Almost as much time has now passed since the release of Almost Famous as had passed between the movie’s release in September 2000 and the end of writer-director Cameron Crowe’s stint as a contributor to Rolling Stone in the late 1970s. The movie is now at some kind of fulcrum point between the era that birthed it and the one we find ourselves in, looking back at something that was already looking back, the act of remembering doubled and trebled through the repeated rewritings of history. That feels appropriate, because Almost Famous is a movie made by a man looking back at his youth and doing his best to recapture what it felt like to be young, really young, and to have your life changed and get your heart broken and slowly learn what it means to be alive. Crowe, who graduated high school at age 15 and famously became the youngest-ever contributor to Rolling Stone shortly thereafter, was reaching back over the span of decades to exhume something from his past and revivify it for new eyes. And now here we are again, at the end of another stone in the road, bringing the past with us like always.
A big part of what makes the movie work is that distance: although Crowe is lightly fictionalizing his own life, telling the story of a cub music reporter on the road with a rock band trying to make it big, he’s doing so having racked up plenty of years and mileage since his own days as an aspiring journalist. It wasn’t his first film–it was preceded by Say Anything… (1989), Singles (1992), and Jerry Maguire (1996)–but it was and remains his most personal, the one he’s most located and locatable in, because of the adulthood he’s experienced and his ability to look back on his youth with wistfulness, forgiveness, and true appreciation for what he’s lost.
It’s not just Crowe’s most meaningful movie because it’s about himself, either. It’s because this is the one he made when he knew he might never have a chance to make it again. Say Anything… and Singles were warmly received but modest successes, though there was the fact that he’d written the original book and subsequent screenplay for 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, based on his experiences going undercover as a high school student in San Diego. But it was Jerry Maguire that kicked things up quite a few notches, earning four Oscar nominations–Best Picture, Best Actor (Tom Cruise), Best Original Screenplay (Crowe), and Best Editing–and one win, with Cuba Gooding Jr. taking home the trophy for Best Supporting Actor, on top of being the first major financial success of Crowe’s directorial career. As Crowe told Rolling Stone on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Almost Famous, “Jerry Maguire gave me a credit line. And I thought, ‘I’m going to use it, because I’ll never be able to make this movie unless it’s right now. This is one that’s achingly personal.’”
What that looks like in practice is Crowe expertly, gently, humanely showing the coming of age of a young reporter, William (Patrick Fugit), as he spends time on the road with the band Stillwater, which is fronted by Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and which is accompanied by a group of super-fans/supporters known as “band-aids” who are led by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). The heartache and loss really happens between Russell and Penny, who love each other but who are destined to wind up apart: Russell is already married and doesn’t appreciate the emotional costs of his actions with Penny until it’s too late.
William, though, gets a poetic experience. He falls in love with Penny the way so many young people often do with someone whose path will never really cross their own, and he finds himself growing more fond of the band and less able to distance himself as a journalist as he’s drawn deeper into their world—but more than that, into the dreamer’s idea that music and art and the open highway are all you’ll ever need, and that chasing the spirit of freedom is itself that freedom. William even has the first sexual encounter of his life on the road, in a group activity with three of the band-aids, and that (admittedly heightened) development isn’t played for crass revelry but something more like a glimpse into a fairy-tale world, dryads flowing in fields while the light burns out.
This is a movie about being, in the proud word of its greatest performance, uncool. Throughout the film, William turns for advice to real-life rock critic Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. At one point, he calls Lester late at night in an attempt to figure out just what to do now that he’s become so emotionally entangled with the band and the entire scene around them. Lester sets William straight: “Friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong. Because they make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.” He goes on, though, to say that he and William are alike, and that it’s brokenhearted outsiders like them who will always have something special to say. When William says, “I’m glad you were home,” Lester says, “I’m always home. I’m uncool! … The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” It’s a moment of connection that Crowe envisioned as a kind of initiation for William into a broader understanding of the world, but it’s Hoffman’s restrained, warm, kind performance that gives this scene so much power.
Writing years later, on the occasion of Hoffman’s tragic death, Crowe said: “My original take on this scene was a loud, late night pronouncement from Lester Bangs. A call to arms. In Phil’s hands it became something different. A scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late. It became the soul of the movie. In between takes, Hoffman spoke to no one. He listened only to his headset, only to the words of Lester himself. (His Walkman was filled with rare Lester interviews.) When the scene was over, I realized that Hoffman had pulled off a magic trick. He’d leapt over the words and the script, and gone hunting for the soul and compassion of the private Lester, the one only a few of us had ever met. Suddenly the portrait was complete. The crew and I will always be grateful for that front row seat to his genius.” In a movie about being vulnerable and risking rejection, it’s this scene that anchors all the rest.
I submit that it is not an accident that Crowe hasn’t made a movie nearly as good since. Vanilla Sky was a mostly OK remake of Abre Los Ojos; Elizabethtown again borrowed from Crowe’s own life (his father died when Crowe was in his early 30s), but lacks any weight; We Bought a Zoo and Aloha manage to be movies he wrote that somehow also feel like impersonal work for hire. It’s been six years since he directed a movie, and there are none on the horizon. What he did in Almost Famous is the kind of thing many artists are only able to achieve once, if at all. It calls to mind the declaration that author Thomas Wolfe made in the opening pages of his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel: “We are the sum of all the moments of our lives–all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using. Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.”
Crowe’s purpose has been, through his journalism and filmmaking, to understand how art connects humans to each other. And then, triumphantly, he made his own work of art to join that special canon. Years from now, someone else will tell their own story because of the way Crowe told his. That’s the real gift you give to the other uncool people: a voice.