I still remember the first time I saw this movie. I was twelve, and my sister and I snuck into the theater (with its scandalous 14A rating, we were a few years too young to be watching it) and spent the next few hours enthralled by the music, clothes, and sweet love story between William and Penny, played perfectly by Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson.
The movie sparked a lifelong love of rock n roll, and introduced me to some of my favorite artists. I feel like this movie deserves a yearly rewatch, so to get you in the mood, I’ve put together some of the best things about this movie, starting with…
The soundtrack. It is probably the best portrayal of the music of that era – unapologetic, talented, brash, but often sweet, and each song complimented each scene perfectly, like the amazing “you are home”/Tiny Dancer moment. I used to watch that scene on repeat.
The movie is heavily based on Cameron Crowe’s own life. In one of the opening scenes, his sister forces his mother to tell him the truth about his age – that he’s actually a few years younger than his classmates.
This actually happened! In an interview, Crowe said, “…my sister still can’t believe the dialogue is right. I never forgot that conversation when my sister forced my mom into telling me. I’d skipped fifth grade and gone straight to sixth, so I was 10 in sixth grade. I figured it was okay to be one year younger, but they pulled over in my mom’s country sedan and told me it was two years younger.”
Cameron Crowe also was a child prodigy and wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine. He went touring with The Allman Brothers Band. Similar to the movie, Greg Allman distrusted him, and kept asking if Crowe was a narc. In another similarity, he was in a near-fatal plane crash with The Who.
Since the movie is so centered around music, its budget for music was $3.5 million – $2 million more than the average movie music budget! That being said, getting the rights to Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Elton John, and David Bowie, not to mention inventing a whole new band, is TOTALLY worth it.
Stillwater, the band that William is following, is a composite of bands that Cameron Crowe came in contact with while writing for Rolling Stone. The songs were written by rocker Peter Frampton, Crowe, and his now ex-wife Nancy Wilson, who plays guitar in the rock band Heart. She also wrote the original acoustic pieces you hear in the film – we’ve got an amazing video of that coming up soon, so keep reading!
That scene where Russell climbs onto a roof and is yelling, “I am a golden god!”? It’s inspired by Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant yelling that from the balcony of the “Riot House.” (You know, the Continental Hyatt House.)
Ok, so where did Penny Lane actually come from? Some say she was based on Bebe Buell, 1974’s Playboy Playmate of the Month, girlfriend to a host of rock stars, including Steven Tyler. She’s also Liv Tyler’s mother. Some of Penny’s lines were taken from interviews she’s given over the years.
There was another inspiration for Penny Lane – Pennie Lane, or Pennie Ann Trumbull, who had a group in the 1970’s called The Flying Garter Girls. They used to travel around the country as promotors for rock bands. She would have been in her early 20’s when doing the promoting, and we never found out Penny Lane’s real age, so we’ll keep guessing!
In order to make the band seem more realistic, the actors portraying Stillwater practiced four hours a night, five days a week, for six weeks.
Cameron Crowe based his mothers character, played wonderfully by Frances McDormand, on his actual mother. He didn’t want to sway McDormand’s performance so when his mother made a small cameo, he tried to keep them apart. He left the set for a few minutes on the first day of filming and returned to find them eating lunch together.
His mother approved of her character, except for one thing. No, not the paranoia. Not the disdain for rock music, either. It was that her character walked around the house barefoot. “She’s troubled by the fact that people will think she went barefoot,” Crowe told Amazon UK. “Which is kind of like saying, ‘Well, the murder is fine, but you had me commit the murder in a red dress, and I never wear red.’”
In another moment of being the coolest couple ever (sadly, they’ve since split but were really freaking cool together), Cameron Crowe and Nancy Wilson wrote most of the music for the film on their honeymoon.
They went to a secluded cabin in Oregon, invented a fake band and wrote music for it, “knowing sort of one day we might do a movie where we could use the stuff,” he said. “Almost 15 years later, those songs became a reality.”
In order to play the role more effectively, Kate Hudson spent time researching rock stars, their wives, and groupie culture. She immerse herself in the music and tried to get a feel for what the era was really like.
“You look in their eyes and you see a sadness,” Hudson said. “You can tell how much they lived, and how jaded it gets in that world. But, at the same time, they knew what they were getting themselves into.”
This movie is absolutely a love letter to the rock ‘n roll days of yore. There’s also something that feels innocent about it, which is what Cameron Crowe intended.
He told Paste Magazine, “…it was those guys that were the biggest fans of Almost Famous that said, ‘Yeah, sex and drugs and stuff are a part of rock ’n’ roll, but a true musician never picks up the guitar at first because they just want sex and drugs.’ It’s usually because a record blew their head off, and they never could go back to whatever they wanted to be before. And that’s what I think Almost Famous is about—it’s about getting your head blown off by a piece of music, and everything else is secondary.”
The movie was originally supposed to be named Untitled, but that was shot down by the studio. Its working name, Almost Famous, derives from the experiences Crowe had at concerts.
“I used to go to concerts and I would see Mick Jagger, then off to the side are these people standing by the amplifiers,” Crowe explained. “You look at them, and you think, who are they? Are they groupies? Are they friends of the promoter? Are they married to the bass player? Because they’re almost famous.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman played Lester Bangs, real-life journalist extraordinaire who was Cameron Crowe’s real life mentor. Jack Black and Jon Favreau also auditioned for the role. Hoffman was only available for filming for four days, and he had the flu the entire time. He still managed to give an electrifying performance and provided some of the best lines of the movie.
Cameron Crowe has said that his favorite scene is where Penny is dancing in the empty auditorium.
In the scenes where William’s mother is reprimanding Russell, the actors are actually speaking to each other on the phone. This is highly unusual in filming, but added an extra touch of magic to the scenes.
When Penny Lane asks William if he wanted to go to Morocco with her, he responds, “Yes…ask me again.” In actuality, Patrick Fugit had fumbled his lines and wanted to repeat the take. Instead, Cameron Crowe liked the vibe and kept it in.
In one of the first scenes where William is getting introduced to the world of rock ‘n roll, Fairuza Balk’s character Sapphire bursts into a room and yells, “Does anyone remember laughter?” This is a reference to what Robert Plant used to say during live performances of ‘Stairway To Heaven.’
Originally, Brad Pitt was cast as Russell Hammond, and Sarah Polley as Penny Lane. Polley was unable to film due to prior filming responsibilities, and Pitt simply couldn’t capture the essence of Russell – mixed up, deeply charming, enigmatic, and above all, pure rock ‘n roll. Billy Crudup took the role, and, in our opinion, nailed it.
There’s a directors cut that contains an additional 36 minutes of footage. We’re not saying to drop everything right now and go watch it, but you should probably drop everything right now and watch it.
Steven Spielberg loved the script. After Cameron Crowe finished writing it, he sent it to as many studios as he could. Spielberg read it over the weekend, called Crowe on Monday and allegedly said, “Direct every word.” Crowe obliged, and almost everything that was in the script made it to the screen.
In one of the sweeter moments of the movie, William is pulled into the pre-show huddle with the band. This is based on real life – when Cameron Crowe was covering grunge superstars Pearl Jam, frontman Eddie Vedder pulled him into the group pre-show.
Even though filming took less than 100 days, Patrick Fugit actually grew three inches during that time. To balance it out, Billy Crudup had to wear platforms for some scenes.
Finally, this was one of my favorite movie moments. When Penny and William are walking through the International Riot House, they pass by a room with two musicians singing. I never knew what the song was until recently. It’s meant to be Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, singing “Small Time Blues,” portrayed by real life musicians Pete Droge and Elaine Summers. See the song here, or in the extended directors cut!
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