‘Almost Famous’ turns 20 — and it’s still the coolest ‘uncool’ thing
One of a handful of precious things still worth cherishing from our dreadful 2020 must include the 20th anniversary of the landmark film by Cameron Crowe, “Almost Famous”.
Crowe, whose masterful filmography includes the 1990s hits “Jerry Maguire” and “Singles”, broke through the new millennium with his semi-autobiographical “Almost Famous” in 2000, beloved by fans and regarded by critics as the writer-director’s personal love letter to music. It made a star of Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup, and discovered new talents Patrick Fugit and Michael Angarano who played the teen and kid William Miller, the character based on Crowe.
While not exactly a commercial success, the film was highly acclaimed and eventually earned a cult following, such that to this day, it is still watched and discussed for its portrayal of personas whose lives were connected and affected by music. In the universe of “Almost Famous”, these characters are all flawed, but the best of them have their love of music lifting them. It’s also a film beloved to its fandom for its unflinching confrontation of “uncoolness.” It’s as if, if you’re uncool and just saw “Almost Famous”, you can start hurting less about it, because you’ll finally be able to accept it, make peace with it and embrace it.
Celebrations for marking its 20th anniversary started out as early as June, with the cast reuniting for an anniversary podcast, and publications such as Rolling Stone carrying out a full-on coverage made up of a series of special reports. This is apt, since Rolling Stone actually plays a huge part in the story – the young Miller was chasing the band Stillwater for an exclusive report which he pitched to and was given a go by the magazine.
But while we may already be past September, the month when the film was officially released back in 2000, the anniversary celebrations appear to still be ongoing. In an exclusive interview with Variety on Tuesday, Oct. 6, Crowe, Fugit and Angarano reunited to answer some questions which yielded revelations in the seemingly bottomless well of awesomeness of “Almost Famous”.
The cheated kid who can’t accept he’s really only ‘eleven’
Angarano may have been in the movie for a mere five minutes or so, but his scene with his mom (played by the adorable Frances McDormand) where he lets out his disgust for knowing his actual age for the first time must be one of the most hilarious there. He is also in one of its most tender scenes – when he runs his little hand across Joni Mitchell’s face on the cover of her album “Blue”.
The actor has since appeared in numerous films and TV series, with a guest appearance in “This Is Us” even earning him an Emmy nomination last year. He was only about 11 or 12 years old when he took on his “Almost Famous” role, admits to remembering just a few moments from the whole filming experience, but is still amazed every time people walk up to him and utter “Eleven!”
“‘How do you know? How many times have you watched that movie to remember the five minutes that I’m in it, to see me now as a man and recognize me?’ That blows my mind,” he recounted in the interview.
Angarano vividly remembers the “non-filming parts” of the movie, though, when he would spend time “playing basketball and skateboarding and doing school with Patrick.”
When asked about whether he considers the movie iconic, 20 years later, he said his experience of watching the movie as an adult definitely made him resonate with it in a different way.
“Now watching it, it’s the kind of movie that feels like it’s more and more rare now,” he said. “That just transports me to a time of when you would go to the movies and be able to see ‘Almost Famous.’”
Crowe also recounted seeing Angarano rehearsing with McDormand in the car for the “eleven” scene, giving him pointers on how he should feel like he’s dying upon hearing the fact, and ultimately being amazed at how the kid Angarano intuitively got his point. He also credited Angarano for his cooperation in reshoots, particularly for the album covers scene. Crowe revealed that some of the albums in that scene were actually borrowed, and when the owners thanked him for the way the albums were handled and caressed in the scene, he would tell them it’s thanks to Angarano.
The teen who learns ‘the only true currency in this bankrupt world’
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman as legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs dropping one of life’s cruelest lessons to Fugit, through that phone call scene between two misfits, has got to be one of the most heartbreaking highlights of “Almost Famous”. The movie opened doors for Fugit in the early 2000s, seeing him appear in “White Oleander” which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and “Saved!” with Mandy Moore. His more recent films include supporting roles in “Gone Girl” with Ben Affleck and “First Man” with Ryan Gosling. But his uncool teen rock journo portrayal in “Almost Famous” remains to be his coolest role.
Fugit revealed in the interview that he actually worried he might be too old for the role, feeling guilty during the auditions and deliberating whether he should inform people his real age, since the character was supposed to be only turning 15. Thankfully, despite his apprehensions, he passed the auditions and landed the role. And just like Angarano, his esteem for the film is solid, if not stronger now after all these years.
“There’s a vibration, there’s like a trueness at the center of the film that Cameron is so good at capturing, really in all of his films. But in ‘Almost Famous’ it’s like the most personal and the most resonant,” he said in the interview. “It’s a vibration that everybody can tap in to and that everybody’s felt.”
He also recalled how being aware that he is playing Crowe made him at times observe Crowe to pick up mannerisms, which Crowe would later catch him doing and addressed by saying, “Hey, I don’t need an impersonator.” He commends Crowe for always allowing him and fellow actors to be creative, and takes note that while Cameron was never demanding nor domineering, people nonetheless were inspired to always give it their all.
“Everybody there, to the last person, is like, ‘I want to do the best I can do for Cameron’s movie,’” Fugit recalled.
Another unforgettable thing from the movie for Fugit was how he received two guitars as wrap gifts, one each from Crowe and Crudup. Crowe gave him “a beautiful Seagull acoustic steel string guitar” while Crudup gave him “a beautiful Martin steel string” one, both of which he still has. He also revealed the humorous occasions when both Crowe and Crudup asked him not to tell the others what they gave him. He recalled Crowe telling him, “[You] can’t tell everybody else what you got because I got everyone else stuff, but I got you the thing,” while Crudup said, “[You] can’t tell anybody else what I got you because I got everybody else like keychains or some sh*t.”
The real William Miller
“Patrick and Michael both took their own flight with it, and captured the soul of everything that was going on at the time,” said Crowe in the report, about his two lead actors. He also saluted the work of the rest of his actors, and thanked them for their patience, even through re-takes. He recounted a time when he requested Hudson to do several different versions of a reading of a scene, to which Hudson obliged and later understood with an emphatic, “Cameron Crowe, Jesus.”
Crowe gave his actors liberty, but the William Miller role they played is clearly a mirror of his actual life as a teen. He was indeed a teenaged rock journalist for Rolling Stone in real life, and his young life on the road covering bands such as Led Zeppelin, Eagles, The Allman Brothers and many more inspired his writing of “Almost Famous”. He also has the distinction of being the youngest contributor for the magazine. Meanwhile, his writing for “Almost Famous” earned him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
Despite his success as a filmmaker, he has kept his ties with rock musicians, even helming the musical documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty” for grunge rock icons Pearl Jam. Even his earlier films such as “Say Anything” (1989) with John Cusack shows an inescapable rootedness in music – just remember that scene where Cusack holds up that boombox to woo Ione Skye. For his iconic “Almost Famous”, Crowe stresses the role that music itself played yet again.
“I felt like all the actors were [focused] on just this shared goal of what is it that we love about music, and the places you can go when music really affects you,” he was quoted as saying. This passion for music may be something that will never fade, along with his other passions, and for which he professed to be forever unapologetic, as he added, “It’s all vaguely geeky because I just love music and I love directing and actors bringing this stuff to life. If it’s uncool to show your endless enthusiasm and appreciation, then viva uncool.” NVG