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Almost Famous

6 things we learned from the Almost Famous 20th anniversary podcast

From a potential David Bowie cameo to Brad Pitt nearly starring as Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond, we’ve picked the highlights from Origins: Almost Famous Turns Twenty

In 1972, a young writer called Cameron Crowe rang up the offices of Rolling Stone with a scoop on Bob Dylan. The story went ahead, but what the editors didn’t realise was that the writer was only 15. Crowe would carry on to become the youngest person ever to write a cover feature for the magazine, travelling with the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Who on tour, and later, solidifying his own experiences in what we now recognise as the hit film, Almost Famous.

20 years on, Crowe’s film about the misadventures of child prodigy William Miller as he accompanies Stillwater, a rock band, on tour as a journalist, remains a gloriously cool testament to youth and lost innocence, while shining a light on the heady years at the height of sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the late 60s.

To celebrate the milestone, the original cast and crew have reunited for a special five-part anniversary podcast, hosted by James Andrew Miller. Cadence13’s Origins: Almost Famous Turns Twenty provides fun behind-the-scenes details and anecdotes surrounding Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film, and features the likes of Kate Hudson (Penny Lane), Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), Frances McDormand (Elaine Miller), and more, with Crowe sharing his memories of making the film and its impact and legacy.

“If I could tell a story about discovering music,” Crowe says, “the way music can change your life and your family and not necessarily be all about sex and drugs – all the very easily stereotyped aspects of rock – if you can tell a love story about music in that tone, well, that would be the way to tell that story.”

Below, we’ve rounded up all the things we’ve learned from the podcast.

BRAD PITT NEARLY STARRED AS RUSSELL HAMMOND

Brad Pitt was originally chosen to play the role of Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Russell Hammond, but backed out four months later from what casting director Gail Levin suspects as financial reasons. Crowe met Pitt in 1989 after his directorial debut, Say Anything, and spoke again after the breakout hit, Jerry McGuire. According to Crowe, Pitt was enquiring about his next film: “He was just starting out, and he just really had something.”

Pitt eventually read for the role of Russell alongside Natalie Portman, who was slated to play Penny Lane. “I would go to his house, we would read through it,” Crowe says. “We geeked out about music and everything. He was slowly putting on the Russell Hammond persona.”

When Pitt left the project, “I wept,” Crowe laughs in the podcast. “I tortured all of my friends with, ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’ But I think in the back of my brain, I knew that he had never fully fallen in love with the character.”

“I think six or seven months later, he just walked in the door one day at our office, said he was driving by, just wanted to come in and say that we’d always been on his mind, and good luck. And he left. I loved him for it.”

DAVID BOWIE WAS MEANT TO CAMEO

An early draft of the script was centred around the character Ricky Fedora, an English rock star based off of Peter Frampton. Crowe also wrote a part specifically for David Bowie, which he’d modelled on early rock publicist Russ Shaw. But after the release of Austin Powers in 1997, “The idea of a foppish British rock star was suddenly a comical thing,” Crowe said. “It was too Austin Powers.” He changed the film’s angle to make it about an American band instead – hence, Stillwater. 

“The only sad part of that is I had no part for David Bowie,” he said. “So when I last saw David Bowie, it was at an Almost Famous event. I was able to tell him that the whole thing began with me wanting to write a part for him that he could play. He said, ‘Well, write me another one’. I was trying to do that when he died.”

KATE HUDSON WAS MEANT TO STAR AS WILLIAM’S SISTER

Before she played the iconic role of free-spirited band groupie Penny Lane, Hudson was meant to play the role of Anita, William’s rebellious sister who runs away to San Diego to become a stewardess, gifting William all of her albums (including Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends) before she leaves (“one day you’ll be cool”). But when Sarah Polley, who was hired as Penny, left the project, Hudson begged Crowe to audition for the role. 

“I did a screen test with Kate as Penny Lane, and it wasn’t the mystical kind of Penny Lane that I’d been working on with Sarah Polley,” Crowe said. “Here was somebody that just walks in the room and you’re like, ‘I love her!’ She was that character.”

Instead, Deschanel was given the role of Anita. “It really ended up making so much sense because Kate was so brilliant in the Penny role – she was so perfect for that part,” Deschanel said. “That just ended up being a total career-making part.”

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN REFUSED TO READ FOR THE PART OF LESTER BANGS

Arguably one of the best performances in the film is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs. “We read so many people, and there were so many great Lesters that happened,” reflects Crowe. “But nobody was really that magical version of the guy that I remember – the guy that changed my life.” 

According to Levin, Hoffman refused to read for the role, instead choosing to rant about an American Express billboard he’d seen en route to the audition. “It wasn’t anything negative,” Levin said. “It was just something that he was talking about in a very impassioned way. That’s how smart this actor was: He came in and created this sort of improv that was channeling that character and created a faux audition without really auditioning, and that was, to me, amazing.”

HUDSON DID AN ALL-NIGHTER BEFORE THE CENTRAL PARK SCENE

There’s a scene near the end of the film where Penny meets up with Stillwater in New York, against Russell’s wishes. His girlfriend tells him that Penny’s “creeping her out”, to which the band’s manager kicks her out. Returning to her hotel room at the Plaza, she overdoses on quaaludes but is rescued by William. The pair take a stroll through Central Park the following morning, where she finally tells William her real name. 

The night before filming the scene, Hudson had gone out partying with Jimmy Fallon (who plays Dennis Hope) and Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe). “I thought, ‘Well, shit, I’m just going to go right to work,'” Hudson remembered. “‘And this is great ’cause it’s my hangover scene!’” Hudson was warned by a producer to not let Crowe see her in her party get-up, but he did anyway. “Cameron sees me and he looks at me, and I look at him, (we make) eye contact, and he goes, ‘Rock & roll’.”

THE FILM WAS NEARLY CALLED UNTITLED

Crowe originally named the film Untitled as a reference to Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (it was Crowe’s fourth film too). “I liked the idea that there was going to be a music reference at every turn, and that was like Led Zeppelin had the untitled album,” he said. Still, the studio refused to go ahead with the name, and Almost Famous was chosen instead.

Listen to Cadence13’s Origins: Almost Famous Turns Twenty here.