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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
The film "Almost Famous" recently turned 20. Writer and director Cameron Crowe looks at the ecosystem surrounding a rising rock band in the early '70s. It's a coming-of-age story that touches on journalism, sex, rock 'n' roll, parenthood and the perils of trying to be cool. I'm Stephen Thompson. And today we are looking back at "Almost Famous" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us today from his home in Washington, D.C., is the co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast, Scott Detrow. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there.
THOMPSON: Great to have you. Also with us, also from her home in Washington, D.C., is NPR music contributor Cyrena Touros. Hi, Cyrena.
CYRENA TOUROS, BYLINE: Hey, Stephen. Nice to see you.
THOMPSON: It's great to see you, too. So "Almost Famous" was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who based it on his own experiences as a very young writer for Rolling Stone. It covers the fictional exploits of the band Stillwater, whose members include guitarist Billy Crudup and singer Jason Lee. The young Cameron Crowe surrogate is an aspiring journalist named William Miller, played by Patrick Fugit. He bonds along the way with a self-described band aid named Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson. Frances McDormand plays William's concerned mom. Zooey Deschanel is his free-spirited sister. And Philip Seymour Hoffman is his mentor, the writer Lester Bangs.
Listen - practically everybody pops up in this movie. Rainn Wilson, Anna Paquin, Jimmy Fallon, Marc Maron, Eric Stonestreet - everybody. Cyrena, I'm going to start with you. Give us some of your thoughts on "Almost Famous" in 2020.
TOUROS: I think there - when I think about it, there are so few films that get the idea of music right. I think there are so many bad films about music. And what struck me about rewatching "Almost Famous" in 2020 was just how lovingly it portrays that relationship and also how realistically. I think the fact that this is a semiautobiographical or a fictionalized autobiographical film really shines through in the screenplay and how realistic the portrayal of a band on the road is. There are so many films that try to do the music-industry-insider thing and obviously have never done their research, or they're glamorizing it in their head, and I think this movie is, you know, while nostalgic, kind of unglamorous.
I'm actually pretty new to the film. I only watched it for the first time in 2018, actually as a bonding experience. I was an NPR music intern a couple years ago, and the three of us - Stefanie Fernandez and Joshua Bote - all watched it together after our internship ended on our very last day...
TOUROS: ...Which I thought was super cute. I'd never seen it before, and, you know, it's like this cornerstone in music journalism. I think it's what every music journalist wants their life to be like, you know.
TOUROS: It's everybody's dream to go on the road with a band, to profile a band, to get paid that much money to write about what you love. I mean, just...
DETROW: Oh, they pay him so much money,
TOUROS: They pay him so much money.
TOUROS: I mean, he gets a thousand dollars to write a 3,000-word story. And I looked that up, and in 2020, that would be, like, $5,500, which is, like, unheard of.
TOUROS: Like, you would maybe get $150 to write a think piece for a midtier-level digital magazine. So it's just astounding. And his, like, first big gig, too. I can see how so many people would watch this movie growing up and, like, aspire to be a music journalist. It's weird for me to say that, like, that was not my experience because I came to it kind of late.
THOMPSON: Yeah, that was a great crop of interns, by the way. OK...
TOUROS: Oh, thank you.
THOMPSON: Scott Detrow, how about you?
DETROW: So I think I did actually have that archetypal first experience with this movie. I can tell you the exact place I watched it - at my friend's house, the summer between sophomore and junior year of high school. I can, like, remember sitting and watching this movie and just being, like, totally sucked into it. And, I mean, like, I like music, but I'm nowhere near the two of you in terms of, like, the amount of space that music takes up in my brain. But for me, it was just, like, the idea of being a reporter, being a journalist out in the world, immersed in this experience, seeing it for the first time and writing about it. It was just, like, intoxicating to me and one of those moments of, like, that is exactly what I want to do.
DETROW: And I think about this movie all the time. I especially think about it - you know, I do spend a lot of time on buses going around the country reporting...
DETROW: ...Not with musicians, but with politicians, which is a little different, and we can talk about that. But it's something that will, like, pop up in my head and make me smile when I'm in a situation that's slightly related to it. And, you know, I've probably rewatched this movie more than a dozen times over the last 20 years.
And I think in addition to, like, the way that it was an entry point into what I've done for a living, another reason that it sticks with me and makes me happy is it's just, like, a movie about being excited about something and being in love with something and getting that chance to touch that thing that you love in person for the first time and just seeing the world through William's eyes as he kind of gets to, like, be in the place that he always thought about is something that, I think, really gives a lasting feeling to this movie.
THOMPSON: Yeah, it's interesting. I came to this movie a little bit differently than you guys did because I'm much older than both of you.
THOMPSON: And so I watched this movie in theaters when it came out. I was 28 years old. I just rewatched it at 48 years old, and I was really struck, among other things, by how incredibly well this movie ages - how humane it is toward characters that movies like this aren't always humane to. The title of this movie is very, very true to this story. This is about being adjacent to a world that you're kind of clinging to and that you don't necessarily belong to. As much as you guys, I think, both felt a little bit of, like, the glamour and excitement of being William in this situation, I also - as a person who has gone through his entire life adjacent to very cool people...
THOMPSON: I really felt the deep imposter syndrome...
THOMPSON: ...Of particularly William in this world. I think of this movie all the time, and I think of William holding his sad little microphone with its little wire hooked up to the tape recorder and just, like, extending it out, like, please tell me something cool.
THOMPSON: I think about being that kid all the time. And the first time I was backstage at a rock 'n' roll show, I was 15 years old. It was Cheap Trick. And I felt incredibly cool. But I was also Patrick Fugit.
THOMPSON: I was not cool. And I think this movie's understanding of what it is like to deeply love something that cannot love you back is really profound. And it explores that idea not only through the eyes of the young Cameron Crowe surrogate, but it explores that through the eyes of Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, a character who could have been such a cipher, who could have been such a manic pixie dream girl fantasy, but is instead this really soulful and thoughtful person whose relationship is just as tenuous as his.
I really, rewatching this movie, loved it even more than I did 20 years ago, and I think that is really saying something. I definitely, watching it in 2020 as a 48-year-old parent of teenagers (laughter), really felt Frances McDormand's performance in my nerves...
DETROW: Oh, yeah.
THOMPSON: ...In a way that I couldn't have as a 28-year-old. I really, really love this movie more than I had ever loved it before. I also saw this movie through the eyes of his angry fact-checker...
THOMPSON: ...In a way that I could not have as a 28-year-old. So, Cyrena and Scott, you guys both have experiences in your lives that give you a special perspective on this film. Cyrena, you worked at a rock club. You worked at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Scott Detrow, you have been on tour with such rock stars as...
THOMPSON: What? I don't know.
DETROW: I'll never forget when Bernie Sanders stood on top of a house...
DETROW: ...And yelled that he was a golden god. It was a really remarkable moment in the 2020 presidential campaign.
TOUROS: I mean, can I get a fact-check?
TOUROS: I can get super nitpicky about what doesn't hold up in terms of what a rock tour looks like here. I mean, just the fact that, like, halfway through the movie, they're like, here are our shirts for the first time; we're debuting shirts. It's like, if you are the opening band - in 2020 at least, the only way you're making money on tour is by slinging merch.
TOUROS: Like, the fact that they did not have shirts printed - it's like, these people are probably paying maybe $5 a ticket to go to this show and you're the opener; you're probably getting maybe $1 split among, I don't know, 20 people.
TOUROS: Like, your crew, your manager - who's apparently stealing money on the side...
TOUROS: ...Like, you know, egotistical bandmates. Like, that was a moment for me.
TOUROS: It's also wild that, you know, a big plot point is they fire their manager, and they get a plane. I'm like, no opening band would ever have enough money to get a plane. They, like, probably don't even have enough money to have that bus.
DETROW: It's kind of a janky (ph) plane, though.
TOUROS: It is a janky plane. It has one of the best scenes - at the very end there.
DETROW: Yeah. I mean, like I mentioned, I think about this movie all the time. And a couple specific moments where it really came up over the last couple of years was in 2016 - so I was covering the campaign, but I was kind of doing, like, sidebar reporting, right? Like, I wasn't one of the main reporters that NPR had on the presidential campaign. So I was in New Hampshire the night of the Iowa caucuses. And all of the candidates - Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders - they flew to New Hampshire overnight. And Sam Sanders and Tamara Keith were our reporters on the plane. So it was my job at 4:00 in the morning to drive to the airport and pick Sam and Tam up.
And I get there, and there's these buses. These campaigns are spilling out of their planes, unloading their stuff. It's just filled with political campaigns and reporters. And I was like, oh, my God, this is like the Black Sabbath concert in the first scene.
DETROW: I'm standing on the ramp. This is all - it's all happening. I'm here. This is so exciting. And I picked them up. And then, of course, four years later, when I was the reporter on the plane, the Iowa caucuses didn't work. It broke down. And I got there, and couldn't find my rental car, which was not, you know, a glamorous experience.
DETROW: But there is a truth to the intoxication of being on the scene, being in the moment, being in a motorcade with the highway stopped and sirens blaring and going through, and you're like, I'm in the scene. But it's like, you're not in the scene; you're the reporter in the back of the bus. You are not the person that matters, and you are there to write about the person that matters. And that is why the scene I play the most is, like, the journalism seminar...
DETROW: ...Of Lester Bangs, Philip Seymour Hoffman, repeatedly telling William, you need to separate yourself; these people are not your friends.
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PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Lester Bangs) Oh, man. You made friends with them. See - friendship is the booze they feed you because they want you to get drunk and feeling like you belong.
PATRICK FUGIT: (As William Miller) Well, it was fun.
HOFFMAN: (As Lester Bangs) Because they make you feel cool. And hey, I met you. You are not cool.
FUGIT: (As William Miller) I know.
DETROW: And that's so true. And I honestly, like, will watch that sometimes and, like - this is right. This is not about me being in an interesting place. This is about writing a story. And you have to, like, take that step of removal. And it is so hard to be a reporter, to walk that line of getting people to tell you things and then stepping back to write about it. And I feel like the way that this movie hangs out in that inherent tension of our jobs is, like, really true to life and thoughtful and fleshed out in a way that you don't see in many other movies.
THOMPSON: I think that's a great point. I think this is one of the best movies I have seen about the process of writing. And there are lots of movies about the process of writing. And the process of writing is an incredibly difficult thing to capture because you are sitting and you're agonizing. And that's very internal, and so, like, you have a lot of scenes in a lot of movies where the person is, like, ticky-tacking (ph) at the keyboard and then, like, inspiration strikes. But this movie in many ways is about all this internal tension and all these forces on him because he is in the situation. He is not cool. He is being made to feel cool in many ways for the very, very first time. And yet he is trying to be true to this journalistic calling and trying to be true to the several different consciences that are appearing on his shoulders...
THOMPSON: ...In the form of editors, in the form of other fans, in the form of the band that he's covering and in the form of Lester Bangs, who is undercutting absolutely everything he's feeling. All of these forces are people he wants to impress, and they're - all of these forces are kind of above him in some way. And he's trying to balance, like, which of these forces can I please in this situation? It is just such an interesting wrestling match going on in this kid's head that this movie finds a way to capture at the same time that it's telling a coming-of-age story, at the same time as it's giving you nostalgia for, like, the old days of rock 'n' roll...
THOMPSON: ...At the same time that it's telling the story about the heartbreak of this woman who loves this dude in a band. And how many (laughter) people do you know have experienced the heartbreak of being in love with the dude from the band...
THOMPSON: ...And how just futile and pointless it is to love the dude in the band?
THOMPSON: This movie is about so many things, and I think anybody can watch this movie and attached to different characters. This movie gives weight to so many different characters and so many different struggles.
TOUROS: God, there's a scene where - he's been trying to get this interview with the guitarist, like, the entire film.
TOUROS: Like, you - Stephen, you mentioned, like, he's, like, puttering around with a little tape recorder, like, please, please talk to me. He finally breaks down and starts crying outside of his room because he's, like, on deadline. God, who hasn't cried on deadline.
TOUROS: And he's like, I just don't know what to do. Like, this is the cornerstone interview of the whole piece. And you talked about the process of writing and, like - I don't actually know if you can write a good story unless you cry about it first.
TOUROS: I feel like you have to be, like, that invested in your process to - you know, writing is kind of an inherently vulnerable act. And I think, like, what you're getting at here, talking about this line you straddle of, like, how close do you get to your subjects is so tricky to navigate because, I mean, you're asking these people to be vulnerable with you. And I think that people expect that to give something good, you have to get something good, too. I mean, there's the moment before he's on his way to this party, looking for something real - to Will, he's like, I don't know anything about you; like, tell me something about yourself. That struck me as a particularly important moment just because the subject might get attached to you, too, and that's when it gets kind of tricky.
THOMPSON: One thing I really want to get to about this movie - I mean, Kate Hudson's performance in this movie was very, very celebrated. She was heavily award-nominated. She was nominated for an Oscar. It was a huge breakthrough performance for her. I cannot stress enough how much even better this performance is watching it now than it even struck me as 20 years ago and how incredibly load-bearing she is for this movie and how, if she does not give the exact right performance, this movie falls apart. And there are scenes between her and Patrick Fugit where you're watching it and, like, she has just admitted to him that she is 16; he has just admitted to her that he is 15.
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KATE HUDSON: (As Penny Lane) How old are you?
FUGIT: (As William Miller) Eighteen.
HUDSON: (As Penny Lane) Me, too. How old are we, really?
FUGIT: (As William Miller) Seventeen.
HUDSON: (As Penny Lane) Me, too.
FUGIT: (As William Miller) Actually, I'm 16.
HUDSON: (As Penny Lane) Me, too. Isn't it funny? The truth just sounds different.
FUGIT: (As William Miller) I'm 15.
THOMPSON: You watch this scene through the prism of realizing that these are kids playacting. It is really profound. This movie is exquisitely cast.
TOUROS: I think for me, more so than this being a movie about music journalism, more so than this being a movie about fame and what you do to get there, I feel like this is a movie about fandom. And I think the Kate Hudson performance and the way the storyline treats the band aids - or, as they don't like to be called, the groupies - is so empathetic. I mean, Stephen, you mentioned that, like, there are things that this movie does that not a lot of films do, and I think that's, like, treat the women as people...
TOUROS: ...I mean, as, like, baseline as that should be. I mean, there's a great line that Sapphire, one of the groupies, says near the end. She's like, can you believe these new girls? Like, they don't even know what it's like to be a fan, to truly love some silly little piece of music or some band so much that it hurts. And, like, in every scene that there's a band aid, one of them is talking about how much they love the music. And I think to them, like, the allure isn't the men; it's the music, even though sometimes there's a sexual component. I just was astounded at how much agency this movie gave the women and how much it respects the fact that fandom and popular music and the success of these white-dude bands is built on the fact that, like, women have to buy in.
TOUROS: And if women don't buy in, you don't have anything.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, speaking of the music, I wanted to touch on Stillwater...
THOMPSON: ...The music of which feels really authentic.
THOMPSON: And, man, Cameron Crowe is a well-connected dude. He at the time was married to Nancy Wilson of Heart. Obviously, as you know from his other movies, he is extremely tied in to the Seattle music scene. He has access to a lot of musicians creating very era-specific music. What do you guys think of the music of Stillwater?
DETROW: So I think there's a drop-off, right?
DETROW: Like, the "Fever Dog" song passes, I would say.
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JASON LEE: (As Jeff Bebe, singing) Fever dog, scratching at my back door. I hear you howl, but I don't listen no more. Got to spit it out, the taste of the hair of the fever dog.
DETROW: You know, not the worst movie song I've heard.
DETROW: And then, like, the second or third time you hear them actually singing, you're like, this is not good; I don't like this.
DETROW: I don't know. Not terrible. I will say, when I had the soundtrack on heavy rotation at various points in my life, I don't always skip past the "Fever Dog" when it comes up...
DETROW: ...Which is the only Stillwater song that actually made the soundtrack.
TOUROS: I mean, the music isn't original or groundbreaking. I don't think it's supposed to be. I think that they're a self-described midlevel band. I think it sounds like it's of the era, which is an accomplishment. And, you know, I don't think that this music is - in the fictional film, is going to stand the test of time. Like, they're obviously not painted as some sort of groundbreaking, inspirational band. But I think it sells tickets. It sells records. They could make a living off their music. And, like, God, how many musicians would want to be able to do that in 2020?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think they are the perfect level of OK...
THOMPSON: ...For the story that the movie is telling. I think - I love the way every time you see them introduced, it's like, from Troy, Mich.
THOMPSON: And there's just something about the kind of right-down-the-middle quality of what Stillwater is selling us that I think works perfectly for the story that this movie is telling. Well, I think we can agree we are all fans of "Almost Famous."
THOMPSON: But we want to know what you think about the movie. I have a feeling many of you have opinions. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both so much for being here.
TOUROS: Yeah. Thanks, Stephen.
DETROW: The only thing I'll say is I can't believe we didn't talk about the "Tiny Dancer" scene. But this could be a very long podcast.
THOMPSON: We should just go out singing it, but then we'd have to pay Elton John so much money.
DETROW: Yeah. Well, you can just pretend we sang it then.
THOMPSON: Of course. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all right back here tomorrow.
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THOMPSON: (Singing) Hold me closer, tiny dancer.
THOMPSON: I thought you guys were going to join me.
DETROW: We will see you all in 1974.
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