Music plays a vital part in everybody’s adolescence and, 20 years on, Almost Famous celebrates that like no other movie.
Loosely based on Cameron Crowe’s own young-adulthood working as a music critic, the coming-of-age story follows 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) on his journey across America with the fictional up-and-coming band Stillwater. Even today, it provides a euphoric road trip that perfectly captures the self-destructive behaviour of touring musicians in the '70s – the director showcasing the ‘sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll’ attitudes of the era – while also acting as a moving love letter to music and what it means to each individual. Because, what is rock and roll? Long hair and bellbottom jeans? Free love and road trips? Or something else?
In Almost Famous, it’s a feeling. It’s at once the warm embrace of Penny Lane – the leader of Stillwater's "Band-Aids" (not to be confused with groupies) – and, in another moment, it's the community that comes from blasting "Tiny Dancer" and singing along with your bandmates after an argument. It’s a sound that’s equally comforting and invigorating. In the words of Stillwater’s frontman, Jeff Bebe, played by Jason Lee, rock and roll is: “A voice that says here I am, and fuck you if you can’t understand me.”
It's all happening...
Set against a backdrop of huge change in music, fashion, and more, Almost Famous is entirely heartfelt. Crowe lays everything out bare on the table, scars and all. When Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond screws over his bandmates and goes on an acid trip, nearly brushing death as he shouts “I am a golden god!” from a rooftop, the audience isn’t made to feel angry. Everybody in this movie fucks up in different ways, but each one of them is portrayed with intense fondness and love. Crowe told The Independent, “It’s a movie about family and loving music, and I remember thinking throughout, ‘I’m directing this with so much love – I really hope it shows up onscreen.’” And it really does.
Telling the story through the eyes of a wide-eyed kid who sees the world as it is (thanks to a very very strict mother) allows us to see the world the same way. Crowe treads the fine line of portraying difficult relationships and tough times without the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. He allows the movie to be coated with romanticism, but he doesn’t go out of his way to ignore people’s flaws. Patrick Fugit, who played Will, said: “That heart, that romanticism, that optimism permeates Almost Famous.”
Crowe himself was already quite a beloved voice for his high-school tales such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything, but Almost Famous was a different kind of story. When Will’s older sister leaves home to escape the strict confines of their mother’s rules, she looks him (and us) dead in the eyes and promises, “One day, you’ll be cool.” Accompanied with a note that reads “Listen to Tommy [The Who] with a candle burning and you will see your entire future,” Will retreats to his room and begins his journey into music for the first time.
The director commented on this through-line in an interview with Birth.Movies.Death. “I think Lennon said it best, paraphrasing, that music is a big rushing river and there are many tributaries that lead into that river. But the river is a constant, it never changes... music will always be a single essential language shared by everybody, and it continues to be, regardless of format, price, social networking, sex, nationality, concert tickets or technology.” He added, “That's pretty much the inner theme of Almost Famous.”
So the next time you play your go-to record, be sure to dress up in your favourite outfit, look yourself in the mirror and say – in the words of one Penny Lane – “It’s all happening.” Because when you put the right track on, it really is.