It might be hard to believe it's been 20 years since writer/director Cameron Crowe took us back to his childhood and showed us what it was like to be a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine, but that's what makes Almost Famous so great. It exists in a kind of timeless Neverland with its period setting and universal themes of unrequited love.
In 2000, the movie opened at the beginning of Oscar season and proceeded to soothe classic rock fans while becoming a formidable awards presence. Almost Famous would go on to win Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and it would make a star of Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's 21-year-old daughter who just started acting herself two years previously.
But the story of Almost Famous is much more interesting than showy awards. Crowe wrote most of his script based on his own experiences at Rolling Stone and the real stories are even better than what's in the movie. Twenty years later, here are 20 things you never knew about Almost Famous:
1. Crowe, who skipped kindergarten and two grades in elementary school, was a 13-year-old high school sophomore in San Diego when he first started writing music reviews.
2. Crowe ambitiously began a correspondence with "America's Greatest Rock Critic" Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film) and met Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong Torres on a trip to Los Angeles.
3. Crowe became Rolling Stone's youngest contributing editor at the age of 15, touring with The Allman Brothers Band, traveling with The Who, and interviewing the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Neil Young at the heights of their careers. Almost Famous is inspired by those days.
4. Almost Famous merges Crowe's Rolling Stone experiences into one story. Gregg Allman distrusted him on tour and called him a "narc." He was on a plane with The Who when it very nearly crashed. And the character of Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based mostly on Eagles founding member Glenn Frey.
5. Crowe and his wife, Nancy Wilson, of the rock band Heart, co-wrote all the Stillwater songs in the movie with the help of Peter Frampton. But the music acknowledgments credit Russell Hammond and Stillwater as if they were real authors and performers.
6. To look like a real rock band, the four actors in Stillwater rehearsed for four hours a night, five nights a week, for six weeks.
7. According to Crowe, he sent the script around Hollywood to see if he could get anyone to respond to it. Steven Spielberg read Crowe's 172-page script over a weekend and called the writer the following Monday saying, "Direct every word." Crowe filmed almost all of his huge script and Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures produced it.
8. Russell's line "I am a golden god!" barked from the rooftop while the character is tripping on LSD, is a reference to an actual incident involving Duane Allman. Gregg Allman talked about it in his memoir, My Cross to Bear: "The jumping off the roof into the pool, that was Duane — from the third floor of a place called the Travelodge in San Francisco. My brother wanted to do it again, but the cat who owned the place came out shaking his fist, yelling at him. We told that story all the time, and I have no doubt that Cameron was around for it."
9. Penny Lane (Hudson) asks William (Patrick Fugit) if he'd like to go to Morocco with her. He says, "Yes... Ask me again." According to Crowe, "Ask me again." was Fugit stepping out of character and asking Hudson to repeat her lines for another take. But the director liked the moment and kept it.
10. When Russell says "Well, yeah, on my better days, I am Russell from Stillwater..." you can almost hear John Cusack in Say Anything..., another Crowe film, who said the line first when asked "Aren't you Lloyd Dobler?"
11. The roles of Russell and Penny were originally written for Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley. Polley dropped out to work on her own project, The Law of Enclosures. And, according to Crowe, Pitt worked with him for months before finally admitting, "I just don't get it enough to do it."
12. Kate Hudson was originally cast as William's sister, the role which eventually went to Zooey Deschanel.
13. Kirsten Dunst came close to getting the Penny Lane role. Dunst, Brittany Murphy, Mena Suvari, Anne Heche, Claire Danes, Christina Ricci, Neve Campbell, Jenna Elfman, Bridget Moynahan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rose McGowan, Chloë Sevigny, and Rebecca Romijn all auditioned for the part. Uma Thurman turned it down.
14. Crowe was once pulled into a Pearl Jam pre-performance huddle, at Lollapalooza in the '90s, and he used that experience in the movie with William and Stillwater.
15. In William's final interview with Russell, he asks "What do you love about music?" Russell replies, "To begin with..." and William laughs. "To Begin With..." is the title of Stillwater's (fictional) first album, seen briefly on an 8-Track in the opening sequence, and more clearly in The Making Of Almost Famous on the DVD.
16. Penny Lane is based on Crowe's real-life friend, Pennie Trumble, who goes by the name "Pennie Lane." She lives in Portland, Oregon, and is involved in the music industry.
18. The scene where Russell gets electrocuted on stage is based on an incident when Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley was severely shocked during a concert on Dec 12th, 1976 at the Lakeland Civic Center in Florida.
19. Most films have music budgets of less than $1.5 million. Almost Famous, which featured features over 50 songs, had a budget of $3.5 million.
20. After screening the film for them, Led Zeppelin granted Crowe the right to use one of their songs on the soundtrack — the first time they had done so since allowing Crowe to use "Kashmir" in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
[Editor's note: This article was originally published September 2015.]
[Big h/t to IMDb, Wikipedia, and my Almost Famous DVD.]