Now that the world Crowe so lovingly constructed is five decades in the past, its nostalgia and romance glow brighter.
The death of rock ’n’ roll has been prophesied over and over again through its nearly 50-year pop cultural domination. But it never really happened – not after the Beatles disbanded, not after disco overtook the FM airwaves, not after punk guitars gave way to new wave synths – that is, until it finally did.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, Almost Famous arrived when rock ’n’ roll – that exceedingly popular formula featuring a guitarist, bassist, drummer and lead singer – was already shuffling its way to the nursing home. Radiohead’s Kid A, which deconstructed the form, marked a cultural turning point, the last gasp as the genre’s vital organs began to fail. That it dropped just a few weeks after Cameron Crowe’s encomium to rock premiered (at the Toronto International Film Festival to much acclaim), now seems poetic or, more appropriately, harmonic.
Almost Famous is (ahem) famously Crowe’s autobiography. Though some minor details were altered, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is basically Crowe’s avatar. Both were exceptionally bright students who skipped a few grades early on. Both were reared by a college professor in San Diego. Both became Lester Bangs’ protégé and started writing for Creem before Ben Fong-Torres of Rolling Stone came calling. And both were only 15 when they hit the road to cover big-time acts for rock’s most important publication.
If the early-70s tableau of Almost Famous felt somewhat familiar in 2000, it now seems broadcasted from another universe. Though the state of contemporary music undoubtedly evolved in the 27 years that separated the film from its 1973 setting, particularly given hip hop’s birth and rise, the grunge boom of the early ’90s was still fresh in the minds of viewers (as were “That 70’s Show” and Dazed and Confused). Today, alternative rock’s radio dominance is also (roughly) 27 years in the rearview. The industry of music has been upended in the interregnum.
Which is why Almost Famous works even better in 2020 than it did in 2000. Now that the world Crowe so lovingly constructed is five decades in the past, its nostalgia and romance glow brighter. The film has no shortage of iconic moments and scenes. See, in no particular order: young William flipping through his sister’s record collection; “Rock stars have kidnapped my son!”; Bangs’ advice, particularly his last bit (“be honest and unmerciful”), “I am a golden god!”; the Russell interview, finally; Penny Lane making her grand entrance at the Riot House; William flattering Stillwater outside the Sabbath concert (“I’m incendiary, too, man!”); the T-shirt meltdown. And then there’s the film’s greatest and best-known sequence: a “Tiny Dancer” singalong that, in the context of the story, dramatizes how a perfect song can unite and heal.
Tellingly, Almost Famous also represents Crowe’s last artistic gasp. His follow-ups (Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo, Aloha) have ranged from merely interesting to outright embarrassing. What a gasp, though. Its vital performances have been preserved in amber, as intact today as they were at the time. Frances McDormand (playing William’s quietly intense mother) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (channeling the controlled frenzy of Lester Bangs) are both in top form. But that’s to be expected. The rogue’s gallery of supporting players remains impeccable. Fugit and Kate Hudson (Miss Penny Lane), our stars, deliver career-defining performances.
As a bildungsroman, a road story, and an elegy to rock – nothing compares to Almost Famous. Penny Lane encapsulates its spirit: “If you never take it seriously, then you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, then you always have fun. And if you ever get lonely you can just go to the record store and visit your friends.” Replace “record store” with “streaming service,” and these words endure as the fundamental credo of youth.