Movies

A Music Critic Looks Back At ‘Almost Famous’ 20 Years After Its Release

On August 14, 2000, I started my first grown-up job in media: A general assignment reporter for my hometown daily newspaper, The Appleton Post-Crescent. But what I really wanted to be was a music writer. The gig didn’t explicitly call for music journalism, but it didn’t explicitly exclude it, either. I decided that I was going to make “general assignment reporting” be about interviewing and writing about bands as much as possible. I was 22 years old.

Granted, in small-town Wisconsin, there are not many bands to interview and write about. I’m pretty sure the first “band” I wrote about the Appleton Boychoir, a collective of rosy-cheeked middle-schoolers who stuck to a repertoire of holiday songs for their biggest concert, a “disappointing nod to nostalgia that eschews innovation,” as I postulated in my burgeoning critic brain. Otherwise, I was stuck covering tractor pulls and strawberry festivals most of the time. Occasionally, however, I could talk my editor into letting me do a phoner with some indie rocker who was playing two hours away in Milwaukee or Madison. Like that, I was interrogating bored indie rockers like James McNew of Yo La Tengo, all the while trying and failing not to sound like a nervous hayseed from some no-name newspaper in the Upper Midwest.

Early on, I learned two important facts about the business I had chosen: One, music writing is corny. There’s really no other word to describe it. Asking musicians earnest questions about their art or (even more embarrassing) their feelings is not dignified work. If you think it is, try to explaining music writing to anyone who would never even dream of reading it. (Which, I can tell you from experience, is 99.999 of the world, and a full 100 percent of the people I have ever been related to.) This job, which isn’t even really a real job, does not make sense to normal people with regular lives. Music writers live made-up lives. To do it, you must live in an imaginary world.

That was the first thing I learned. The second thing is that I did not care about any of this. I liked how corny music writing was, because (I guess) I was actually corny myself all along. (Not really a surprise, I’m sorry to admit.) Even when I was stuck on the lowest rung of media, working my tail off for literal years in my 20s trying to craft provocative questions that would compel local choir directors to articulate profound truths about the artistic acumen of “O Tannenbaum,” I loved what I was doing. Each day, I relished the opportunity to hop on the phone with some cooler-than-thou musician — even though I was also terrified at the proposition — in order to thoroughly embarrass myself. Holy crap, I’m talking to the third most famous guy in Yo La Tengo!

Yes, my dream was sad. But it was mine, and I was living it.

Almost exactly one month after I started my first job, on September 13, 2000, Almost Famous arrived in theaters. Obviously, my origin story in music journalism can’t possibly compare to that of writer-director Cameron Crowe, who started his career at Rolling Stone in the 1970s as a teenaged rock scribe whose experiences covering the likes of the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and The Eagles inspired his deeply autobiographical passion project. (If only we could all direct biopics about ourselves.) But even the most extraordinary careers in rock writing don’t really have anything close to resembling universal appeal.

Upon release, Almost Famous was a box office disappointment. Budgeted at $60 million — add up all the money that every critic has been paid to write every record review in the history of mankind and you won’t come close to hitting $60 million — Almost Famous only made about two-thirds of that. But it won an Oscar for Crowe’s original screenplay, and swiftly became a cult favorite on DVD and beyond. Today, Almost Famous remains firmly entrenched in pop culture, particularly among classic rock heads. Back when touring was still a thing, musicians could quote this movie in tour vans to denote decadence (“I am a golden god!”) or arcane inter-band psychology (“I’m just one of the out-of-focus guys!”). Even if you roll your eyes at it, you know Almost Famous.

Outside of that insular culture, this movie single-handedly transformed “Tiny Dancer” from an Elton John deep cut to one of his most recognized ballads. And Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Lester Bangs made him the most famous rock critic of all time. The qualification here is important — the real Lester Bangs, the star-crossed and largely obscure writer who died tragically in 1982 at the age of 33, is another matter entirely from Hoffman’s idea of Lester Bangs. That’s even true for me, a person who owns two of Bangs’ books and once read a biography about him. In my mind, when I picture that guy, I still imagine PSH wearing a Guess Who T-shirt and pontificating about Jim Morrison being a drunken buffoon.

Another lasting part of Almost Famous’ legacy 20 years later is that music writers love to knock it. I say that based on anecdotal evidence, but it seems very common based on the conversations I’ve had about this movie with colleagues over the years. Mention Almost Famous to a person who has been toughing it out in the music journalism gruel factory for way too many years, and she will inevitably roll her eyes, flash a jaundiced smirk, and proceed to fact-check the film for you.

There is no way you could spend several weeks on the road with a boogie-rock band in this day and age, this person will say. Publicists will never let you get away with that. Cameron Crowe in the ’70s — reaches for Robert Draper’s infamously dishy Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History — was “a West Hollywood rendition of Beaver Cleaver” with a reputation for writing glowing profiles about “the genius of rock stars,” not a budding rock ‘n’ roll Edward R. Morrow following Lester Bangs’ advice to be “honest and unmerciful.” Speaking of Bangs, he definitely did not actually say that “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool,” even though that quote is now attributed to him. Most cruelly of all, you will not meet anyone like Penny Lane, the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in real life. Or, if you do, she will not look like Kate Hudson and you will be obliged to report that poor underaged girl to Child Protective Services.

All of this is true. But, again: I do not care about any of this.

When I sat down recently with my DVD copy of Untitled — that’s right, I roll exclusively with the 161-minute “bootleg” cut of Almost Famous — I preemptively cringed at how the movie would play given my own 20th anniversary in media. Surely, spending half of my lifetime grinding out reviews of middling, forgettable albums and doing phoners with aloof musicians who equate music journalists with PR-dispensing mosquitos had fully drained whatever mystical feeling I had about the business for good.

What I found instead is that this movie still works me over like Russell Hammond stroking out the riff to “Fever Dog.”

Let me point out the obvious: Almost Famous is not a documentary. It’s unabashed fantasy, a fairy tale, the Top Gun of music journalism. It’s designed to make writing about music seem like an incredible and envious lifestyle choice. And I say: What’s wrong with that? In a business with so much bleakness, in which dozens of wonderful writers and editors seem to lose their jobs every other month, a little romance is desperately needed. Try to make us look cool? As if. How about making music writing seem fun and even desirable again?

My favorite scene in Almost Famous occurs early on, when young William Miller is left alone with his sister Penny’s record collection. Crowe films the scene like Steven Spielberg tracking Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones discovers the Ark Of The Covenant. It is consciously presented as a life-changing moment when William pulls The Who’s Tommy from the stack of LPs and blisses out to “Sparks.”

Here’s a theory for you to disregard completely: The kid never really leaves the room after that. He will eventually buy more records, and put posters on the wall, and even physically leave that space in order to chronicle the musicians that he loves. But mentally and emotionally, he’s inside that cocoon of sound and warmth. When you decide to become a music writer, that’s the world you aspire to live in, forever.

Here’s something Almost Famous gets absolutely correct: Music writers and musicians have always had a symbiotic relationship. Together, they create a world — maybe the only world — where they can matter. The recurring theme of this movie is that musicians are cool and music journalists are not, which allows the former to seduce and sometimes manipulate the latter. But more subtly, Almost Famous also shows how musicians need music journalists because — unlike virtually everyone else in the music business — writers tend to actually love music. And, therefore, we take musicians as seriously as they take themselves. In the end, we feed each others’ fantasies.

Even in Almost Famous, however, there’s an acknowledgment that this rock world is an illusion. “Realness” is always elusive, whether it’s for Russell at a house party in Topeka or lovestruck William when he’s drawn in by Penny Lane and her silly dreams of escaping to Morocco. “When and where does this ‘real world’ occur?” William wonders during the film’s peak “disillusionment” climax. Soon, Penny will be bounced from the Stillwater tour in exchange for a case of beer. The band dudes that William thought were his friends will throw him under the (figurative) bus. And the real-life Mark Kozelek will creepily ogle high school girls.

But that’s not how Almost Famous ends. Penny Lane does go to Morocco. William and Russell reconcile in the same room where he first fell in love with music. The Stillwater tour bus literally rides into the sunset to the tune of Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.” What you’re left with is the feeling that in spite of all “real” grossness that inevitably goes down in this world, you’ll stick around because of the music. The music is always your escape, the best part of your “real” life.

“If you’re a rock journalist — first, you will never get paid much,” Hoffman as Bangs warned in Almost Famous. “But you will get free records from the record company.” All these years later, that’s enough for me. I mean, I get to sit around all day and listen to music! Yes, this job can be a little dumb. But as fake Lester Bangs once said, the day it ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real.

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