‘Almost Famous’ Offers a Romanticized Glimpse Into the World of Music Journalism

    As Cameron Crowe’s beloved coming-of-age film turns 20, today’s music journalists reflect on its nostalgic portrayal of a changing industry.

    There was no way I wasn’t going to fall in love with Almost Famous. Even before I actually watched it, a coming-of-age film about a high school boy who gets to follow an up-and-coming rock band on tour seemed like the only film that could possibly matter in the eyes of an introverted kid who was just starting to get into the music of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. It had nothing to do with wanting to be a music writer like the film’s protagonist, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) – at the time, I had no idea that was even a thing. Though me and a couple of friends had just formed our own middle school band, we were too naïve to even dream of the kind of stardom that Stillwater, the film’s semi-fictional 70s hard-rock group, magically manage to attain. All I needed to know to get hooked was that it was about being obsessed with music, and especially rock n’ roll.

    The recommendation came from TV journalist, and it came with a warning: “Do not, under any circumstances, become a journalist!” Though as fervent as the kind of advice a fictionalized version of renowned rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gives William in the film (“You cannot make friends with the rock stars!”), it was not something I took all that seriously – not because I knew that being a music writer has little to do with what people commonly associate with journalism, but because I didn’t really find the romanticized vision that Almost Famous paints of the industry to be all that enticing. Instead, it was in the way the film hints at the possibility of a certain kind of belonging that I found hope: moments like the one where Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) turns to William during the famous ‘Tiny Dancer’ singalong and tells him that he’s home, or the reminder that, “If you ever get  lonely, you can always go to the record store and visit your friends.”

    But upon rewatching the film years later, I couldn’t help but give second thought to its portrayal of music journalism, partly because I am now a music writer, and also because, to my knowledge, it is pretty much the only portrayal of music journalism in the history of popular film. Caitlin Moran recently adapted her novel How to Build a Girl for the screen, and as refreshing as it is in twisting the gender tropes that films like Almost Famous and High Fidelity are predicated on, it is much less about the protagonist’s desire to become a music journalist than it is about her personal journey of self-discovery. Which is neither surprising nor inherently bad – you can’t really blame Hollywood for not breaking the bank to tell stories about the portentous subject of music journalism.

    As Almost Famous turns 20, one particular quote, delivered by non-groupie Sapphire (Fairuza Bal) towards the end of the film, inevitably stands out: “Something tells me twenty years from now, we’ll remember her [Penny Lane]… and not much else.” Like much of the film, the line was meant to be self-consciously anachronistic even then, as the the story is loosely based on writer-director Cameron Crowe’s own experience as a Rolling Stone journalist in the early 1970s. Crowe was certainly aware of the ways that things had changed since then (and how they hadn’t), but these memories were still real, to him and to everyone who lived through that cultural moment. But it’s the word remember that now strikes me as odd: how can we feel nostalgic about a time we were never a part of? How can we cling to a dream that has become both impossible and largely irrelevant? And what implications does this have for a new generation of aspiring writers who might discover the film in light of its anniversary?

    Aware that I’m less than adept at single-handedly answering these questions, and curious to find out how people’s perspectives on the film vary, I reached out to a number of music journalists working in the field today to discuss their experiences with Almost Famous and figure out whether or not the film holds up two decades later.

    Clara Scott, of The Michigan Daily and formerly Consequence of Sound, says Almost Famous was a direct influence on her desire to become a music writer. She first watched the film when she was around 13 or 14, trying to navigate the uncertainty that comes with figuring out what path to pursue. “As the daughter of a musician and a musician myself, I have always loved the culture of music journalism,” she says, “but I never considered that I could actually be one of them until I watched William become so successful at such a young age in Almost Famous. I feel the same jolt of inspiration that I did back then. I think that the fact that William’s story was based on Cameron Crowe’s, that something along those lines actually happened, gave me hope that I could do something big myself if I had enough guts.”

    For Scott, and for many music writers like her, discovering Almost Famous during her teenage years was like getting a glimpse into a world that felt utterly new and exciting – and most importantly, possible. “Watching Almost Famous was a stroke of serendipity,” says Sophie Walker, a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on The Line of Best Fit, DIY Mag, andThe Forty Five. “I can’t have been any more than 14 years old when I first saw it, but it completely opened my eyes to a world in which I could unite everything I loved: music, people and writing. I was completely fascinated by William being a part of something exciting, and yet altogether removed from it – observing on the edges as this world opened up for him.” Watching the film and reading How to Build a Girl, she says, was “a weapons-grade cocktail of ambition for me as a young teenager.”

    The fact that Almost Famous has acted as a catalyst for many writers’ careers is both inspiring and not at all surprising, but that love for music and writing seems to always come first – the film is that final puzzle piece that comes to complete an already pretty obvious picture. For some, like rock journalist and former Consequence of Sound music editor Erica Campbell, the journalistic aspect of it didn’t have any resonance until much later. “I wasn’t a music journalist or even planning to be a music journalist when I first saw Almost Famous,” she says. “However, I was still completely enamored with the film. I like to think the universe was dropping hints. At the time I remember resonating with Penny Lane and the other Bandaids because I knew what it was like to love a band so much it hurts. By the time I realized I was more of a William Miller than any of the other characters I already owned the film in multiple formats and of course a floor-length fur-trimmed knock off of the infamous coat Ms. Penny Lane wears.”

    There’s something intriguing about the idea that the dynamic between being a music fan and a music critic can be represented by two of the film’s main characters – William Miller and Penny Lane – and it also reveals the ways in which that dynamic is often viewed as inherently gendered. Sophie Walker also related to those characters in a similar way, but it was immediately clear who she identified with the most. “I had been raised on a steady diet of films framed on the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope, which always left me aspiring to be ‘The Girl’,” she says. “As captivating as Penny Lane was, however, it was a game-changer when I realised that this time, I’d much rather be William.”

    Erica explains that though she doesn’t know whether the film was the driving factor in her decision to become a music journalist, it did prompt her to be more cautious in her writing. “I romanticize music and rock and roll so much, and watching [William] make friends with the rock stars and then have to convince himself to tell the truth about his time with them was a little staggering,” she remarks. “Plus, knowing it was all based on Cameron Crowe’s actual experience touring with and interviewing bands, it made me not just want to be a writer but one that could somehow be a fan while somehow being honest and unmerciful.”

    Perhaps that’s part of why the film resonates – because it seeks to break rather than uphold the perceived dichotomy between being a music fan and a critic. Laura Dzubay, a writer at Consequence of Sound, puts it like this: “At the end of the day, William, Penny, Russell and all the other characters are all in this because they love music deeply, and through that shared love they understand something small but important about one another. They do get distracted from ‘what’s important’ by other things that are important in their own ways — falling in love, having fun, making new friends — but the film recognizes the love that has propelled them into these lives to begin with.”

    But not every music writer has the same reaction when watching Almost Famous – and certainly, not everyone who watches the film feels compelled to pick up a notepad and start following a rock band on tour. In fact, it could even have the opposite effect. “The funny thing about Almost Famous is that it seems to want to paint a kind of nostalgic portrait of some ideal experience for an aspiring music writer, but as someone who really wanted to be a music writer I found a lot of the scenarios in this movie to be kind of horrific,” says Jordan Walsh, who writes for Slant, The Alternative, and MAGNET. “Being a 15-year-old who gets sent on tour with a bunch of bickering grown men doing some gross shit sounds like a literal nightmare and I think when I originally saw it I enjoyed it but also felt very anxious the entire time.”

    “Almost Famous just felt like nostalgia for a time I won’t experience.”

    Merely by being an extremely popular film that happens to center around a music journalist, there’s a preconception that every music journalist therefore must have watched Almost Famous (or will otherwise be forced to do so by their colleagues). I imagine it’s like being a teacher and not having watched Dead Poets Society. “People had been telling me to watch it since I first started writing professionally (and before that, because I was a Music Kid), and I was reluctant to watch it,” says 22-year-old Hannah Jocelyn, editor of The Singles Jukebox and a contributor to Pitchfork, Billboard, and others. “While I found a lot of charming moments, it definitely felt very “okay, Xer” to me – so more or less what I expected. It felt like an alternate universe where music journalism was the most important field to ever exist, which felt like a reach even though it was supposed to feel exaggerated. Almost Famous just felt like nostalgia for a time I won’t experience.”

    Hannah first watched the film just last summer, and rather than fuelling her passion for music journalism, it actually made them slightly more cynical. “It’s supposed to make you believe in the power of music, but a lot of my work deals with whether music can continue to exist at all,” they explain. “To a lot of people, music is background noise, and when they’re invested they’re more invested in the artist than the actual music they make.” There’s definitely evidence of that in the movie – beyond William calling Stillwater’s guitar sound “incendiary” in a blatant attempt to get access to their show, it’s seemingly more concerned with the culture of rock n’ roll than the music itself, let alone the process of writing about it.

    With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why some journalists might go into the film with some amount of scepticism. But when Nina Corcoran, a music journalist with bylines in Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Rolling Stone, actually saw the film, she found that there was more truth to it than she had expected. “I started freelancing for national outlets while I was still in college, and I can’t tell you how often people asked if Almost Famous sparked my interest in pursuing music journalism,” she says. “I’d be lying if I said my first viewing wasn’t shaded with a lens of annoyed resentment, like I was upset that it was actually a little accurate at times. The way people described the movie, and especially the questions they asked me afterwards about what writing about music is like, led me to believe it would be a cheesy, romanticized, inaccurate look at the music industry. While it’s definitely cheesy, it’s also got a handful of details that are spot on.”

    Though there are definitely a lot of moments in Almost Famous that still resonate, most music journalists who’ve watched the film can attest to the fact that its portrayal of the industry as a whole doesn’t really hold up today. But you could argue that the film was hardly trying to be accurate at the time of its release – even then, it was, as Jordan Walsh puts it, “a relic of another era.” Hannah Jocelyn says “it’s supposed to be escapism,” adding that “the music industry has changed so much that even if music journalism was still as inexplicably lucrative as it is in this movie, the things they would cover would be much more low-key.” They narrow it down to this: “The world of Almost Famous feels so vast, and contemporary music journalism feels so insular by comparison.”

    Even if the film works as a sort of time capsule, a love letter to a bygone era, the fact remains that the music landscape has changed significantly since then. Nina Corcoran points out a few glaring differences: “Profiles or featured interviews don’t make or break a band like they used to, fewer artists view journalists as the so-called “enemy” (especially compared to how news journalists are viewed as such today), and the sheer idea of assigning a 15-year-old kid a 3,000-word print feature for $1,000, even without inflation, is absurd. The value of everything – a music magazine, a lengthy profile, a writer’s skill, and even the music itself — has been vastly lowered since then, which is depressing.”

    Jordan Walsh, who watched the film for the first time in the middle of an internship for a music magazine, felt this first hand. “The difference between what was onscreen and what I was experiencing couldn’t have been more vast,” he says. “My job consisted of writing like 10 blurbs a day, transcribing interviews, and editing guest artist posts, all of this work remote, uncredited, and unpaid.”

    If you’re an aspiring music writer who’s been trying to get their foot in the door for years, you’ll likely feel discouraged watching how easy it all comes for William. “The portrayal of William’s career feels really meteoric,” Laura Dzubay notes, “which I know Cameron Crowe’s was, but some of the things that happen — like just happening to get ‘discovered’ by the editor of Rolling Stone, or stumbling into a cover story for his first-ever piece for them — definitely seem unique to the world of this particular story.”

    And then there is, of course, *The Internet*, which has transformed practically everything about how the industry operates, but also the ways in which we engage with artists. “The movie’s portrayal of music journalism is definitely somewhat accurate to the time, but the introduction of the Internet completely changed the way that we work in terms of event coverage and even access,” Clara Scott notes. “I doubt that a young person with no social media or professional presence beyond a few samples could get access to someone as high-profile as Black Sabbath, or even convince a publication that they were older. There is a lot less mystery in the job now compared to the 70s, and I think that the ease of access to information about musicians pushes us as journalists to go deeper than the show, go deeper than the surface information, because all of that is readily available to anyone.”

    “What I think has been ultimately lost, and what Almost Famous reminds us of, is that no one becomes a music journalist with an intention of tearing anyone down – quite the opposite.”

    This gets at another important point: so much of Almost Famous revolves around the complicated relationship between the journalist and the artist, but the introduction of the internet has upended that, too. “I think that the relationship is still really complex but social media has undermined some of the problems with that complexity,” Jordan Walsh says. “Artists don’t need journalists anymore to show them in a certain light—they connect directly with the people, sometimes to their own detriment and sometimes not. And as far as proper reviews go, the internet has kind of flipped that over too in the way that reviews don’t come before the record and now that pretty much all new music is available at anyone’s fingertips.”

    Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. While the widespread availability of music does raise questions about the relevance of music criticism in today’s age, it also takes some of the pressure off the critic, who is now often reacting to the same material the fans are reacting to at the same time that they are. This could mean that there is potentially less disconnect between the fan and the critic, as the boundaries between the two are becoming increasingly blurred, and more opportunities for meaningful interaction. “I’m reviewing an album right now where I’m active in the Facebook group (not the first time),” Hannah Jocelyn admits, “and it’s tempting to insert all kinds of fandom in-jokes.” (Far from weakening that review, Hannah’s engagement with those fan groups provided them with more insight about the band’s history, which in turn led to a more informed take on the album.) “But while I don’t think critics and musicians need to be against each other,” they add, “there needs to be some kind of wall.”

    In Almost Famous, the members of Stillwater keep referring to William as “the enemy” – which is somewhat ironic, considering that Crowe “covered the bands that hated Rolling Stone,” in the words of onetime senior editor Ben Fong-Torres – but it’s hard to say whether that perceived antagonism has faded over time. Clara Scott posits that this hostile attitude towards music journalists has somewhat softened, partly due to the onset of social media, since “artists no longer have to completely rely on the media or PR to form their brand or self-image.” But this could also backfire – if less barriers between all parties means that artists are used to getting mostly positive coverage, this creates a sort of bubble, where anything negative might cause the writer to get harassed online – even when it’s not remotely negative. As Lester Bangs warns William, “They want to get you drunk on the feeling that you belong.” Except that instead of alcohol and drugs, reinforcement now comes in the form of retweets and Story mentions.

    “The critic has been so vilified by artists these days,” Sophie Walker remarks. “They’re the big bad wolf, musicians seem to think, and they’re out to blow your house down and discredit what you’ve spent so long building for yourself. What I think has been ultimately lost, and what Almost Famous reminds us of, is that no one becomes a music journalist with an intention of tearing anyone down – quite the opposite. It comes from a teenager’s wide-eyed adoration, an excitement, a passion. I think it’s important to remember a music journalist was once a fan like any other, and will always be, deep down.”

    If the film’s portrayal of music journalism felt outdated last year, when a Broadway musical production based on the film made its debut, Almost Famous now feels like it takes place in a whole different world, because, well, this – [gestures broadly] – is all happening. But besides the fact that the music industry has suffered immense losses due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, there are many ways in which it is probably a good thing that the world has moved forward. Let’s just say the film is not without its problematic moments: there is a point where the band’s tour bus passes by a group of high school girls, and the bassist – played by Mark Kozelek, of all people – calls them “tasty-looking”. Also, William is just 15 years old when three groupies “deflower” him, and Penny Lane is supposed to be 16. And yes, William gets quite mad when Stillwater’s frontman sells Penny to another band for “50 bucks and a pack of beer”, but then there’s the infamous scene where he affectionately kisses her while she’s unconscious, which hasn’t aged all that well, either.

    And so the obvious question becomes, if Almost Famous were to receive the inevitable reboot treatment, how would the story be different if it took place today? Screenwriters, take note:

    “I guess there is a scenario where a story like this plays out and hopefully some of these characters face some kind of accountability for their bad behavior,” Jordan Walsh suggests. “It would also hopefully be a lot less white. I guess I’m saying that a movie like this that’s just inherently more critical of the situations it’s showing on screen could be worthwhile.”

    Erica Campbell points out some practical issues that would come up: “Well, first there would be tons of technical difficulties because the interview would be taking place over zoom. Second, social media makes it harder to party the way they used to without NDAs. It would probably be a little less salacious – I can’t imagine a band letting a journalist hang out with the groupies for a month without worry that it wouldn’t get leaked into the story. And, hopefully, William would be tweeting while flying high over Tupelo, Mississippi and we’d read the band’s confessions in a thread real-time.”

    And, finally, Hannah Jocelyn offers two answers: “the exaggerated, bad-faith snarky one (where a writer gets paid $35 in 2020 money for an album review and Stillwater stans harass the writer for two weeks) and a more positive one. It would go like this: A young writer interviews musicians, the interview goes viral, they build their following until a scrappy band invites them on tour. There aren’t any groupies, there is no “deflowering”, no “I am a golden god” scene, it’s just a bond because everyone’s kind of struggling together.”

    You might argue that a modern-day version of Almost Famous would be both a lot more boring and disheartening, but to me, these suggestions sound like they could make for a great indie flick. Perhaps John Carney could direct. For now, though, Almost Famous is what we have, and in a way, it’s a miracle it even exists. Because as much as it’s inextricably tied to the specific era it so candidly glamorizes, it also offers an aspirational, deeply empathetic vision that seems capable of transcending it. “All the downsides of Willliam’s journey are accurate, but he had starry eyes, and he wanted it so bad he didn’t see it as a choice,” Erica says. “If you see this as a job or an option it’ll be too easy to quit when it gets hard and it will get hard. There’s got to be something else driving you towards it, whether it’s the moment the lights go down in the arena or incendiary guitar sounds, it’s got to be bigger than just making money. You have to feel like it’s why you’re here.”

    Still, if you’re an aspiring music writer who watches the film today, you shouldn’t hold Almost Famous as the standard for what to expect. “Don’t expect anything magical, other than a handful of album advances you like, unless you find pitch rejections and budget cuts magical,” Hannah warns, conscious of sounding a bit like Bangs. “If there’s magic, it comes in the writing process – improving your ability to synthesize information, gradually becoming better than you were before, passing notes back and forth with an editor until you writer a better sentence than either of you would have individually.”

    “You won’t have a massive sing-along to ‘Hey Jude’,” she adds, “but you’ll also have moments where you’re messaging with another writer about the new Phoebe Bridgers album and you get to celebrate great music with someone equally as passionate.” If you’re really lucky, you might even be part of the chorus of people screaming along to ‘I Know the End’ through the magic of the internet.

    At the end of the day, does it really matter if the film’s depiction of the industry is accurate or not? Music journalism is changing, and it will continue to change as it adapts to the times. But as long as there is music, there will always be people who will be passionate about it, maybe even enough to want to write about it. Almost Famous might be drunk on idealism, but its heart clings to the one thing that remains a constant – that passion, whether it comes from the journalist, the artist, the fan, or… well, maybe not the manager.

    And even if its sentimental spirit causes it to be somewhat myopic at times, there’s still an acknowledgment of the reality of things, one that almost veers towards cynicism in the image of Lester Bangs, who’s quick to inform William that he’ll never get paid much as a music journalist. The first few times I watched Almost Famous (because I did watch it multiple times within the span of a single month, and tried to convince everyone I knew to watch it with me), the moments that stuck out to me were the ones it’s usually remembered for: the ‘Tiny Dancer’ scene, Penny Lane’s dance, William’s proclamation that he’s “dark and mysterious”. But now, what resonates with me the most is a small exchange: Bangs tells William that rock n’ roll is dead and he should probably just go back and be a lawyer or a doctor, and something in him breaks. Bangs looks at him and smiles: “But I can tell from your face that you won’t.”

    Almost Famous simply couldn’t exist today,” Sophie Walker says. “The entire premise wouldn’t exist. That’s the beauty of this film: it defines a time that we can only dream of.”

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