The year was 2001. I was in fifth year of secondary school. 16 years old. By that time I had given up on my dreams of becoming a professional football player. I was also never going to be bitten by a radioactive spider and become a friendly neighbourhood superhero. All I cared about when I was 16 was movies and music. I wasn’t the most social kid, I didn’t really understand the full benefits of being out in the world amongst friends and having a good time because my idea of having a good time primarily involved headphones.
The internet was just becoming a thing… or maybe it wasn’t…in our house it was anyway. What I can remember from that time is waiting for my mother to be finished on the phone – the landline – and then taking the really long white cable and plugging it into the phone socket and connecting to what I thought at the time was lightning fast internet. Actually that’s not true, my brother did all that, I just sat and watched. We would check movie news and look out for what films were being released and begin looking forward to their release. There was one movie I read about sometime in 2000 that really caught my attention.
It was a movie listed on IMDb called Untitled which was written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Cameron Crowe had written and directed Say Anything, which at the time I hadn’t seen, Singles, which I had seen and loved mainly because of the music and Jerry Maguire, which everyone loved. Stop lying to yourself you loved Jerry Maguire! Even though Tom Cruise is a maniac you still loved it! SHOW ME THE MONEY…there’s no way you have not said that phrase at some point! There is literally no way… So, naturally being a young up and coming film nerd I was excited because that’s what film nerds do, they get excited about films.
The other thing that made the prospect of this movie exciting to me was that I had a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Anthology that Crowe had compiled and released. He wrote in the liner notes about how he had in his life made road trip mix tapes. The man made mix tapes for road trips. He also, I found out later, made mix tapes all the time and he would date them so if he wanted to remember what he was listening to in April 1991? He would find the tape marked April 1991. I may have borrowed that idea. The point being that he loved music and I think it was only before the release of the now renamed Almost Famous that I found out who he was and what he did before he became a film director.
What he did before being a film director is what happens to William Miller in the movie. So you can see how a movie about a quiet shy awkward kid who gets plucked from obscurity to write for Rolling Stone magazine and follow one of his favourite bands while meeting famous people and pretty girls would appeal to someone like me right?
Well, it was fun.
Because they make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.
I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn’t.
That’s because we’re uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.
I can really see that now.
Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start.
I’m glad you were home.
I’m always home. I’m uncool.
The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.
I feel better.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and I still don’t but when I was 16 the life that William Miller lives in Almost Famous seemed pretty damn good… I mean, now, to me that lifestyle is a living hell. I can’t exactly remember if I actually wanted to live that life or not, I never tried very hard to achieve it so I guess that’s a sign right? I have always found it very hard to write about music. I can never articulate what feelings music brings properly. I don’t know how to write a song. I’m astonished by people who can write music, it just seems impossible to me. If I did interview a musician my only question would be how? I struggle to talk meaningfully about music too. I know music means the world to me but if I’m in a conversation with someone who starts to use ‘music speak’ with me? I’m totally lost… You know the really important DJs and music critics who have hundreds of words to describe the guitar sound on the first song of every album they’ve ever heard? I don’t have that ability… “Good” “Great” “Loud”… that’s about as many words that I can use to describe music. To show you what I mean, this is an extract from a Rolling Stone review for The River by Bruce Springsteen
Scope, context, sequencing and mood are everything here. Bruce Springsteen didn’t title his summational record The River for nothing, so getting hit with a quick sprinkle of lyrics is no solution when complete immersion is called for. Each song is just a drop in the bucket, and the water in the bucket is drawn from a river that can take you on a fast but invigorating ride (“Sherry Darling,” “Out in the Street,” “Crush on You,” “I’m a Rocker”), smash you in the rapids (“Hungry Heart”), let you float dreamily downstream (“I Wanna Marry You”) or carry you relentlessly across some unknown county line (“Jackson Cage,” “Point Blank,” “Fade Away,” “Stolen Car,” “Ramrod,” “The River,” “Independence Day”). When the surface looks smooth, watch out for dangerous undercurrents. You may believe you’re splashing about in a shallow stream and suddenly find yourself in over your head.
I mean…I love that album but I could never articulate it like that. It’s sad I know but I once had a conversation with a very knowledgeable music fan on Grafton Street in Dublin and just for giggles I tried out some ‘music speak’ to see if I could do it. I used all the words, I had the best words, I used words I didn’t even know I knew. He either walked away thinking I knew my stuff or more likely he walked away thinking I made up a load of words.
I’m supposed to be talking about the movie and not about my inability to critique music. So I should get back on point. The IMDb says this movie was released in February which lines up with the memory I have of being extremely cold walking home from the cinema. I had a pretty strong feeling going into the movie that I would love it. Part of why I thought I would love it, aside from the subject matter, was the casting. I was a big Kevin Smith fan at the time. His films seemed like underground secrets that only a few select people, that I was friends with, knew about. I even liked Mallrats! And having watched and enjoyed Mallrats many times I was a fan of Jason Lee, who played Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous. I assumed the movie had to be good since Jason Lee was in it. Frances…Sorry… Francis McDormand was in the movie too…Margie from Fargo! This movie had to be great…Philip Seymour Hoffman too! How could it fail?
The cast of the movie is stacked. Not just the main roles but the support cast and even the support support cast, the people who only get one line or two lines are great. Eric Stonestreet is in this movie…the disgruntled hotel worker who is freaked out by William’s mother is Cam from Modern Family! There’s also Marc Maron, Jimmy Fallon, Zooey Deschanel, Anna Paquin, Rainn Wilson, Jay Baruchel all in small parts. Crazy.
Lester Bangs warns William about how he can’t become friends with the band. He can’t get sucked in and become mesmerised by the music, the drinking, the drugs and the women. That warning should have extended to young impressionable 16-years-olds in the audience. I couldn’t help but get swept up in the story, in William’s story. He’s so young and wide-eyed and completely unknowing of how the world he’s stepping into works. He falls in love with everything, the entire lifestyle and especially Penny. How could the 16-year-old you not fall in love with Penny Lane? I mean…sure, now when you’re a much older man and you’re essentially turning into William’s mother and all you want is for him to be smart and safe and not get his heart broken which he obviously will be cause she’s cool and he so obviously isn’t and you know the world isn’t a beautiful fairy tale where everything works out perfectly in the end. Something I never thought I’d say? William’s Mother is a hero.
The movie is definitely different watching it in my mid 30’s. I still get swept up in the story and it’s still funny and I still really like a lot of the characters and actors in the film but I watch it now from a totally different perspective. Maybe I’m just exhausted from life, maybe I’m growing ever more cynical, but these people – the band, the band aids…I would not want to hang out with them!
When everyone is on the bus singing “Tiny Dancer” after Russell has threatened to kill William at the house party where he was about to commit suicide by diving off the roof of a house, William turns to Penny and says “I have to go home” Penny looks at him and smiles and does this cutesy thing with her fingers on his face and says “ You are home” and everyone just goes back to singing… It’s a magical moment… or at least it was until you got too old for magic and all you want is for William to turn back to Penny and say “No, this is a fucking bus” … I’m too cynical for stuff like that anymore… I did still sing “Tiny Dancer” along with them though. Great song…Too long though… Sorry I’ll stop
There’s much more that I love about this movie than I don’t love. Its maybe my favourite soundtrack of all time. I can still remember sitting in the back row of Mrs McGeown’s business class reading the screenplay instead of listening to business stuff… You could say this movie was the reason I did so poorly in my Leaving Cert… well this and Roy Keane but that’s another story.
There is something magical about it. I know the director was recreating his youth and does so with such love and reverence that it truly comes across as a love letter to his younger days. I think my relationship with the film will change the older I get. I may not now want anything to do with the people involved but I will always remember how the 16-year-old me fell in love with everything just like William did.