Almost Famous Could Never Happen Today
It was Jan. 7, 2016 when we first found out that Ryan Leas had never seen Almost Famous. There aren’t many movies about music journalism — it’s a boring profession! — so if you desire to be a music journalist, it’s likely that you would seek out Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s sentimental retelling of his early days as a music journalist in the 1970s.
But Ryan — who started writing about music at a young age and loves classic rock enough for us to affectionately nickname him Young Classic Rocker Ryan Leas — had never seen a movie that was so incredibly up his alley. He never got to aspire to be like William Miller, the intrepid kid reporter at the heart of the film. So we ribbed him mercilessly in Slack, and we knew that one day we would force him to watch it, and there’s no better occasion than to do so for Almost Famous’ 20th anniversary.
As this summer’s spate of podcasts and oral histories about the film has proven, Almost Famous is a touchstone for a whole lot of people. But what’s it like to watch the movie for the first time in 2020, when music journalism has changed so much? Read below to find out…
JAMES RETTIG: When did you first become aware of Almost Famous?
RYAN LEAS: I was a kid when it came out so I feel like I’ve known about it for as long as I remember, but in terms of music world stuff I knew the broad strokes. I thought it was a fictionalized movie about Led Zeppelin. But I guess when I started working in music journalism, the Lester Bangs scenes and the “Tiny Dancer” scene were always what crossed my radar. So that’s what I thought of. I thought of the movie as some kind of hokey classic rock boomer mythology type thing.
JAMES: Yeah, which it is. But now that you’ve seen it, how did it compare to your expectations?
RYAN: It’s definitely a little hokey. I guess it’s a little bit better than I thought it would be. I also don’t think I realized how critically acclaimed it was. I thought it was just one of those popular movies from when I was a kid. But I mean, I feel like it’s always weird for people who spend time around the music industry itself — and especially, in this instance, who are music journalists in a very different era — to be able to watch this kind of story and not filter it through our own experiences with this world. Seeing it as boomer rock mythology is one thing, but then it’s also a whole other thing to have Lester Bangs pontificating about the purity of rock ‘n’ roll and music journalism and all this kind of stuff when we’re all living in an era where it’s pretty far removed from anything that’s depicted in the movie.
JAMES: I feel like in some ways it’s more of a touchstone for the generation right before us. People that are 10 years older. This movie came out when I was eight, and I didn’t watch it until I was in high school. By then, I was already on the internet to such an extent that what I thought music journalism was was already so much different than what it was in the ’70s — or what it even was in 2000.
RYAN: I remember meeting somebody the first year I was really working as a music journalist full time. She would have been around the same age as Cameron Crowe; she was like, one of the founding editors of Kerrang! or something like that. I met her at this resort destination concert that My Morning Jacket was doing in early 2014, and she was telling me stories about how she was friends with Lemmy Kilmister and how she went on tour with the Clash when they were in a private jet. And I remember how radically foreign that seemed to me.
I once had a similar conversation with the writer Michael Azerrad. He said, “Oh, now you guys are living out the stories that’ll be your version of this decades on.” I couldn’t believe that, that anyone from that generation would look at our generation and think that we were going to have any sort of similar experience with the music industry or music journalism or the experiences of being with bands. It’s just not that lawless past where “it’s all happening” anymore, nor would a journalist in our online media generation be allowed into those experiences where/if they exist.
JAMES: Yeah, I mean now you’re lucky if you get an hour with an artist in a coffee shop without their publicist breathing down your neck.
RYAN: Remember all of these pieces about the death of the celebrity profile? I had a hard time telling exactly how big Stillwater were supposed to be at that point in the movie — but any artist that is the size where they’re filling large clubs or playing arenas, you would never be allowed to just go on tour with them for like a month or whatever he was doing. And beyond the question of access, the internet has destroyed the journalism business model to the point that no publication could afford to keep their reporter embedded like that anyway.
JAMES: It hasn’t happened like that in decades. It almost definitely wasn’t happening around the time Almost Famous came out. What did you think of Stillwater, the band? Did you think they were good?
RYAN: No. [Laughs] I thought it was funny when they started playing “Fever Dog” in the beginning. I thought it almost sounded like Soundgarden doing a Lynyrd Skynyrd pisstake or something more so than it sounded like an original ’70s song. It sounds like a ‘90s band’s idea of what a ’70s song sounds like.
JAMES: I don’t ever get the sense that you’re supposed to think that Stillwater are particularly good or even that remarkable.
RYAN: They’re not supposed to be good, necessarily, or great, which I think makes for more intriguing material in this context. That’s what makes Inside Llewyn Davis a good music movie, because it’s more interesting to see people who are not quite there vs. another predictable biopic of a legend. Because you’re always going to have a lot of the same beats there. But in Almost Famous, I didn’t necessarily get why we’re supposed to think Randall is more anointed than the rest of them. He’s just kind of a generic ’70s guitarist. The movie still hits some familiar beats, still tells a recognizable classic rock story, but with a band that’s not destined for greatness.
JAMES: One thing that I think is interesting is that, because William is so young, he’s very endeared by this band who is obviously a repetition of something that was happening six or seven years before them. In the movie, Lester Bangs is basically telling him that rock is already dead and asking why he would get invested in this band that’s an echo of what’s already happened. It’s interesting to watch these characters be so devoted to something that is already gone.
RYAN: There were parts of the movie that I thought were corny, but I thought it was pretty accurate in the sense that it was told through the lens of this naive kid. Or through Penny’s eyes. I didn’t think that the movie maintained a lot of the same mythology around classic rock that the characters did, even though it still maintains plenty. It maintains the mythology around people like Lester Bangs, I guess. I liked that it was through their eyes, though, I bought that part. I think that’s something that’s pretty relatable as a music fan from a different era. That you get in the orbit of something — even if it’s something that’s a lot tamer or less romanticized, or comes with less noxious, out-of-control bullshit than the Stillwater situation or the ’70s — and you can see it as larger than life.
JAMES: I know you’ve been on tour with a couple bands. How does your experience — not as a journalist, but as someone on the road — compare to what’s shown in Almost Famous?
RYAN: Well, my main experience on the road is with the Irish noise-rock group Girl Band, who are by nature not exactly going to be filling arenas in any era. If you were on the road with whatever the period equivalent of Girl Band would’ve been in the ’70s, you’d have a much different experience than you would nowadays, but it would’ve also been quite different than Stillwater regardless. Everything was different in the ’70s. I mean, my experience touring today was pretty far from the old ’70s fables of partying and madness. It’s a lot of time spent renting cargo vans, or looking up motels that are halfway between the cities you’re playing so that all five or six people can sleep in one room in the middle of nowhere and save money. Sometimes you splurge and get an Airbnb in town for the night. Obviously there’s a whole lot that is radically different — whether you’re talking about an indie band on the road vs. a classic rock band, or the present day vs. the ’70s — but it’s always felt more like running a modest business and trying to get by so you get to do it again.
One thing that ironically rang true for me was the house party sequence, that was kind of familiar. I’m sure it’s meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but the whole part about “finding something real” is funny. I do remember experiences like that turning into these actual moments of respite on the road more so than like, when you’re in town for SXSW or when you’re in town when another show is going on and you wind up going out with another band. The nights that were always the most fun were when you wound up in someone’s random-ass house 15 miles outside of the city and everybody had a flight the next morning, but you still went and hung out with whoever these people were. Obviously that scene ends with him doing the whole “golden god” thing, which is ridiculous, but I do remember those being kind of restorative moments, when you are on tour and you get to meet strangers in strange places.
The jet thing seemed like bullshit. I don’t understand how a band that’s on the cusp of breaking is in a jet all of a sudden.
JAMES: I think that’s just the ’70s and some narrative fuckery to get them on that plane. One thing I think that rings true more for me nowadays than when I saw this in high school is that feeling of, as a journalist, always being an outsider. The morning after that party, where Russell is coming down from being on acid and says, “You’re always taking notes with your eyes.” It feels like — no matter when you’re hanging around musicians, even if they’re not guarded or you’re not interviewing them for anything — there’s always that feeling that you’re never going to be part of the crew or whatever.
RYAN: Yeah, I mean… I’ve experienced those moments over the years. I’ve had people I thought were friends or I was friendly with and I think in the end it wasn’t really that. I guess I did not listen to Lester Bangs. I’ve had people I was legitimately friends with too, and, even there, in certain circumstances, they talk amongst their own club in a way that’s distinct from how they might speak around you or me when it’s like, a public “band with journalist” environment.
I feel like it is a little different now though. If you do get access, where you’re hanging out in somebody’s house or if you’ve been on the road… I feel like they kind of get that you’re more on the same side as they are, maybe partially because we’ve all failed in Lester Bangs’ eyes. But I think there’s a dynamic that’s specific to this era, because we’re all trying to prop up this dying industry. Most of my experiences have been interviewing indie musicians, and they know they are talking to somebody who works at one of the only remaining music sites. It’s sort of like everyone’s on the same page that, in most cases, we do this because we like it and not because of the trappings of fame or the crazy parties or whatever was promised in the past and/or depicted in Almost Famous.
But I will say that there’s often been those moments where — especially when you’re around somebody who is a slightly bigger name — you can see them blocking you out. There’s still that distrust. I haven’t had anything quite as severe as that Russell experience, though. I have been around certain musicians who were on acid or other drugs, but not ones who’ve screamed at me that I’m the enemy. I guess I’ve had better luck.
JAMES: Let’s switch gears and talk about Penny Lane and that whole aspect of the movie, which I feel like was dicey 20 years ago and is definitely dicier today. There are a lot of thorny issues there with age and consent and people that are in positions of power taking advantage of young women. Neither of us are really in a position to interrogate it, but it’s something that the movie doesn’t handle very well.
RYAN: Right, yeah… Maybe it was true to his own life, but when he meets them and calls them “groupies” in a very casually and clumsily dismissive way, and they get mad about it — that tells you, well, the movie knows. It’s not like 20 years ago they were still brushing aside what that was. I was thinking about this earlier, and I don’t know how to talk about this. It’s not a part of being on the road these days in the circles that I’ve been in. Obviously there is still a lot of predatory behavior, as we’ve seen called out in recent years.
In the movie it definitely feels like that specific ’70s culture of people following the band or waiting at the venues. Maybe if you’re around different kinds of artists today, you’d still see a modern manifestation of that. It was definitely something that I thought was poorly handled in the movie and it feels weird to talk about that through the lens of “touring’s different now” because that feels like the kind of glorification of the past that irons over really terrible things that people did and we hopefully wouldn’t accept that these days.
JAMES: I think it’s interesting because I feel like some things, if you step away from them a bit, the movie does well. Penny Lane’s arc as a character is good. She gets fucked over by this band because they don’t care about her, they just use her, and that feels true to life. But the whole experience is treated sentimentally, so I don’t know that it entirely works. And then there’s other parts of the movie that are played for comedy. There’s the whole scene where they’re in the bus and they drive by a bunch of high school girls running…
RYAN: In which Mark Kozelek of all fucking people is the one that gets excited by the high school girls.
JAMES: Yeah, I forgot about that until I saw it.
RYAN: Of all the moments that aged horrifically in that movie.
JAMES: It’s interesting because even 20 years ago, Cameron Crowe was comfortable putting a scene like that in the movie.
RYAN: Making that joke, even if it’s theoretically at the expense of the band members, which it barely is.
JAMES: So much of the movie is about romanticizing this culture, with some caveats, but at the end of the day it’s still very much a glamorization of the lifestyle. You’re meant to be swept up in being on tour with this band, even with all the negatives.
RYAN: Have you ever had a conversation or read anything about the quaaludes scene?
JAMES: Not really. What about it?
RYAN: That was really weird to me. The part where he says “I love you” and she’s getting sick in the bathroom while they’re pumping her stomach — I feel like normally in a rock movie of this sort, this scene would be like, “And this is where he sees the seedy reality of what he got involved in.” But instead it weirdly and lovingly frames her as she’s getting her stomach pumped and he’s kind of smiling dope-ishly. I was like, is this supposed to be a heartwarming moment where he cares about her more than ever? Or is it supposed to be somehow tongue-in-cheek? That this kid is so infatuated that he’s grinning sheepishly as she’s maybe dying in the bathroom? I did not know how to read that scene or the intent.
JAMES: Based on Cameron Crowe’s other movies, it was probably meant to be kind of loving. He has a big sentimentality for the era and would probably feel this scene of her getting her stomach pumped is a testament to how William really loves her and really cares about her, which he does and is true to an extent, but… it does land kind of weird. I mean, a lot of this movie does.
I unfortunately still really enjoy it. I kind of regret that I like it as much as I do because I can recognize the not-so-good aspects of it, but it’s so watchable and funny and heartwarming in good ways and bad. The thing I like most about it still is how it reflects what it feels like to fall in love with music for the first time, or be really invested in a band and feel like they can change your life.
RYAN: Before I watched it, I didn’t really realize how much of a thread there was about fandom within the movie. Because I really just understood it as a movie about a journalist on the road. But they really do go back to that a whole lot, talking about the Band-Aids and him. When the Rolling Stone editor was like, “He’s really just a fan.” If I could put aside my jaded 30-year-old perspective, that is the part that still rings true regardless of the era or the things that are clumsy about the movie. It’s the head-over-heels rush…
JAMES: …that you get when you first discover music that you feel is really important. Yeah, I think that’s been my main takeaway from the movie. In terms of the music journalism aspect, this movie makes me want to do music journalism less, but it makes me like music more. How does it make you feel as a music journalist?
RYAN: It’s decades and many contexts removed from what we do now, but I would say it makes me feel a little bit more ashamed because it’s like, either we’re comparable to the younger, slightly more aw-shucks character — even if we think we are older and savvier and beyond that — or we’re comparable to the Lester Bangs character, who is both jaded and maintains too many self-righteous taste politics.
The perspective of the fan is the part that clicks more in the movie. I don’t know that you totally get the perspective of a journalist in the movie, actually. You do get the perspective of a kid. He gets attached to this guy and his hero is torn down.
JAMES: As a first-time viewer, why do you think this movie has been in the conversation for so long?
RYAN: I don’t entirely know — I think we just like stories from the middle of the century. I think there is the boomers’ own romance surrounding that, people that were there and were kids during it and later made movies like Almost Famous. To me at least, there’s an allure to the origin stories we get passed down, even if I would not have wanted to listen to Stillwater and even if there was all kinds of reprehensible behavior within this band. This itself could be informed by being told these stories over and over through that repeated boomer self-mythologizing, that codification of pop history, but: I think part of the reason we have so much retro culture nostalgia is because there’s this draw to a moment, the first time it happened.
In this movie, there’s this great generational divide with a mom who does not trust her children to listen to pop records. And the daughter runs away, the son discovers music. What you were talking about, with the joy of discovering music you really care about and think is important and life-altering — Almost Famous takes place in an era when, culturally, everyone was doing that for the first time, in a way. Obviously it happened a little bit in the ’50s, too, but I think there’s a much more major turning point with that late ’60s/early ’70s era. The counterculture era, where pop music and pop culture and how we incorporate them into our lives all transformed. Speaking as the journalist formerly known as Young Classic Rocker Ryan Leas or whatever, I feel like part of the ongoing resonance of stories from that era is that it’s everybody’s moment of discovery, on a historical level.
JAMES: This is looking back on the first time that this specific kind of fandom and this specific kind of mythologizing of bands happened. This is where we get all of the narratives that we are still engaging with or pushing against today — the idea of a young genius, the idea of a band that maybe is just OK but could be great. All of that is interesting to think about happening for the first time.
RYAN: Obviously we now have a backlog of all this history to the point that Almost Famous feels kind of passé to those of us who have consumed too many stories about rock’s great early years. But now you get a million music stories every day online, in all these different genres and all these different strata. I think there’s something — now I sound like the Lester Bangs character — but I think there’s a purer form of it in a story like Almost Famous, because it’s before there was as much historical baggage to it. But I don’t want to be like the Lester Bangs character; I think people just like shit from the olden days.