Movies You Gotta See
Almost Famous is an essential friendship film
By Jalen Maki
Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s 2000 comedy-drama about a teenage music journalist hitting the road with an up-and-coming rock band to pen a piece for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s, hits every beat you’d want it to hit.
First and foremost, the soundtrack is completely stacked, and the film is simply loaded with top-notch needle drops. From Simon and Garfunkel to Stevie Wonder, Neil Young to David Bowie, Steely Dan to Cat Stevens, every song not only perfectly sets the tone for the scene it’s featured in, but also acts as a time machine, further immersing the viewer in the movie’s setting.
The film is also a truly wonderful coming-of-age story – maybe my favorite ever. William, the aforementioned teen writer (played by Patrick Fugit), is caught somewhere in the middle of childhood and adulthood, trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs in the world. By simple chance, the United States itself is also experiencing a crisis of identity, moving from the patriotic optimism of the 1950s and early 1960s into an era of war, economic uncertainty, and cultural revolution.
Throughout the tour with Stillwater, the fictional rock group at the center of his Rolling Stone piece, William gets a crash course on life from people who could not have it less figured out – which, in the long run, might be the best way to learn. Or, at least, the most fun way.
Early in the film, William meets Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who, she says, is “not a groupie,” but a “band aid.”
“We’re here because of the music,” Penny tells William during their first encounter.
Although Penny isn’t much older than William, she takes him under her wing, acting as a sort of guide for William as he learns the ins and outs of hitting the road with rock and rollers. The two become friends, and William’s feelings towards Penny evolve over the course of the movie.
Most viewers focus the bulk of their attention on William, and correctly so – the film really is about him. But, as someone who has seen this movie many times, I’ve found myself drawn to something else: the turbulence within the band – or, more so, their friendships.
I’ve been in bands since I was 12 years old, and from day one, I played with one of my best friends. We were buddies before starting the band – playing Little League baseball together, swimming in his parents’ pool, riding our bikes around the little Northwoods town he lived in – but music is what bonded us from the start.
If you spend enough summer afternoons in a garage with someone, sitting on an old couch with acoustic guitars in hand or staring over a drum set at them as you try (and try and try and try) to learn a song together, an unspoken connection develops. Your friendship influences the music. It’s like your musical DNA permeates the song, and it develops into something else – still the same song, but now, in its own little way, it becomes yours. In turn, the music soaks deeper into your friendship, and this cyclical process happens again and again and again.
Being in a band with friends is an absolute blast, but it can be difficult at times. Disagreements are a given in a creative setting, and when you throw personal relationships into the mix, tensions can boil over. I’ve found that you’re bound to get the angriest at those you truly care about, and the people who are fondest of you are also the most likely to smack you in the head and call you a moron. Although it might not feel like it in the moment, that frustration comes from a place of love.
To me, the inter-band dynamic is the most fascinating aspect of Almost Famous. In real time, William watches Stillwater as they navigate the paths to artistic fulfillment and internal discovery. Egos collide, and creative and personal frictions build. William sees the band’s dreams on the cusp of realization, only to see them nearly slip through their fingers before the grip is regained at what seems to be the very last moment.
This has been said about a lot of bands over the years, and the same rings true about Stillwater: the guys are truly pals. They love each other, a point that’s probably driven home the hardest when they’re at each other’s throats.
My favorite scene in the movie takes place on the tour bus. The band’s in the throes of their young adult rockstar drama, the band aids are firmly in the grasp of the post-party hangover, and William’s unsure of his place both on and off the bus. Just when it seems like the wind might be permanently out of everyone’s sails, Elton John’s absolutely unassailable 1971 classic “Tiny Dancer” starts playing over the bus speakers. A few mumbles and hums turn into into a rollicking sing-along, and everyone – the band, the girls, and William – are reminded of why they’re there in the first place: the music.
Something I specifically love about the scene is the discernible wave of relief that washes over everyone and the subsequent collective realization that the magic is still there. What brought them together never faded. It can’t. It wouldn’t, even if they wanted it to. Once you strip away the superficial – the stages, the lights, the parties, the magazine reviews, the public perception – all that’s left is you, your friends, and your passion for music. It’s what matters the most, and although it’s sometimes easy to forget, it’s even easier to remember again.
Oh, and by the way, my friend and I are still in a band together.
Follow Jalen on Letterboxd at letterboxd.com/jalenmaki182/ to see what he’s been watching, and read more at medium.com/@jalenmaki.