A very common question when getting to know someone is to ask what their favorite movie is. Should be a simple question, but I’m the type of guy who will launch into a rant about how it’s impossible to pick a single favorite, because such things can fluctuate on any number of variables in a given day, forcing me to pick something like a favorite top ten or something. But, if I’m not in the mood to get into all of that, or am just forced to pick a single favorite film, my go to answer is, and has been for almost fifteen years, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Throughout the course of this project we’ve talked about a lot of films that I would count among my favorite films of all time, but Almost Famous is the film that usually is able to stand above all others in my estimation. Which, may be a weird discovery, I’m not sure. By now we’ve shared dozens of films that I love, hopefully giving a pretty solid impression of my taste in film, so I’m not quite sure if choosing this movie as my all-time favorite is a curve ball or not, but it’s the truth. Which means that there was never going to really be a real challenge for the title of my favorite film of 2000. Which is a damn shame, because there are some other fantastic films that came out that year, two of which I’m legitimately a little irritated I don’t get to talk about, because they would handily win any other year in competition. I actually have written, however briefly, about O Brother, Where Art Thou? which is damn near my favorite Coen Brothers film of all time, and which is a movie that I could talk about endlessly. Likewise, I have a serious affection for Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, a movie that I remember buying on Amazon about ten minutes into watching it at a friend’s house, knowing that this was going to be something I’d want to watch again and again, and which has become almost a comfort-food level film that I can just toss on whenever I need a good time. And, beyond those three amazing films, the year is stacked with plenty of other great stuff I love. American Psycho and Christian Bale’s performance contained within is a fascinating time capsule, and one of the best serial killer films I’ve ever seen. It may not be a typical entry to Disney’s animated films, but I really love the Emperor’s New Groove, one of the absolute funniest films Disney has ever made. High Fidelity is a movie I have a lot of affection for, while maybe being a little reticent to revisit and find that it’s grown repellent. Oh, hey, we talked about Nosferatu way back in the earliest days of this series so why not mention Shadow of the Vampire, an absolutely insane movie that posits that that film actually cast a for-real vampire. And, as usual, a bunch of other trashy movies that I nevertheless watched several times on HBO back in the day and have a weird amount of nostalgia for, stuff like Shanghai Noon, Hollow Man, Wonder Boys, Bedazzled, and Sexy Beast. It was a great year for movies. But, none of them hold a candle to my personal favorite, Almost Famous.
This film, in case you weren’t aware, was largely autobiographical for Cameron Crowe. Crowe was obsessed with rock and roll music from an early age, and largely thanks to him establishing a mentor relationship with famed music critic Lester Bangs, Crower was able to get work writing for Rolling Stone magazine at the age of 16, becoming their youngest ever contributor. He traveled with several prominent bands of the era, writing cover stories about them and experiencing the madness of their tours, filling himself with a font of stories and anecdotes about the music scene at the time. Crowe then went on to become a filmmaker, and after creating the sensational Jerry Maguire, Crowe was approached by DreamWorks Studios, who offered him the chance to make whatever passion project he had in mind. And, after summoning up memories of his time on the road, Crowe began work on Almost Famous, attempting to blend a litany of strange experiences and stories into one over-arching narrative with a surrogate of himself experiencing a wild tour with an up and coming rock band known as Stillwater. He began establishing a cast of actors, largely newcomers or people who were on the cusp of becoming major actors, and got to work bringing his adolescence to life. Which included him working with his then-wife Nancy Wilson and friend Peter Frampton to write songs for Stillwater that would sound believable from a band of the era. And, after pouring his blood, sweat, and tears into this project, Almost Famous landed with a dull thud in late 2000. Critically, it was quite well received, and Kate Hudson received quite a bit of awards recognition for her role as Penny Lane, and Crowe even got a screenwriting Oscar for himself. But, financially, the film as an absolute bomb. Like so many of the movies we talk about during this project. At the time it couldn’t find its audience, but over time it’s become a fairly beloved film. At least, to the best of my knowledge. Because I really couldn’t care less what people think about this movie, it means a great deal to me, and that’s kind of all that matters.
Almost Famous is the story of a young man named William Miller. William grew up with his over-bearing intellectual mother and rebellious older sister Anita in San Diego during the late-sixties, largely being deprived of the pop culture that his mother so greatly feared. But, after Anita flees home to become a stewardess she leaves behind her record collection, sending William down the path that would eventually make him a fifteen year old rock and roll-obsessed struggling journalist, eager to become the foremost rock critic of his generation, much to his mother’s chagrin. He has begun being mentored by famed critic Lester Bangs, who decides to throw William a bone and task him with writing an article on an upcoming Black Sabbath concert. But, when William gets to the concert he learns that he’s not on the list, and is forced to wait around with some of the women lurking outside the venue. There he meets a woman named Penny Lane, the leader of a group of women who call themselves Band-Aids, but who are essentially groupies. They promise to help William out, but almost immediately fall through. Which is when William runs into the opening act, an up and coming band called Stillwater. He’s aware of their music and ends up ingratiating himself with the band enough that they bring him back stage. In fact, he gets to know them so well that they invite him to their next show, which Penny will also be attending.
And, as luck would have it, this at the same time that William gets a call from an editor at Rolling Stone magazine who wants to offer him work. And, since he already has an in with Stillwater, William recommends covering them. Rolling Stone is down with it, and William is able to convince his mother to miss some of his senior year to tour around with Stillwater and get the best possible interview. She doesn’t like it, but in fear of losing him like she lost Anita, she agrees, and William joins up with Stillwater, touring America and going through all sorts of ridiculous adventures. He gets to know the band members, primarily the egotistical lead singer Jeff and the mysterious and talented guitar player Russell, and he quickly begins falling in love with Penny, even though she is clearly pairing herself up with Russell. William gets to travel all around the country, seeing the band play disastrous shows, grow together as friends, and have potential falling outs. William even gets to journey around with Russell while he’s high on acid at a local high school party after a huge fight with the band almost results in them breaking up. And, after enough disasters, the band end up finding themselves a new manager, who wants them to give up their beloved tour bus and get a chartered plane which will let them play more shows, including an upcoming gig in New York.
Which, is also when they decide it’s time to get rid of Penny. Because Russell is ostensibly in a relationship, and his girlfriend will be meeting up with them in New York, so the band decides to give Penny the boot, much to William’s horror. He tries to convince Penny that she’s too good for this life, but she still ends up following the band to New York, where William informs them that his story about them will be featured on the cover of the magazine. But, the pleasure he gets from that news is stripped away when he finds Penny overdosing on Quaaludes after a failed attempt to get back with Russell. He saves her life, and she returns to San Diego to figure out what’s next, while William goes on one last flight with the band, which almost ends in tragedy. The plane almost crashes, and the band members make several startling confessions to each other, all of which William decides to put in his piece now that he’s been disillusioned by them. And, Rolling Stone loves it. The band however are terrified that this story will ruin them, and they seek to deny everything, covering their asses and throwing William under the bus. But, Russell starts to have a change of heart, and attempt to reach out to Penny for a reconciliation. She has a different idea though, and ends up sending Russell to talk with William, and the two have a real heart to heart. He ends up approving the story, William gets published on the cover of Rolling Stone, and Stillwater head out to do a new tour, their way.
So that’s Almost Famous. I love it! It’s a movie that I’ve watched countless times, and that always surprises me with some new element to latch onto and love each time I revisit it. I think that the film has a pretty solid reputation nowadays, especially among people who live and breathe pop culture and spend their time writing about it, but I really don’t know. It may be relegated to some Baby Boomer Bullshit too, I’m not sure. All I know is that I love this movie, wholeheartedly. By and large I’m not the biggest Cameron Crowe fan, so it’s fascinating to me that this film connects so viscerally with me. But, it may be because of how intimate a story it is. Crowe has been rather open with the fact that the film is incredibly autobiographical to his own life, from the band nonsense down to the characterizations of his mother and sister, and I think that that authenticity is what really sells the film to me. It’s a story that feels real, all while being built around what could easily be construed as rock and roll myths. But, it was a mythic time, and this movie really captures that in a beautiful way. Everyone is terrific in this film, from Kate Hudson’s wonderful turn as the ethereal Penny Lane, to Patrick Fugit’s wonderfully naturalistic performance as William, just a kid way in over his head. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s heartfelt, and it’s nostalgic, all without becoming too overly sentimental or schmaltzy. It’s just a perfect film.
It’s kind of hard to put into words how much this movie means to me. I’m not kidding around when I say it’s my favorite film of all time. It may be the film I’ve watched most in my life, to the point where I can quote damn near the whole thing verbatim, and it’s the kind of movie that I find myself revisiting every couple of months, just a comforting security movie that makes me feel right in the world. And, I think that that largely comes from the fact that when I first saw it, William Miller’s life was the coolest possible thing in the world to me. I was a weird high school kid who listened almost exclusively to classic rock, I had aspirations of being a writer, and I loved the works of Hunter Thompson. So, this film was a perfect encapsulation of everything that I loved. It was a movie meant for the oddballs, the people who could obsessively recite pop culture facts, but who barely had life experiences of their own. And, for a long time, that’s what this film was to me, an idealized life. But, as time has gone on, this movie has morphed. When I was William’s age I was completely smitten by the glamour of the film, but as I started to get older I began realizing how sad the film is. It’s a bunch of children thinking that they’re wise sages, doing their best to lie to each other and prove that they know what they’re doing. But, by the end of the film all of the artifice is stripped away, and they find themselves craving the one thing that they’ve been giving up the whole time, authenticity. And, that’s what the film really shows to me. The power of authenticity, especially in a world where everyone is forced to become their own brand, constantly doing everything in their power to look as cool as possible at all time. All of that is nonsense. It’s so much easier, and so much more satisfying to just be yourself. Live your truth, and be who you want to be. You only have one life, and at any time you could be involved in a tragic plane crash, so just live the life you want.
Almost Famous was written and directed by Cameron Crowe and released by DreamWorks Distribution, 2000.
Categories: Cinematic Century