Music is the great unifier. Regardless of whether you’re the homecoming king, the band geek, or the burnout smoking behind the bleachers, the shared love of a song will melt away differences and amplify the beauty within each of us. The pivotal scene in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” (2000) is proof of this musical unity. The characters are stuck on a tour bus, bitter and divided by petty disagreements. Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” floats into earshot over the radio, and within seconds the bus is transformed into a joyous concert. Harmony literally and metaphorically bursts off the screen. It’s a divine moment – a testament to the spiritual power of song, and the emotional power of the film as a whole.
“Almost Famous” turns twenty today, and suffice to say it has aged like wine. The writing, directing, and acting have all been endlessly praised, and rightfully so, but the thing I want to look back on specifically is the role of music in the film. It’s become old hat to discuss aspects of a film as their own “characters,” but writer-director Crowe does just that, making music the primary focus of both the audience and the protagonist. The result is one of the most authentic, arresting films ever made about rock. It may even be the best.
“Almost Famous” is an autobiographical account of Crowe’s youth. He was a preternaturally gifted writer who was hired to be a “Rolling Stone” journalist when he was only fifteen and proceeded to tour with some of the biggest musical acts in the world. The film recounts the excess and excitement of the 1973 rock scene, and the band Stillwater in particular, through the sheltered eyes of Crowe’s alter ego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit).
There are not many films that talk more poignantly and expressively about the musical process. William points a microphone at the Stillwater members whenever they’re offstage, and while they initially balk, his passion for the artform proves contagious. The singer, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), tries to answer the question, “What is rock and roll?” and comes up with a long, humorous response that feels heartfelt despite its pretensions. The guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), takes an entirely different approach when asked what he loves about music. “For starters,” he says, pausing for dramatic effect, “everything.”
The film nails a crucial detail with these conversations, allowing popular musicians to sound arrogant in one breath and utterly profound in the next. It’s tough to analyze one’s own work without coming off egotistical, and Crowe has a knack for penning the kind of rambling, abstract responses that come with questions about songwriting habits and “group alchemy.” It feels genuine. Crowe invites us to laugh at Jeff and Russell’s naiveté, but never to deny their love for the art form. The music is never the joke.
The other characters are equally passionate about rocking and rolling. Penny Lane (a career-best Kate Hudson) and her posse, “band aids,” have given up normal lives to travel with the bands of their choice. They don’t do it to sleep with the musicians, though that does occur. They do it because they love the work. The film’s most telling bit of dialogue comes from “band aid” Sapphire (Fairuza Balk), who casually bares her soul during a lunch break. They don’t even know what it is to be a fan,” she tells an overwhelmed Russell. “To truly love some silly little piece of music or some band so much that it hurts.” It’s quickly glossed over, but the pain of her words linger over the film like a tune you can’t get out of your head. We all wish we could be so nakedly honest about our passions.
The film also serves as a requiem for the rock scene that Crowe (and William) grew up worshipping. The musical revolution of the 1960s was a tough act to follow, and many historians peg 1973 as the year in which idealism gave way to commercialism. The bands that flourished were talented, but they could no longer separate their desire to make art from their desire to sell out arenas and score a “Rolling Stone” cover. Crowe masterfully captures this dichotomy with Stillwater, whom he partially based on The Allman Brothers Band, the Eagles, and Led Zeppelin. Stillwater has a genuine rapport with William, but the moment the band suspects he could make them look bad is the moment they sever ties. They can’t afford the career risk, even if the teenager is one of their biggest supporters. Most of the dilemmas in the film can be tied to this recurring theme of authenticity vs. artificiality.
Crowe’s background ensures that “Almost Famous” is packed dense with obscure musical references. He blends famous rock anecdotes into his own biographical account, much like a singer would borrow lyrics from an old blues standard to enhance their message. The scene in which Russell calls himself a “golden god” and jumps from a rooftop is based on the exploits of guitarist Duane Allman, while the turbulent plane ride pays homage to the crash that killed three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The inclusion of Stillwater’s aborted t-shirts is a nod to the Bad Company album, “Burnin’ Sky.” It’s little details like these that make “Almost Famous” feel like a true rock film, rather than a film that happens to be about rock.
While it may be an obvious point, I do have to mention the sublime needle drops that occur throughout the film. Crowe’s music choices are inspired (Led Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way” is an all-time deep cut), but the real magic lies in the editing and timing of songs in relation to their given scene. My favorite needle drop occurs early in the film when William’s older sister (Zooey Deschanel) announces that she’s leaving home. Instead of explaining why, she sits William and their mother (Frances McDormand) down and plays the Simon & Garfunkel song “America.” It’s already a wonderful scene – equal parts funny and tragic – but the use of lyrics as exposition is what makes it ingenious. Crowe’s command of sight and sound is so impressive that I wish he would have implemented it more in his subsequent work.
“Almost Famous” has so many virtues that essays could be written about each of them individually. I chose to focus on the music because that’s what initially drew me to the project and led to me falling in love with the characters. It’s the rare film in which music is not only part of the backdrop, but the narrative and the performances as well. It could not have been set a year before or after 1973, and that kind of artistic specificity is what makes it Crowe’s crowning achievement. It’s a film only he could have made, and I’m thankful he did.
Have you seen “Almost Famous?” if so, what do you think of the film? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Danilo and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @DaniloSCastro