Essays · Movies

The Wide-Eyed Fan Love of ‘Almost Famous’

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film is a love letter to the starry-eyed among us.
By  · Published on August 12th, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we explore the creation of one of Braveheart’s epic battle scenes.

The ancient Greeks wrote about at least four different types of love. There was: eros, which is sexual and romantic love; philia, which is a love between friends; storge, familial love; and agape, empathy and love for humankind. Aristotle wasn’t around for Beatlemania, fantasy football, or Tumblr, but I like to think that if he had been, he’d have come up with another type: fan love.

In the history of humankind, fan love doesn’t get nearly as much credit as, say, romantic love, but for many of us who find profound meaning through music and art, it can often be what gets us up in the morning. Fans can get a bad rap — think of the words associated with the term, like fanatic, or the original meaning of Stan. But at its best, fan love brings us together.

There’s no movie that portrays fan love as purely and earnestly as Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. The semi-autobiographical film, released in 2000 and starring a young Patrick Fugit alongside Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a love letter not only to ‘70s rock and roll but also to obsessing over something you enjoy so much you feel like you could die.

Band lover Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) puts it best, that to be a fan is “to truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” Silly is the key term here. The most intense forms of fan love — going to conventions, inexplicably screaming at the sight of celebrities, following bands on tour — are silly, and over-the-top, and not always practical, yet they’re emotionally honest in a way that other types of love often aren’t.

As fans, our love is upfront, through T-shirts and tattoos and time spent on message boards parsing through fan theories. There’s a manic energy to fandom, but it’s a high like no other.

In early scenes of Almost Famous, characters try to imagine a hierarchy among themselves that distinguishes each from the lowly title of fan. William (Fugit), a teen reporter, insists he’s a critic, not a fan. The band he’s covering, Stillwater, are the rock stars, and Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane is a “Band-Aid,” or groupie. These distinctions fall away quickly, though, as it becomes clear that everyone is held together by their abiding, impractical, starry-eyed love of rock music and all it entails. These characters — and by extension, Crowe — romanticize everything from house party acid trips to the pre-flight safety speeches on airplanes.

But for a bunch of hip yet lovesick souls who think music is the cure to the world’s ailments, the rose-tinted glasses make sense. “It’s all happening!” several characters say throughout the film, and that raw nerve of excitement and energy is palpable, especially for viewers who, like William, have dreamt of crossing over from bedroom listening sessions to backstage passes.

There’s something transgressive to the idea of becoming “almost famous,” of transforming from the listener to the listened to, despite the social and economic boundaries that make that shift impossible for most fans. Almost Famous shows us the realistic downsides of fame — overdoses, ego, empty relationships — yet by orienting us through starstruck William’s point of view, even the lowest points feel heady and thrilling.

Throughout the film, characters preach about music like it’s religion. William’s older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) leaves him a secret cache of vinyl records that she says will “set him free,” along with a note that says, “Listen to [The Who’s] Tommy with a candle burning, and you’ll see your future.” Stillwater singer Jeff (Jason Lee) cites “the buzz” as the best part of rock-star life, and says that music will “save the world.”

Meanwhile, music critic Lester Bangs (Hoffman) is the film’s most cynical character, often reminding William that some of the things he’s taking in with wide-eyed reverence are objectively not great. Yet his opening lines echo the fan’s awe that other characters share: “Music, you know, true music — not just rock and roll — it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone listening to your headphones.”

The film ultimately doesn’t denote lack of critical engagement, nor does it promote the toxic, unhealthy type of obsession that we’ve all seen exemplified in things like Q&A-gone-wrong videos. Instead, Crowe’s film convincingly states the case for fandom as an ultimate form of motivation and inspiration.

For those who have never had the urge to, say, drop out of college to follow a band, or move to LA to be closer to the stars, the tone and very concept of Almost Famous can be a tough pill to swallow. It helps that the music featured in the film is the type of excellent, sweeping ‘70s rock that myths are made of. Stillwater is a fictional band, and the touring stories consist of a composite of events that reportedly happened when Crowe was writing about The Allman Brothers Band and other musical acts for Rolling Stone.

Crowe, Peter Frampton, and Heart’s Nancy Wilson wrote the original music that Stillwater performs, with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready playing guitar. The soundtrack also features heartache-inducing, imminently singable classic rock songs like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” The latter is featured in the film’s most well-known scene, one that impresses upon viewers the power of music — and of loving a piece of art wholeheartedly — without any spoken words.

After the band nearly breaks up at a tour stop during which frontman Russell (Crudup) goes AWOL and ends up on a bad drug trip at a local college party, the group sits soberly on their tour bus. They’re bored, fed-up, and depressed in turn. As the opening lines of “Tiny Dancer” play, we assume the music is non-diegetic, purely for us as an audience, but then the Stillwater drummer starts to idly air-drum to the beat. The music is infectious. Characters begin nodding along until one band member’s voice breaks through the tense on-screen silence, and before we know it, everyone on the bus — groupies, roadies, musicians, William — is singing. It’s a cathartic, joyful moment, one that transcends all the baggage between these old friends and new acquaintances. As the song winds down, William says, “I have to go home.” “You are home,” Penny answers.

In its purest form, fan love is hope. We hope that the artist we adore will continue making art that moves us, that we can share and shout about and engage with again and again. Often we hope, against our better judgment, that the artist is as good a person as we think they are. Maybe we hope that we can be more like them, or have what they have, or someday do the job that they do. And we hope, above all else, that we’re right to believe that the answers to all life’s questions might be found right there in that thing we love, perfectly captured in some “silly little piece of art.”

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)