Almost Famous begins with an allusion to another great film: To Kill a Mockingbird. In the style of the 1963 classic's title sequence, Cameron Crowe pans over a crowded desk drawer brimming with concert ticket stubs, stereo cassette tapes, and other music-related knick knacks. Just like in To Kill a Mockingbird, the miscellaneous bits of memorabilia we see in the opening credits will make sense as the film unfolds; we will soon learn that they are mementos of William's journey.
Tucked away in this stack of random memorabilia are a handful of Polaroid photos. These images capture William on tour with Stillwater. We eventually learn that they were taken by none other than Penny Lane, who is shown later snapping Polaroids of the band, and William, on the bus. These photographs appear once more during the end credits.
As a rock journalist, William snatched up every bit of memorabilia he could find for research purposes—even the botched Stillwater t-shirt, which he stealthily grabbed when no one was looking. But for William, as a rock and roll fan, they are also memories.
Almost Famous begins with eleven year-old William Miller and ends with a fifteen-year-old William Miller. These two William Millers are completely different people, and this difference comes about primarily from this kid's exposure to rock and roll.
When William's sister Anita leaves home, she plays a song to explain her decision: it's "America" by Simon and Garfunkel, and it appears on the record Bookends, the very album that Elaine previously caught Anita trying to smuggle into the house. We know that music is a huge part of Anita's identity, so it's significant that she left her record collection to William. "Look under your bed," she tells him. "It will set you free."
We watch William see go through these albums for the first time. Flipping from The Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and more, William finally lands on The Who's "Tommy." Inside, he finds a message: "Listen to Tommy with a candle burning, and you will see your entire future."
In this moment, young William blossoms into slightly less young William, who eats, sleeps, and breathes nothing but rock and roll. The gift of Anita's record collection symbolizes this transformation, the catalyst for William's evolution into a lover of all things rock and roll.
Dennis Hope brings to Stillwater a corporate attitude, a cutthroat business mentality that prioritizes creating profit over creating art. When he first suggests that Stillwater use an airplane to help them play more shows and make more money, the band is wary. "Doris is the heart and soul of this band," Jeff Bebe says of the beloved Stillwater bus. The band succumbs to the pressure, however, ultimately replacing Doris with an airplane.
Of course, it's in this very airplane that the band's most contentious moment occurs. When they hit an electrical storm mid-flight, everyone believes that death is imminent, and relationships disintegrate in a hurry. Watching the band unravel before his eyes, Hope makes it heard that he is quitting. Now, the plane lands safely, of course, and everyone makes it out alive. In total shock and with wounded pride, though, it's unclear, if Stillwater will survive.
The airplane is the physical representation of Hope's money-first, corporate mentality. Stillwater, in having to deal with these pressures, loses sight of the very reason they started playing music in the first place: their love for rock and roll. It's no coincidence that the airplane itself almost brings about their demise.
In the movie's final montage, we see that Stillwater has rejected the airplane in favor of their old bus Doris. This means that they've also rejected Hope and the exploitation of rock and roll for which he stands. On "No More Airplanes Tour '74," we know that Stillwater is once again making music for the love of it.
You're probably wondering what flowers have to do with Almost Famous. This movie is about rock stars, not gardeners, right? Well, as it happens, roses are a subtle yet significant visual motif in the film, appearing prominently three times.
The first appearance of a rose pays homage to the cover of rock god Neil Young's 1973 live album Time Fades Away. The album art is a photograph from one of Young's 1973 arena concerts, taken from the perspective of the performers looking out at the audience. On the stage floor, in front of the camera, is a single red rose. This image is almost perfectly replicated in Almost Famous when Stillwater takes the stage for the first time.
The morning after Russell's "real"-seeking, LSD-filled, I-am-a-golden-god-shouting night in Topeka, the rose appears again. Right before he rejoins his less-than-ecstatic band on the bus, a loopy Russell picks a rose from a bush outside the house. "I hurt the flower," he mumbles, as Dick prods him along. While this moment seems unimportant at the time, as if it's just a random action by a still pretty tweaked out Russell, it makes more sense in light of the appearance of the final rose.
After the new manager Dennis Hope gives his spiel to Stillwater in Cleveland, Crowe overlays a bit of dialogue from Lester Bangs: "You're coming along at a very dangerous time for rock and roll," Lester explains, referring to Hope's big-business mentality. "The war is over, they won," he concedes. "They will ruin rock and roll, and strangle everything we love about it." Cat Stevens's "The Wind" begins to play, and we cut to Penny dancing by herself in the empty, trash-filled Cleveland auditorium, holding—you guessed it—a rose. The extended scene from the director's cut lingers on Penny even longer.
William and Penny, as the old saying goes, see the world through rose-colored glasses. They both bring a certain purity to rock and roll, which, as Lester points out, is rapidly becoming tainted. The rose is connected to William in his innocence and idealism, to Penny in her heart and beauty, and to both of them in their unadulterated love of rock and roll.
Meanwhile, we watch Russell and the rest of the band lose touch with this love as they wrestle with the challenges of stardom. Russell does indeed "hurt the flower," Penny, whose fragile beauty is captured in her dance in Cleveland. The rose embodies the purity of rock and roll at its best, and it symbolizes those who truly do it for love of the music.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
William Miller, our story's hero, is a 15 year-old kid with an epic passion for rock and roll—and a remarkable knack for writing about it. As a senior in high school (he skipped a couple grades), his life is pretty unexciting. He's still a universe away from the crazy world of the rock stars he idolizes.
When Rolling Stone magazine offers him an assignment to go on the road with Stillwater, William is presented with a chance to escape the mundane "real" world and foray into the glamorous realm of rock and roll.
While William is eager to jump at this opportunity and accept the assignment, there are certain things holding him back. As a high-school student, he still has schoolwork to complete, exams to take, and ultimately graduation to attend. His mother makes it very clear that he must fulfill these obligations. But it's even clearer that William's passion lies in rock journalism, and he will not be denied his dream.
The life of a rock journalist is not without its challenges, and William often seeks the council of veteran rock critic Lester Bangs. Lester offers guidance to young William, helping him navigate the crazy world of rock and roll.
Elaine literally delivers William to the threshold: the back entrance to concert venue. William eventually makes it inside with the help of Stillwater, and from that moment on, there is no going back. Eventually, he decides to go up to Los Angeles with Penny Lane and meets the band on the road. He will stay in this wild new world of rock and roll until he fulfills his quest by completing his story on the band.
William quickly realizes that attaining his interview will be no easy task. Russell Hammond, Stillwater's true superstar, proves to be an elusive catch, continually deflecting William's attempts to sit him down and get the goods. Meanwhile, William's growing infatuation with Penny—not to mention her romantic involvement with Russell—only complicates things further for the young journalist.
After Russell condones the "sale" of Penny Lane to Humble Pie (in exchange for $50 and a case of beer), William finds himself more conflicted than ever. His feelings for Penny have never been stronger, but he's furious that she's being used and doesn't even realize it. "I am the enemy!" he shouts at Penny, making it clear that he's tired of nobody taking him seriously—and that his status as rock journalist gives him the power to take everyone down. Now he must choose whether or not he really wants to be "the enemy."
Fed up with the band's antics, William goes after Penny, who has gone to New York on her own. He eventually finds a heartbroken Penny overdosing on Quaaludes in her hotel room. Calling a doctor and keeping her conscious, William, powered by his love for Penny, ultimately saves her life.
After her recovery, Penny shares with William her real name—a truth not even Russell knows. Their connection solidified, William, with new-found confidence, escorts Penny to the airport, where she catches a flight home.
Following his near-death experience aboard an airplane with Stillwater, William is given free reign by Russell to write what he wants. As William begins to cross the threshold back into the "real world," he has a choice. He can be "honest and unmerciful," as Lester urges, or he can protect Russell, Penny, and the band that brought him along for the ride.
At the Rolling Stone offices, William completes his story: an honest, critical portrait of Stillwater. The other editors praise him for his sophistication and professionalism—until they receive a call from Russell denying the entire story. Defeated and alone, William prepares to return home. By chance, however, he meets his sister in the airport, and the two of them make the final push back together.
Firmly back in the "real world," William is completely burnt out but forever transformed by his journey. It takes Russell's arrival, though, to make things right. Understanding that he hasn't been the greatest person recently, Russell redeems himself by fixing things with Rolling Stone and finally sitting down for an interview. Meanwhile, William helps Russell rediscover his passion and love for music. The conflict between the two of them is resolved, allowing for the cover story they both deserve.
Almost Famous just wouldn't be Almost Famous without its setting: the early 1970's rock-and-roll scene. The movie is a glimpse into the era, featuring some real-life figures (Lester Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres, Jann Wenner) and real-life bands (Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Humble Pie, The Who) of the day. The time period is made explicitly clear in the film, with subtitles reminding the viewer that we start out in 1969 and move on to 1973.
The film is semi-autobiographical, based on Cameron Crowe's own experiences on the road as a teenaged rock journalist. Just like William, Crowe is from San Diego, and he also finished high school early to travel around the United States covering some of the era's biggest rock stars. Almost Famous follows William on one of these tours with a fictitious rock band, Stillwater, whose wardrobe, attitude, and tunes embody this era of music.
Nothing captures the movie's setting better than the soundtrack. Crowe had a habit of documenting each year of life with a mixtape, comprised of the songs he was listening to at that time (source). The soundtrack of Almost Famous is mixtape for the years 1969 and 1973, capturing the music that defined the era.
For more on the use of music in the film, intrepid Shmoopers, read on…
It is through William's eyes—and ears—that we experience the world of Almost Famous. William is our central protagonist, the nucleus of the story. We watch him grow up from a precocious eleven-year-old into a blossoming rock journalist at fifteen. Uniquely, the movie even breaks the 3rd-person point of view, as several of the characters speak directly into the camera—that is, directly to William. This technique reinforces the fact that Almost Famous is his story, and we are just along for the ride.
At its core, Almost Famous is a coming-of-age film. William learns quite a bit on his journey about professionalism, about love, and about what it means to be cool.
Like pretty much all of Cameron Crowe's movies, Almost Famous straddles the line between comedy and drama. It's full of humor, with no shortage of hilarious moments, and these moments beautifully complement the movie's more intense, dramatic scenes. In Almost Famous,there's certainly no shortage of heartbreak. The movie ends on an upbeat note, though, with an emphasis on the lighthearted side of things.
The movie is firmly rooted in its historical setting: the soundtrack is filled with songs that paint a vivid picture of the era, and we know that we couldn't be anywhere else but the early 70's based just on the music we're hearing. Because of its autobiographical origins, Cameron Crowe's film features several real-life characters (Lester Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres) and bands (Led Zeppelin, The Who), while placing the fictitious Stillwater squarely in the middle of this scene.
Cameron Crowe had a notoriously tough time trying to decide on a title for the movie. The director's cut of the film is simply called Untitled, which was the working title of the project. DreamWorks wasn't having any of that, though, and pressured Crowe to find a better title.
After some serious brainstorming, Crowe had a few decent candidates, but we think he ended up making an excellent final choice (source). Almost Famous refers at once—in the words of Lester Bangs—to Stillwater's status as "a midlevel band struggling with their own limitations the harsh face of stardom," to the lifestyle of Penny Lane and the other Band Aids who are a part of the inner circle but aren't actually famous, and to William's own emerging identity as a rock journalist, still in many ways on the outside looking in.
As the old adage goes, "The show must go on." Almost Famous concludes with a montage, set against the backdrop of Led Zeppelin's track "Tangerine"—a title Cameron Crowe actually considered for the film before finally landing on Almost Famous (source). In this sequence, we see Stillwater on stage looking happy, William with his mother and sister around the dinner table looking happy, Stillwater on the cover of the Rolling Stone looking happy, and the band bus Doris rolling along on the "No More Airplanes Tour '74" looking happy.
From these shots, we come to know several things. We know Russell told Rolling Stone the truth, and that they ended up running William's cover story. We know that William is enjoying family time with his mother and sister, who appear to be on much better terms than they were when they left off in 1969. We know that Stillwater rejected the big-business mentality of Dennis Hope, ditched the airplane, and went back to their "heart and soul": Doris the bus. We also know that the band is still going strong—and that Russell and Jeff haven't killed each other yet. To sum it up in musical speak, the movie certainly ends on a major note.
According to the MPAA, Almost Famous is an R-rated film. There's language, drug use, and very brief nudity. But none of these things are excessive or inserted just for the shock value. It's a pretty mild R-rated film, if we do say so ourselves. And hey, if William is just a teenager, and he's seeing all this action go down, why can't you?