The Sentimental Spirit of Almost Famous, 20 Years Later

Cameron Crowe’s beloved music movie turns 20, and, now more than ever, it’s a fantasy of a bygone era of journalism—and the music industry itself

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The Sentimental Spirit of Almost Famous, 20 Years Later

Near the end of Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s beloved film loosely based on his own experiences as a budding music journalist in the 1970s, our young protagonist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) and the various rag-tag members of the band he’s following for a Rolling Stone story, Stillwater, are about to die in a plane crash. The cabin is shaking, the lights are flickering, the ice in the glasses is rattling and everyone is shouting. It’s not unlike the riotous, uncontrolled pit of a rock show (remember those?).

Narrowly, they avoid the fate that Lynyrd Skynyrd (one of Stillwater’s few real-life counterparts that Crowe actually toured with) so tragically met in 1977. The noise and convulsion cease, the skies outside the plane windows turn blue and the pilots excitedly open the doors to the cockpit just in time to shout, “We’re gonna live!”

That scene is just one of many that would never fly (pardon the pun) today. Almost Famous, which turns 20 this weekend and has been celebrated by numerous podcasts, oral histories and cast reunions throughout this year leading up to its September birthday, remains an unruly snapshot of a bygone time in American pop music—a time when it was “all happening,” as Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) says so dreamily at one point in the film.

In the early 1970s, a teenaged Crowe actually toured with real-life rock ’n’ roll bands like Poco, the Allman Brothers and the aforementioned Skynyrd (no word on whether he experienced anything close to the plane scene). In modern times, it’s somewhat rare for a music journalist (or any journalist, for that matter, outside of high-profile celebrity profilists) to receive face-to-face sit down time with the talent—much less join their troupe for months on end. During the pandemic, interviews and profile-writing have been forced to go strictly online via phone or video, so watching a young Miller play fly-on-the-wall with one of the biggest rock bands of the day is extra surreal.

Fantastical narratives aside, Almost Famous is still utterly beloved by so many fans today—particularly music journalists of a certain generation, who either grew up watching the film at the peak of its popularity or stumbled upon it later. But music journalists (or at least this music journalist) don’t necessarily dig Almost Famous because they’re obsessed with the allure of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll (though I’m sure some do). Many love Almost Famous because it’s a movie about falling in love with music. And, like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (which arrived seven years before), it upholds a kind of mystique surrounding the glory days of classic rock paired with narratives about growing up and the importance of music in our lives.

In many ways, Almost Famous is a classic coming-of-age tale. William’s sister (played perfectly by a bright-eyed Zooey Deschanel) bequeaths her record collection upon him before flying the coop to escape their overbearing mother (the inimitable Frances McDormand). The prodigious 15-year-old William obsesses over The Who, the Beach Boys, The Beatles and all the other rock greats of the day, leading him to pursue a career in rock music journalism well before most of his classmates even decided where or if they were attending college. He bears witness to messy relationships, all sorts of drunken touring tomfoolery and even an almost-drug overdose while on the road. He falls in love with Penny and loses his virginity to one (or more) of the other groupies in a grimy hotel room. He spends his graduation day in a penthouse suite at the Plaza Hotel giddily watching Penny get her stomach pumped after calling the doctor that would save her life. At the film’s end, he wearily returns home to his mother, now a changed man with his byline on the cover of Rolling Stone.

But, at the same time, William isn’t the one doing most of the growing in this movie. Russell Hammond, the Stillwater frontman, goes from crazed rockstar (at one point screaming, “I am a golden god!” atop a roof at a house party in Topeka) to serious musician. That’s thanks in no small part to Penny (one of Hudson’s best-ever roles), who, by the end of the movie, forces him to reckon with his own reality and do what’s right (apologize to William for being an asshole, and call up Rolling Stone to confirm William’s story so they can print it). Both Penny and Russell’s arcs are the most interesting in the film.

Almost Famous is a story told purposely through William’s perspective. The wide-eyed, hopeful, opportunist gaze with which he regards these musicians is one aspect that holds up even today. Now, music journalists don’t fly around on private jets with artists or join in on “Tiny Dancer” singalongs on their tour buses, but music fans are still enamored with the bands they love. We still fall in love with music, and this movie does such a fantastic job of showing what it looks like to fall head over heels for a particular artist, scene or sensation.

William and Stillwater are chasing parallel dreams throughout the film. William is seeking to get his words in print, and Stillwater, a rapidly rising band not yet awarded superstar status, are itching to get their names in print. What makes it a great music movie is the representation of the hustle—not the glory. Almost Famous tracks the before times, the getting there. Whether or not the fictitious Stillwater would have become etched into history alongside the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin is only for us to ponder.

We love Almost Famous because of the mythology surrounding it. As Penny says whenever she and the band book rooms at a celebrities-only hotel, “Famous people are just more interesting.” Just like William, we’ll never really know or be on the same pedestal as our music heroes, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. Being a fan is special in its own right. “The only true currency in this world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool,” says the fictionalized version of renowned rock critic Lester Bangs, who’s played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie. The real magic is down here in the pit, with everyone else whose names aren’t in print.

Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and rewatching Little Women on Letterboxd.

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