Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous will be seventeen years old this September. I don’t know about you but—like seeing a nephew or niece grow up—I find that oddly unbelievable. Somehow, even though my life has taken oh-so many twists and turns since that first time I saw it at the dawn of the new millennium, whenever I give Almost Famous another spin I almost feel like it’s just come out and I’m seeing it for the first time all over again. It is odd that a story grounded so firmly in one specific era should feel so timeless. And yet it does. There’s a perennial freshness to the movie. Perhaps that’s because Crowe’s screenplay really is a bit of a marvel—a warm and naturalistic Linklater-esque story that is rooted in eternal human truths even while its flourishes are time- and place-specific. I decided to watch Almost Famous again the other day. I don’t ever actually need a specific reason to watch Almost Famous but this time I had one: Remarkably, my girlfriend had never seen it. For me, this meant the added treat of viewing it vicariously through her eyes as if for the first time.
So with that combination of veteran Stillwater roadie and the fresh, unspoiled ear drums of a brand new fan, here are some reflections on Almost Famous on the umpteenth rewatch.
1. You will always forget that Zooey Deschanel is in this movie.
The younger Deschanel sister was around for quite some time before she was Summer and then Jess. It’s easy to forget that. Also, in Almost Famous she doesn’t look like herself. It’s probably the lack of bangs. It is known: ZD derives 40% of her power from her bangs. Like a modern quirky Samson.
2. It hurts to watch this movie because Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was probably one of the finest actors of his generation. A true heavyweight in terms of craft and—as is supremely evident in Almost Famous—warmth, Lester Bangs is one of those roles that, as cliched as it sounds, was totally and absolutely made for Hoffman. Almost Famous is a movie full of hyper-quotable lines, and arguably none of them ring as loudly and resonantly as Lester Bangs’ phone-delivered reassurance to William about currencies and bankrupt worlds and being uncool. Goddammit does watching this film make you miss Philip Seymour Hoffman.
3. Frances McDormand is the best mum, and the worst mum.
Overbearing, stifling, oppressive; loving, supportive, empathetic—while William’s mother’s manners and behaviours are often used as a punchline in the movie, Crowe’s script and McDormand’s wonderful portrayal never let her devolve into a cartoon. We understand where she’s coming from, even if we may not always agree with her methods. Even while we’re whisked away on an adventure with William a part of us always stays back there at home with Elaine.
4. Elaine’s interactions with Russell are a bounty of delights.
Russell, Stillwater’s charismatic and handsome lead guitarist, is played to perfection by Billy Crudup in what may be the actor’s greatest ever role. At times warm and supportive and at others cold and volatile, he refuses to fall straight into either a hero or villain’s role. Truth be told, like most people in this life, he’s a little bit of both. At one point in the heat of a band argument about responsibility he says that surely the reason all the guys in Stillwater decided to be in a rock band was to avoid all responsibility in the first place—in effect to be eternal adolescents. Russell feels the flip side of that adolescence when he’s confronted with the implacable voice of measured wrath that is William’s mother. In one phone call she strips him of all bluff and swagger and transports him onto the floor of her living room, into the naughty corner, as she asserts herself and makes it clear just how much her son means to her, and just how much hell there’ll be to pay should he not be looked after properly. The stage-conquering rock god is reduced to mumbled ‘Yes, ma’ams.’ ‘It’s not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell,’ she will tell the guitarist later when William’s mother and twisted, sorta-maybe father figure share a moment that speaks volumes.
5. Jimmy Fallon is genuinely good in this movie.
He may be a Trump-enabling doucheballoon in real life, but in Almost Famous Jimmy Fallon really delivers. Brought in by the label as Stillwater is on the brink of making it big but still finding themselves held back, Fallon’s Dennis Hope is a real piece of work. Clearly a hyper-competent manager with copious industry experience and insider knowledge, his is the word that leads the band into abandoning Doris, their beloved and battered tour bus, to take to the sky á la Led Zeppelin in an effort to maximise touring commitments and to make hay while the sun shines. Up among the clouds is of course where the sun stops shining and the band’s suddenly very fragile-seeming little plane finds itself in an electrical storm. The proximity to apparently certain death leads to a whole bunch of beans being spilled in that rattling plane, probably the second most memorable of which is Dennis’ confession of once being involved in a hit-and-run and not having any idea if the victim is alive or dead. Fallon sells the snivelling confession as well as he does the uber-capitalist swagger.
6. Kate Hudson, yo.
The discrepancy between Kate Hudson’s performance here and in other movies is a point so-often echoed in the halls of pop culture that I won’t go into it in depth here again, but goddammit is she fucking perfect as Penny Lane. Aspirational, sweet, broken, loving, whip-smart Penny Lane is the heart of Almost Famous in so many ways, and Hudson teased quite the reservoir of talent with her take on the character. Give us more, Hudson. We know you’ve got it in you. We’ve seen it.
7. That bus scene is even better than we all remember.
Often justifiably placed on lists of the all-time greatest movie music moments, Stillwater’s tour bus Elton John singalong really is joyous perfection. By this point we’ve witnessed tensions, outbursts, musical differences, tour disasters, warring egos, and an acid-fueled rooftop pool jump at the house party of some ‘real Topeka people, man’. To belabour the metaphor, it feels as if the wheels are soon to come off of Doris. But here, here in this moment where the band and hangers on sit in sullen silence broken only by the sounds of the road and the piano strains of ‘Tiny Dancer’, everything comes together to promise the kind of unbeatable hope and sense of reconciliation that only a good singalong can. One by one the travellers take up the tune, and as everything slowly builds to that euphoric climax our eyes are fixed on Russell—poor, despondent Russell, at first frozen in misery but nevertheless gradually thawing as the music washes over them all. And then, sure enough, the chords hit and the chorus rings out, and he throws his head back and sings along with everyone else.
8. You can watch this movie over and over again and not get bored.
There’s something strangely mythical about Almost Famous. Cyclical, in a way. Like you’re watching a story unfold that’s been unfolding since stories were being told; another version of an ancient trope. I guess maybe that’s because it basically is. Almost Famous is pretty much Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey by way of 70’s rock music, and with an exceedingly nuanced and clever script. Either way, when Stillwater’s tour bus rides off into the golden hued distance at the end, it’s very very easy to just start the whole journey again from the beginning. That bus might be riding off into the distance, but you just know it won’t be long until it comes round again. The show must go on after all.
Oh, and that fucking soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.