While some films have made me well-aware of their presence months or even years beforehand, every-so-often, there come a few that end up just popping up, and surprising me.
That was the case in September of 2000, as I prepared to leave my hometown of Waterloo, IA, and embark on a quest to pursue animation in the big city. My life had largely been one of animation and film fascination since a young age, and it probably made the most sense that I had found refuge and solace in my hometown’s movie theater, where I had been employed since May of 1999.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave on the next big journey of my life, we ran a print to make sure it was put together properly, for a new film by director Cameron Crowe, called Almost Famous.
The film was a pseudo-documentary of Cameron’s own life growing up. In the film, young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has aspirations to become a Rock journalist. He gets the opportunity when Rolling Stone magazine calls, asking if he’d like to cover a band for a magazine article. Having just met up-and-coming band Stillwater at the local Sports Arena a few days before, William requests to cover them, and he’s soon on his way.
What I saw on the screen, quickly seemed to speak to me. William Miller’s journey out into the big world to be a Rock Journalist, I could almost see slightly mirroring my own journey to escape and find something that fascinated me, and along the way, make me learn a few things or two regarding life.
The film rose and fell quickly at the box-office (even international grosses couldn’t help it recoup its $50 million budget), but it quickly became an awards-season contender. Crowe was hailed in many capacities for the film’s original screenplay writing, which took home plenty of screenplay awards in a number of different awards ceremonies, and film critics circles.
The film would be released on VHS and DVD a few months after the Academy Awards, but I held out, as word came that Cameron was priming what he called, Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut.
The Bootleg Cut added an extra 35 minutes to the theatrical release, and the DVD set had plenty of extras regarding Crowe’s career as a journalist. It even included a packed-in CD containing the original music that was recorded for the film’s made-up band, Stillwater (which featured actors Billy Crudup, and Jason Lee).
What was most intriguing to me, was that the film also contained an audio commentary track (and it even had its own subtitles!). But this isn’t just Crowe flying solo. He also brings along some friends. They include Scott Martin (from Vinyl Films), Andy Fischer (from Vinyl Films) Ivan Corona (a family friend), Mark Atkinson (from Dreamworks), and, Cameron’s mother, Alice Crowe, who is portrayed in the role of Elaine Miller in the film, as played by Frances McDormand.
At the start of the commentary, Crowe tells how he could be ‘dark and mysterious’ about the film and reveal nothing, or be ‘blatantly open’ and reveal plenty about the film. Luckily, Cameron chooses to play nice, and the 2 1/2 hours fly by, with him and his cohorts sharing memories about his past, the film’s production, and making note of some information that proves to be quite entertaining.
Sifting through the information, I thought I’d share 5 of those moments that stand out, and list them below. I find them sort of like an appetizer of what the full commentary track contains.
During the process of deciding how to make Almost Famous, Crowe often found himself trying to figure out how best to focus on the story, without having it derail too far into the standard troupes that almost every other rock-and-roll-based film seemed to go towards.
In an opening scene taking place in 1969, a young William Miller (played by Michael Angarano) finds his sister has given him her collection of records. Crowe tells how many of the records were time-accurate, but he did throw in some that set a particular ‘mood’ for the scene, and the film in general:
Cameron Crowe: Cindy (my sister) actually did do this, left me her records. And it was-the only one that is actually not ‘time-accurate,’ and it’s one of the few little obvious, purposeful mistakes was (Joni Mitchell’s album) Blue.
Blue came out a couple years later, but I love the album, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, because it’s personal, and it’s shamelessly personal, and I-it probably aches for her, and I think she’s said she doesn’t listen to it that much. And I thought, that’s a standard to hit for the movie, you know? This movie’s gotta ache, and if you pull punches in a coy or precious way, why do it?
So it was kind of hard day-to-day to just, be ‘a cop’ on yourself. And it’s funny how the movie turns out to still be, kind of a-you know, “worshipful” in the right way. Because I think to be a fan is an important thing, it’s good to protect that, and the movie, more than anything else to me, feels like a fan’s love-letter.
That is definitely the case with both cuts of the film. We get to see a lot of the highs and lows of Crowe’s life, emulated through William Miller.
From his being looked down upon for being younger than his classmates, to caring for “band-aid” Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), but seeing that she doesn’t see him as anything more than a friend, whose along for the ride.
This also carries over into the emotions that William’s Mom goes through. Her characterization captures the concern she has for her son’s emotional well-being, as well as her fears that something might happen to him out among the crazy world of Rock Stars.
Mick Jagger will turn Mom around
A major influence on Cameron’s life has been his Mom, Alice Crowe. A former teacher, Alice’s methods may have seemed a little odd to many. While most would sugar-coat some things, Alice Crowe would often give you the straight story…which caused her to freak out quite a few people.
One area of Cameron’s career that took his Mom awhile to warm up to, was Rock-and-Roll. The original career goal for Cameron, was that he would eventually become a lawyer, and that Rock Journalism would be moreso a hobby (since you couldn’t really live well as a freelance Rock writer), but those plans fell through (as can be seen by his current career as a film director). However, there were some points where Alice mellowed on her stance, and one of those moments was mentioned:
Cameron Crowe: I just want-for anybody listening-we are into the achingly-personal aspect of our audio tour-
Alice Crowe: *laughs*
Cameron Crowe: -we had a press party after the book Conversations with Wilder came out, and Mick Jagger was invited, and he showed up! And my mom actually spent more time talking to Mick Jagger, than ME that night.
Alice Crowe: *laughs*
Cameron Crowe: What was that like?
Alice Crowe: Well, he’s amazing because, I’ve seen his photographs, and I saw him in person, and he looked so young. Actually, he’s quite good-looking in person.
Cameron Crowe: Ok. You see how it happens?
Alice Crowe: Yeah.
Cameron Crowe: Rock is evil, until you meet Mick Jagger!
The book Conversations With Wilder (which Cameron wrote), came out in 1999, so the Mom-meets-Mick moment happened before the film came out.
Though he wasn’t in Almost Famous, Mick’s name did come up in one scene. As manager Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) pitches his ideas to help the band make more money, he tells how they have only a finite amount of time to do so. One line he uses, is telling them that if they think Mick Jagger will still be playing in his 50’s, they are “sadly mistaken.”
Crowe said (at the time), he wasn’t sure how Mick took that line, but it was moreso a line that smacked of the times. Because at that time in 1973, who would have expected some of the Rock Stars of that time to still be touring and making money, over 2-3 decades later?
Believe it or not, the film’s name did not come easily, and there was a constant struggle to figure out just what to call it. During a scene where Russell Hammond and William Miller go to a house in Nebraska, Cameron relays how during the shoot there, there was a little contest to try and name the film:
Cameron Crowe: It was a derby. The fans (in the scene), the extras, were trying to come up with titles for us, the crew was trying to come up with titles. We had a big box that everybody would put ‘suggested titles’ in it.
Nothing was ever as good to me as Untitled, for the longest time, although I’m now used to Almost Famous. But I wanted-the movie wanted to be called Untitled, like, the fourth (Led) Zeppelin album, or a painting, that was just shaking off all notions of a title.
But, I do remember my favorite of all the submitted titles: Saving Williams’ Privates.
Watching Untitled, there are a number of moments that seem to be perfect freeze-frames, that could capture the essence of the film or its time period. I sifted through quite a few that Cameron calls out in the commentary, but one that really stood out, followed a concert where Stillwater performed in Cleveland, Ohio.
As the band is talked into hiring a new manager named Dennis Hope (played by Jimmy Fallon) in the back rooms, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), dances and twirls around the empty auditorium’s floor (as Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, plays over the scene). Cameron has cited this scene as his favorite in the film, and takes the time to elaborate on his feelings towards it:
Cameron Crowe: The one regret I have about the theatrical version (of the film), there’s only one, is that this scene didn’t go on longer. So we let it play (in the Bootleg Cut), as long as-well actually, I could probably still take it, for about an hour or so.
But I just love this moment, because it’s so much, what the movie is about-
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: -the spirits that remain after something magical’s happened, and how-
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: -you can go back to a place where something amazing occurred, and the feeling’s still in the air. And she, of all the characters in the movie, understood…understood music, best.
Much was made of Kate Hudson’s role as Penny Lane, who was based on several girls Crowe met over the course of his time interviewing bands. Though largely a composite of several different ones, Hudson’s Penny Lane often seemed an ethereal spirit of music. She was that wistful pixie that seemed to inspire, but was someone who could never really be tamed in her emotions or thoughts.
I’m all about atmosphere, and this scene has also been a favorite of mine. I have often found myself going to some places, and almost doing what Cameron mentions, about that lingering feeling of something you experienced, but has been covered over by the years gone by.
As well, the use of Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, has caused me to use that song in some quieter moments of contemplation, and remembrance.
One of Crowe’s ‘mentors’ in the world of Rock Journalism, was Lester Bangs. Bangs was a freelance writer who wrote for such publications as Rolling Stone, and Creem magazine.
In the film, he is portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in what some have often felt is one of his best, lesser-known performances.
During one of the final scenes, William is struggling on how to finish his piece on the band Stillwater. With the clock ticking down before he has to submit it to Rolling Stone, he calls Lester in Michigan, to figure out just what he should do.
The scene actually became better, given what Hoffman suggested to Crowe:
Cameron Crowe: This scene is funny. This scene changed a lot. Originally, it was a scene where Lester was storming through the apartment, just, shouting advice to this guy like a warrior-king. And, through rehearsals and discussions with Phil Hoffman, who is a brilliant actor, and really did only have a few bursts of time to do this part…through conversations and rehearsals, we decided to make this scene about the two (Lester and William).
Alice Crowe: Yeah.
Cameron Crowe: The only two guys in the world still up, and they’re talking with each other, and this guy is-and this was Phil Hoffman’s note: “Lester, was lonely.”
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: And it’s funny that he channeled Lester so carefully. It’s funny that he said that, and kind of amazing, because I knew Lester, but I had forgotten the loneliness. And I had remembered him larger-than-life, maybe without some of that loneliness, but it was Phil Hoffman that said, “I want to play that loneliness.”
Because he’d studied Lester, and that’s how we came across this scene, which I’m, really proud of.
Cameron’s Mother also goes on to say that the scene is very moving, and several of the other commentators mention how it feels that Hoffman is long overdue for an Oscar win. 5 years after Almost Famous, Hoffman would win for his portrayal of author Truman Capote.
Like almost every Commentation article I write, there’s plenty of material I have to keep myself from expounding on, lest I bore you, the reader, with about 4,000 words.
The commentary was also ported over to the Blu-Ray release that came out a few years ago. However, it doesn’t contain the readable subtitles.
It’s a fun listen, because Crowe himself is just as much a fan of films as he is of music. He makes references to such films as To Kill a Mockingbird, The 400 Blows, and The Apartment. He also cites inspiration from the likes of Billy Wilder, and Francois Truffaut.
I will end by saying that in the 15 years since I’ve seen the film, I’ve found that being a fan of Almost Famous/Untitled, is a bit of an acquired taste. Of the films I love, I think a good 2% of people in my life have ever been able to sit through it, and enjoy it on the same level as me.
Then again, there is something fascinating about its time-capsule quality. Seeing the San Diego that my Mom and some of her siblings grew up in in the late 60’s/early 70’s, let alone the feel of the time period that I had just missed out on when I was born in 1980, as the fashions and styles of that world began to morph into a new realm of Rock-and-Roll.