A retrospective essay

Dempsey Pillot

It’s been 20 years since Cameron Crowe released his magnum opus, Almost Famous, to the world. Set in the year 1973, most might not expect the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age dramedy to hold up today yet it does. Beyond all the long hair, loud music, and love/hate relationships though lies an honest examination of the culture and the politics of fame.


The film follows 15-years-old prodigy William Miller as he scores a gig writing for Rolling Stone magazine about an up-and-coming band named Stillwater. What should be a one-off interview with the band, turns into an impromptu cross-country excursion after he’s invited to join them on their tour. Along the way, he finds himself slowly becoming one of them as he begins to fall in love with both the lifestyle and a groupie.


With the exception of Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand, at the time the cast was littered with many little known actors. I think it’s also worth mentioning that there are a ton of great “blink and you’ll miss it” appearances from actors who were totally unknown then such as Rainn Wilson, Nick Swardson, and Jay Baruchel. While this film didn’t do too much for their careers, many other cast members did break through because of it - most notably, Kate Hudson.


It may not have been her first foray into acting, but it was the film that caught the world’s attention. Her scene stealing here earned her an Academy Award nomination, and even though she was snubbed, she still became a household name. Hudson plays Penny Lane, the mysterious “band-aid” – Stillwater’s version of a groupie – who befriends William, but who falls for Billy Crudup’s Russell.


Crudup also shines in this film. Similar to the way his lead guitarist character gets top billing despite not being the most important musician in the band, Crudup also gets top billing in the film while not being the most important character. This is William’s story; however, there is an argument to be had that Russell is the person that changes the most over the course of the film. He eventually becomes entangled with Hudson’s Penny Lane, but never truly loves her. It isn’t until the end of the film that he realizes that he doesn’t love anyone as much as he loves himself. He’s just another vain musician, but his ability to finally cope with that is his redemption.


Russell is a very complex character and, for Crudup, this should have been a star making role. I’m not saying that his career took a dive after the film, but with the exception of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen 9 years later, it seems as if Hollywood only just recently came to appreciate his talent. In the last 3 years alone, he’s had a wide variety of roles in film, television, and stage, and he’s just now being awarded accordingly.


Of all the cast members it especially amazes me that Patrick Fugit never blew up after this film. I don’t think he gets nearly as much credit as he should for his performance here. William Miller is a kid, but he’s also a very complex character stuck at a serious crossroad in his life. Will he follow the path that his mother has forged for him, or challenge her by letting the music she opposes set him free? Over the course of the film, it feels like he’s leaning towards the latter; simultaneously his experience with Stillwater sobers him to the realities of the real world.


Speaking of his mother, McDormand may not have the biggest role in the film, but her performance is still unforgettable. I imagine that playing a mother in any capacity, let alone an overbearing one, is no easy task. What I especially appreciate about her performance is how reserved she remains with William. Make no mistake. She’s certainly angry at the way he continuously disobeys her, but she still wants what’s best for him. It’s a very realistic portrayal of a mother in that regard. She doesn’t want to let him go, but at the same time she’s constantly cutting him some slack to let him grow. There comes a point in time where a parent realizes that they can’t be their child’s only teachers, and we witness that moment through her character’s eyes.


While McDormand and Hudson were nominated for Oscars for their incredible performances, they still lost. The film did not go home empty handed though. Crowe took home the gold for Best Original Screenplay, which was more than well-deserved. 


Talking about the film still holding up today, there are numerous lines that are just too good to forget like, “Rock and roll is a lifestyle.” That’s one of the first things Stillwater’s cynical lead singer Jeff, played by Jason Lee, says when we meet him. From that moment forward, the film aims to abide by those words. Cameron Crowe has always proven to be the king of quotables, but I find that some of his very best work - even better than Jerry Maguire - is here. The way Dorothy Boyd tells Jerry Maguire, “You had me at ‘Hello’” just doesn’t compare to the way Penny Lane tells William, “You are home,” during the film’s most iconic moment.


Who can forget that “Tiny Dancer” sequence, anyway? Despite some tension, and after one wild night, Elton John’s classic brings the band and its “band-aids” together as they head to their next show. It’s an ensemble moment that’s rarely found in film today, and it’s executed so well and feels so wholesome that it sticks with you long after you watch it. That being said, Elton John is still only a footnote of the film’s stellar soundtrack.


From Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin to Fleetwood Mac, every song selection is an extension of the love that the characters - and especially Crowe - have for music. At the same time Crowe is careful not to make the music the main focus of the film. Because all music is a product of what people feel, there would be no rock and roll if it wasn’t for the people and the experiences that were creating it.

The first time I saw Almost Famous, I was around the same age as William. Revisiting it now, not only as an adult, but as a budding journalist, I find myself reconnecting to him in brand new ways. When he first meets Stillwater, he’s deemed “The Enemy,” because nobody likes journalists. The same can still be said today. As much as they discount him though, they still let him tell their story because there’s no such thing as bad press. There’s never just one story to tell either. Even though he does get to write their story, he leaves with a more important one to tell: his own. Similar to the way musicians pass their stories down through their songs, Crowe uses the film to give us his so that we may cherish, relive, and replay it forever.

Almost Famous - A Retrospective

 SEPTEMBER. 24. 2020.

                       20 YEARS LATER


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