Kate Hudson has a line in “Almost Famous” that is cheesy, overwrought and perfect. I think about it often. Her character, aptly named Penny Lane, says to fledgling 1970s rock journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit) while driving around San Diego one night, “I always tell the girls, ‘Never take it seriously.’ If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. If you never get hurt, you always have fun. And if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.” It’s that last sentence, which Hudson protracts so it sounds wistful, that gets me. No matter how many personal foibles you’ll encounter — and there will be many — you can always find restoration in the music you love, especially as a young adult still discovering the world.
That’s what “Almost Famous” is about, at least on the surface: music. The people who make it, the people who worship it, the people who fail to appreciate what it can do for our souls. Cameron Crowe was one of America’s hottest directors when the movie opened 20 years ago, on Sept. 13, 2000. He’d made “Say Anything,” “Singles” and “Jerry Maguire,” but this would be his masterpiece. A coming-of-age jewel that channels Crowe’s days as a youthful, obsessive Rolling Stone writer, “Famous” took Hollywood’s penchant for palatable crowd-pleasers and gave it an intelligence not always seen in such flagrantly sentimental filmmaking.
Google “feel-good cinema” and you’ll find more lists than you care to read, including many published this year in an apparent effort to provide coronavirus uplift. These inventories often contain the same lighthearted go-tos, things like “Legally Blonde,” “Grease,” “Sister Act” and “Groundhog Day.” Worthwhile movies, sure, but our accepted definition of “feel-good” clearly has limits. Does no one swoon when they watch “Alien”? It’s so well-made, and Sigourney Weaver survives! Ditto Shelley Duvall in “The Shining.” What about Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn,” a comedy that feels achingly human in the way it addresses death? And yeah, maybe you’ll tear up at the end of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” or “Lost in Translation,” but what feels better than a quality cry?
I’m being a little facetious here, but I do wish we had more space within the confines of “feel-good” to include art that isn’t quite so bubbly. When I think of the ideal feel-good movie, I think of “Almost Famous,” a film that offers grand, bittersweet ideas about life without becoming cloying or mistaking austerity for importance. It has a satisfying ending but still manages not to soak the underlying heft in syrup. At the time, that was Crowe’s specialty. His sensibilities have faltered in the intervening years (see: “Elizabethtown” and “Aloha”), and Hollywood’s major studios no longer prioritize the original, moderately budgeted ensemble projects for which Crowe is known. But that makes “Almost Famous” special. Twenty years later, it’s more “feel-good” than ever.
Crowe based his protagonists on real people. Penny Lane was inspired by a self-appointed music promoter who transcended the clichés of a ’70s groupie; earnest William Miller was basically Crowe himself; William’s strict mother (Frances McDormand) mirrored Crowe’s own upbringing; the musicians in the fictional band with whom William embeds himself were drawn from Gregg Allman, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. (Peter Frampton and Crowe’s then-wife Nancy Wilson also led a boot camp for the actors before production began.) That explains the movie’s verisimilitude, but its enchantment stems instead from the way “Almost Famous” plays like a fairy tale, at once grounded and mystical. No one can truly drown their problems in music, and even fewer people become 15-year-old rock journalists — but it’s nice to pretend.
The fairy tale lies within William’s ambitions. His older sister (Zooey Deschanel, taking the role in which Hudson was initially cast) fled their mother’s restrictive home, leaving behind a vinyl stash that introduces William to The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and The Who. “Look under your bed, it’ll set you free,” she tells him in another of those cheesy, perfect lines before cruising down their suburban street one last time. She’s right: William finds in those records a liberation he didn’t know he needed, eventually turning his newfound cultural appreciation into a thrifty freelance career.
William’s evolving relationships with Penny Lane and other industry players — particularly fellow hanger-on Sapphire (Fairuza Balk), golden-god guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and mentor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — are what really undergird the film. He was an outcast in school, too smart to fit in and too shielded to relate to his peers. Through Penny and the rest, William discovers the textures of a world beyond his domestic tutelage, one where the glamorous rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll is tainted by potential drug overdoses, messy romantic entanglements and near-fatal airplane rides. It’s dark stuff, but filtered through William’s starry eyes, it assumes a philosophic quality: Nothing in life is as it seems, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, if you’re willing to look for it.
Turns out it’s the professionals learning from the teenager, though, whom they call “the enemy” because he seeks to write a warts-and-all profile. The rock idols are out there betraying one another, picking unnecessary fights and taking their privileged stations for granted. William could go the same route, succumbing to hedonism. But he doesn’t. He writes the unvarnished story, and he doesn’t need some Faustian bargain to do it. In the end, when Russell visits him at home, William is still sweet and uncorrupted, if no longer naive. The stars became his friends, more or less, but William’s ability to remove his rose-colored goggles signals a newfound adulthood. That makes him as complex a protagonist as any character twice his age, and it wisely makes sure not to punish Mom for imparting the lessons that kept him whole.
“Almost Famous” wasn’t a runaway hit upon arrival; in wide release, “Urban Legends: The Final Cut” and a re-release of 1973’s “The Exorcist” won the box office. Worldwide grosses totaled $47.4 million, less than it cost to make. The fact that it has achieved such beloved status over the past 20 years shows how good the story makes us feel. It is nourishment, amusement and sophistication wrapped up in one. The New York Times recently wrote an oral history of Russell’s roof-diving acid trip. The podcast “Origins” recruited Crowe, Fugit, Hudson and others for a fantastic oral history spanning the entire project. In a 2003 episode of “Gilmore Girls,” love interest Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) claims to be “addicted” to the movie. It has since been referenced in “Weeds,” “The Simpsons,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Entourage” and “Psych.”
In an unexpected way, Penny’s promise to William came true, though I’m not convinced she believed most of what she was saying. The movie makes clear that Penny takes the landscape she inhabits very seriously, no matter the fun she has. Her heart is nothing if not broken. But she knows enough to know there is respite from heartbreak, that you can throw on some tunes — or “Almost Famous,” perhaps — and find just a little bit of catharsis.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Columbia Pictures/Getty/Alamy.
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