Top 10 Classic Rock Moments in ‘Almost Famous’
‘Almost Famous,’ Cameron Crowe’s 2000 comedy-drama, drew upon the writer/director’s past as a teenage rock journalist. In the film, Crowe’s alter ego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit), goes on the road with Stillwater, an up-and-coming hard rock band, for a Rolling Stone feature. He’s befriended by the group, in particular guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and her “Band Aids,” the gang of young women who have taken it upon themselves to serve as the band’s muses. Along the way he loses his innocence — in more ways than one. This takes place all to the dismay of his overprotective mother (Frances McDormand), who is worried that prolonged exposure to rock music, and its lifestyle, will lead him down the path to immorality.
As with his other films, the soundtrack practically serves as a separate character in ‘Almost Famous’. But instead of using then-contemporary L.A. rock (‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’) or alternative (‘Say Anything’ and ‘Singles’), Crowe uses the classic rock of the early-70s as sort of a running commentary on the characters’ situations.
The movie still plays on a fairly regular basis on cable, so if you haven’t seen it in a while, check it out. Or better yet, get the ‘Untitled: The Bootleg Cut’ DVD, which features commentary by Crowe (who tells the real-life inspirations behind many of the scenes) and his mother (who verifies that all the fears she had about rock music were accurately portrayed, but also that she loved meeting Mick Jagger) — and read our Top 10 Classic Rock Moments in ‘Almost Famous.’ But if you haven’t seen it, consider this a spoiler alert.
Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) offers William $35 for 1,000 words about Black Sabbath. Unable to get backstage on his own, he sees their opening act, Stillwater at the stage door and praises their new album. Flattered. the band invite him in, and William’s entry into the rock n’ roll world begins as Yes’ chess-inspired, folk-tinged tune plays.
Cleveland was a once-in-a-lifetime gig, one of those shows every musician wishes they could play, and every fan wants to be at. Afterwards, while the band are meeting their new manager Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon), Penny, still wanting to soak up the magic, dances to Cat Stevens’ sweet tune amid the debris on the floor of the empty hall.
William tells his mother that he’s going to a school dance when in reality he and Penny are driving from San Diego to Los Angeles to hang out with Stillwater. As he leaves the house, the title track to the breakthrough album by Rod Stewart, who took cocaine anally, is heard. The song continues as they reach the Continental Hyatt House on the Sunset Strip, aka the Riot House. At the hotel, William is welcomed into the inner sanctum of musicians, groupies – sorry, Band Aids – and runaways that clung to bands in the carefree 70s.
An obscure Beach Boys track — with nearly every instrument and vocal performed by the late, great Carl Wilson — plays over William’s first backstage conversation with Penny after meeting her outside the arena. William is instantly smitten with her, unbeknownst to the fact that she’s in love with Russell. ‘Feel Flows’ also plays during the end credits, as the Polaroids from the tour are flipped through.
Four other Led Zeppelin songs — ‘Misty Mountain Hop,’ ‘Bron Yr Aur,’ ‘The Rain Song’ and ‘That’s the Way’ — are used in ‘Almost Famous,’ but ‘Tangerine’ is where its most effective. The country-inflected tune appears over the final montage, where Russell makes things right with Rolling Stone, the Miller family is reunited (with Mrs. Miller even loosening up a bit), Penny makes her dream trip to Morocco and Stillwater are hotter than ever.
Early in the film, William’s older sister. Anita (Zooey Deschanel) leaves with her boyfriend to escape her domineering mother. As she departs, Simon & Garfunkel’s anthem for a restless generation forms the soundtrack. “One day you’ll be cool,” she tells her little brother as she leaves. “Look under your bed. It’ll set you free.” He soon does (see No. 2 on our list of the Top 10 Classic Rock Moments in ‘Almost Famous’).
Lester’s assignment coincides with Black Sabbath’s concert at the San Diego Sports Arena. The title track to Sabbath’s second album plays as he and his mother drive through the parking lot, surrounded by fans. “Don’t take drugs!” she warns as he gets out of the car, stopping all action, to the amusement of everybody within earshot, many of whom are under the influence of something or another.
Russell walks out in Topeka following a backstage fight with lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) over Russell’s arrogance and leadership role in Stillwater. Looking for something beyond the life on the road — “Real people, real feelings, that’s all I’m interested in, from here on out,” he tells William — they hook up with some fans and continue the party back at someone’s house as Neil Young’s classic is heard. Russell eventually takes some acid and winds up on the roof of the house shouting, “I am a Golden God” before jumping into the pool.
On his sister’s advice, William looks under his bed (see No. 5 on our list of the Top 10 Classic Rock Moments in ‘Almost Famous’) and finds that Anita has left him her record collection. He leafs through classics by the likes of Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell before opening up the Who’s 1969 rock opera. A note inside reads, “Listen to ‘Tommy’ with a candle burning and you’ll see your entire future.’ He obliges, and the instrumental ‘Sparks’ blares out. A montage of the next few years follows as William becomes obsessed with all things rock. It’s here where we first meet Lester, spouting his outrageous opinions — “Jim Morrison? He’s a drunken buffoon posing as a poet!” — while being interviewed at a local radio station.
Elton John’s ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ is also used beautifully in an important scene in ‘Almost Famous,’ but ‘Tiny Dancer’ forms the emotional centerpiece of the film. Dick, Stillwater’s manager, convinces Russell to rejoin the band after the fight in Topeka. The tension on the bus is palpable, but one-by-one the passengers begin to sing along as it plays on the radio. By the chorus, all is forgiven as they remember why they live the life they do. It’s because, as Jeff inartfully puts it, “rock n’ roll can save the world…and the chicks are great.” “I have to go home,” William says. “You are home,” Penny responds, as she rests her head on his shoulder.