the club, and William gets to see all the warts inherent in a mid-level band trying to break into the big time.
The major ongoing stressor is that Russell is clearly the star of the show, and he’s let drop hints over the years that he could have a bigger career on his own. He even confides this to William — “I’m past them musically” — but never does seem to get around to the sit-down interview he’s promised the young scribe.
The other big thing going on is Russell’s romance with Penny. He’s married and keeps Penny at arm’s length, thinking she knows the score but not counting on her heart going where it wants. She befriends William, and of course he comes smitten with her, leading to his own growing resentment of Russell and the music life in general.
At one point during a roadie/managers poker game, Russell agrees to “sell” Penny and two other Band Aids to another band for $50 and a case of Heineken. He cautions William that everyone involved knows this life: groupies jump from band to band depending on who’s on tour, and as their next stop is New York where the band’s wives/girlfriend will join them, so Penny knows hers is the next stop.
As for the film’s depiction of journalism, like most such movies it leaves a lot to be desired. I’ll award points for William always carrying a tape recorder and microphone, and often scribbling notes onto a pad. Though when it comes time to write his story, all those notes and recordings seemingly disappear and he has to rely on a bunch of sticky notes.
It is, of course, ludicrous to think that a national magazine would commission a cover story from a writer they’ve never even met or (apparently) spent any time checking out. I know the craft was a lot more freewheeling in 1973 — this was the heyday of Hunter Thompson, after all — but c’mon.
“Almost Famous” is a very observant movie, filled with details and a density to the background. Little things like how the band uses shaving cream in their long hair right before a concert to give it that proper rebel look. The fashions, the vehicles, even the Stillwater songs — some written by Crowe and his wife, Nancy Wilson, and some by Peter Frampton — are spot-on as emblems of that period.
But it still fails to connect in its main character and its theme, that rock ‘n’ roll lost its soul and became a business. (Hint: the soulless moguls were always around.) Fugit isn’t given much to do but stand around and observe, though he finally gets his big blow-up speech when it seems like their airplane is going down.
I understand that the character is written as something of a cipher, the person who acts as the audience’s eyes and ears. But he’s such a reactive presence, he doesn’t feel like a real person we can empathize with. I almost feel like the film needed to cut out a character or two to make room for William — I’d nominate McDormand, great as she is in this.
It’s a lot to carry on a novice actor’s shoulders, and Fugit buckles under the strain. Rather than owning the main character, William is a ghost wandering through somebody else’s story.
The film also feels less like a commentary on the entire music industry than a portrait of this particular band and their journalist tail, little men who dream of becoming legends.
At one point, Jeff becomes incensed when new Stillwater T-shirts arrive showing Russell in clear relief while the rest of the band are blurred into anonymity. (Hilarious, considering the other two members of the band, played by Mark Kozelek and John Fedevich, are very much relegated to this status in the story.)
It triggers Jeff’s anxiety about being overshadowed, which he lays out in a tirade against Russell that more or less tears off the mask to show how the cool guys work so hard at seeming cool:
“From the very beginning we said I'm the front man and you're the guitarist with mystique. That's the dynamic we agreed on!!”
I wanted more of this. A true peek behind the curtain of the rock game: how the music happens, why some bands get hot and some don’t, the tensions inside the group, the way journalism shapes and pushes narratives because they, too, want to chase what’s cool rather than what’s most worthy.
I don’t hate “Almost Famous.” Seen now more than 20 years after it came out, the experience of watching it is like a doubling of nostalgia — for the time it depicts, and the time when it was crafted.
But for me it’s still an emotionally hollow experience, like watching a decent cover band perform one of your favorite songs rather than hearing it from the real thing.