If I had to pick one fictional account of rock’n’roll of the early 70s and what it’s like to be on the road, that would be Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical coming of age flick. And that’s because Almost Famous accurately portrays a specific era in time from an insider’s perspective, as Cameron Crowe has experienced it all first hand. At the same time, William, Cameron Crowe’s alter ego, is the ultimate outsider in that world and, thus, he’s not only the perfect character for most viewers to identify with but, as well, the means through which they can discover an entire new world by watching him discovering it. Essentially, William’s inexperience and eagerness to fit in that world, is what makes the film as compelling as it is, as the audience is able to embark on an unexpected journey, full of new experiences, along with the film’s protagonist, while it is Cameron Crowe’s personal experiences that grant it its status as a truthful account of an era, a mindset and a whole generation.
William is first introduced to rock’n’roll by his older sister and gets into it, partly, because he enjoys the music and, partly, because he wants to maintain a connection with her, as she goes away from, to ‘look for America’. All he’s left with are her records and, indeed, the film is an ode to how music can actually create its own universe, able to take you in and away, give you a whole new perspective but, still, provide you with a shelter, making you feel at home. Penny Lane, the original band aid and muse to the occasional aspiring rock god, makes William, and the audience, realise that good music is a like a true friend – always there for you when you need it the most. And that’s why life on the road, even though hectic, can get so appealing. Because, as William discovers, ‘home’ is something you can have with you on the road, find in the people around you and in the ever-changing landscape.
Cameron Crowe’s commentary on the film’s special DVD edition helps contextualise a lot of the film’s references. For instance, Gregg Allman kept asking Cameron Crowe if he was a narc, the conversation William has with Russell Hammond about how he’s a better musician than the rest of his band but didn’t want to make music without them is a reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd, while, otherwise, Russell Hammond’s character, a part Billy Crudup seems –to me- he was born to play, is largely based on Glenn Frey of the Eagles. There’s much more trivia one can learn hearing the commentary that are very interesting but, not knowing them doesn’t take anything away from the film. Crowe manages to make the parts that concern the non-famous people and the connections between them much more interesting than the, definitely enlightening, insights on various bands of the 70s he toured with. Case in point: Penny Lane, brought to life by a beaming Kate Hudson, probably one of the most accurately portrayed of the characters since that’s the nickname the woman the character is based on still uses, is the most interesting character of all. Actually, there are many instances in the film where you get the feeling that the whole movie is about William’s infatuation with her. This is, after all, a coming of age story and first-time romance is a defining moment of teenage years.
In many ways, William’s first time romance is not only with Penny Lane. What makes Almost Famous so engaging is how well it manages to capture that feeling of being a teenager, when exciting, life changing experiences can occur every single day. William, delightfully portrayed by Patrick Fugit, enters both the rock’n’roll universe and adolescence at the same time, taking everything in, with eyes wide open, so innocent and impressionable. And, as it happens with everyone’s real contact with the adult world, he discovers it’s not all fun and games. Or, rather, perhaps too little fun and too many games. Being part of a rock’n’roll entourage means you have to keep secrets, uses code names and passwords, treat women like property and have incredibly inflated egos in order to survive. William’s heart is broken as he is ‘too sweet for rock’n’roll’. And as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hilarious Lester Bangs predicts, William discovers that the music industry is finally turned into an ‘industry of cool’ and painfully learns that all good things end – the same way fireworks just fizzle out. And still, true to how instrumental adolescent years are for the rest of our lives, William is the better for it and fortunate enough to have lasting mementos of his time in the circus. Hotel room keys, airport tickets, Polaroids but, most importantly, Stillwater’s songs, the band that took him in, and the narratives he can produce out of his experiences, which don’t speak about everyone else but about, and to, the share he had in this world. Rock’n’roll can get really personal. As can adolescence.
In the end, this is a film about rock’n’roll and a film about carefree teenage years. Most significantly, this is a film about these moments in one’s life where everything is possible, all is exciting and colourful and all senses are ready to absorb the music, the images, the tastes and the words that will forever remind you that life itself can turn you into a fan, seeking its joys and, at the same time, knowing that it’s bound to hurt you, sometimes in the most beautiful ways. Just like a good song does.
Almost Famous at IMDb
Almost Famous at Rotten Tomatoes
Almost Famous at Wikipedia
Almost Famous (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb
Almost Famous at The Uncool (theuncool.com)
1973 in music at Wikipedia