If you haven't figured it out by now, Cameron Crowe is a talented dude. He was already an outstanding well-established writer (seriously, how many 15-year-olds get gigs writing about rock stars for freaking Rolling Stone?) when he said to himself, "Hey, you know what? I'm just going to go and write and direct a feature film and see how it goes." We guess it went pretty well, because 1989's Say Anything… turned out to be an exceptional first effort. This dude hasn't looked back since.
There are only a handful of directors out there today who actually write the scripts for their own films. Wes Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Christopher Nolan are just a few of those multi-talented artists. We're pretty sure Cameron Crowe can throw down with the best of them.
Before he was a filmmaker, Cameron Crowe was a writer. While still a teenager, Crowe was already working as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, covering bands like the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and The Who. Sound familiar? It should. Almost Famous is semi-autobiographical, based on Crowe's experiences as a youngster out on the road with the rock stars.
Crowe's next big break was as a novelist, writing a book based on his experience posing as an undercover student at a local high school when he was 22. There he had the senior year that he missed—he had graduated early to go on the road for Rolling Stone—and published his finished product, a book called Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Shortly thereafter, he wrote the screenplay for Amy Heckerling's 1982 cult classic film of the same name.
It wasn't until 1989, at the old age of 32, that he made his first film. Say Anything…, which he wrote and directed, is pretty much one of the greatest romantic comedies ever. You've probably seen its most famous scene parodied at least 1,342,9483 times.
Since then, Crowe has written and directed a slew of feature films, ranging from blockbuster comedy-dramas (Jerry Maguire) and psychological thrillers (Vanilla Sky) to family-friendly fare (We Bought a Zoo) and music documentaries (Pearl Jam Twenty). Not bad for a kid who started his career basically as a professional rock-and-roll fan.
Gracie Films struck gold with Cameron Crowe's 1996 box-office smash Jerry Maguire. After that film's surprise success, Hollywood giant DreamWorks Pictures jumped at the opportunity to produce Crowe's next film.
DreamWorks, as it happens, was co-founded by a pretty decent filmmaker named Stephen Spielberg. Spielberg loved Crowe's new script and pretty much gave him free reign on the project, throwing a $60 million budget into the deal (source). Our friends at Shmoop Math tell us that's a lot of money.
Unfortunately, while Almost Famous would go on to garner critical acclaim, it didn't exactly pull its weight at the box office, closing the year somewhere behind instant classics like Scream 3 and Dracula 2000.
Though Almost Famous didn't show anyone the money at the time, it did help DreamWorks's case when Cameron Crowe took home his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Almost Famous is set in the early 1970's, but Cameron Crowe makes no attempt to make the movie look and feel like it was actually made in the 70's. There are no grainy filters thrown on in post-production, for example. But given the earthy color palates utilized in the set and costumes, paired with the iconic soundtrack, there's no place in time we could be instead of the 1970s.
The Almost Famous crew actually filmed many of the scenes in their actual locations, including at the San Diego Sports Arena, the Continental Hyatt House in Los Angeles, and the Plaza Hotel in New York (source). Crowe even went back to the street in San Diego where he grew up to film it (source).
Because rock and roll is such an important element of the story, it's only fitting that the soundtrack of Almost Famous is filled with songs from the era. Over 50 tracks appear throughout the film, by everyone from Led Zeppelin to Alvin and the Chipmunks, creating a musical backdrop that sets the tone for the entire film.
In many ways, the music of Almost Famous really is a character of its own. It is the force that binds the characters together. In some of the most important scenes in the movie, the soundtrack is right at center stage. For example, there's no dialogue in the scene during which Penny Lane dances to "The Wind" in the empty auditorium; or when Anita plays "America" by Simon and Garfunkel as the explanation for why she's leaving home; or when William is watching Penny get her stomach pumped to the tune of "My Cherie Amour"—but these scenes are emotive, meaningful, and totally memorable because of the music.
(Also, we dare you not to think of Almost Famous the next time you hear "Tiny Dancer.")
And how about that band Stillwater? All of the music they play in the film is original, composed by Cameron Crowe and his ex-wife, Nancy Wilson, of the legendary rock-and-roll band Heart, with some help from rocker Peter Frampton.
Frampton served as a musical consultant and resident "rock guru" for Almost Famous, helping teach actors Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond) and Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe) how to embody the rock-star vibe on stage. Crowe's buddy Mike McCready of Pearl Jam is responsible for the sound of Russell Hammond's guitar playing.
Nancy Wilson also composed the film's acoustic-guitar- and mandolin-driven score, which may take a back seat to the soundtrack but totally adds texture throughout.
Surprisingly, Almost Famous was a box office dud when it first came out. But critics praised the film from the get-go, and it didn't take long for it to become something of a cult classic. While it doesn't have the borderline deranged fan following of say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Almost Famous has managed to cement its status as a beacon for film buffs and music lovers alike.
We suppose you could consider some of us diehard Almost Famous fans to be groupies. But Penny Lane would remind you that this description is inaccurate.