Stillwater, Led Zeppelin & Cameron Crowe: The True Story Behind ‘Almost Famous’

Almost Famous is one of the finest music-oriented dramas ever. In addition to its brilliant casting and superb original soundtrack, its success hinged largely on director and writer Cameron Crowe, who used a hefty amount of anecdotal inspiration to create characters like William, the bright-eyed protagonist, and Penny Lane, the mysteriously beautiful groupie of the fictional (but totally sellable) rock group Stillwater – who play somewhat like a cross between Led Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers Band. Crowe’s childhood compares strikingly to that of William’s in Almost Famous. Crowe skipped several grades because he was more intelligent than his peers, but this contributed to social isolation; he was clearly several years younger than his classmates when he reached high school. As an escape, Crowe became immersed in music and writing about music, learning from prominent music critic Lester Bangs as he regularly submitted music reviews to The San Diego Door, Creem, and Circus in his teens. Like William in the film, Crowe maximized his opportunity to meet Ben Fong-Torres, the editor of Rolling Stone. Crowe later became a prominent writer at the magazine, interviewing everyone from Bob Dylan and David Bowie to Led Zeppelin and Neil Young.

Almost Famous largely chronicles William’s on-the-road adventures with Stillwater and their groupies, as he covered the band for his first feature for Rolling Stone. Crowe had a strikingly similar experience at age 18 when he went on the road with The Allman Brothers Band for three weeks. From Gregg Allman being suspicious of Crowe – just as Billy Crudup’s character in Almost Famous was initially iffy on William – to his own mother worrying about his whereabouts, the adventures of William and Crowe are much aligned. The film’s other central character, Penny Lane (played wonderfully by Kate Hudson), was inspired by two women Crowe had met in the ‘70s: Bebe Buell and Geraldine Edwards. Buell was a Playboy Playmate who also dated a ton of rock stars, which include Todd Rundgren and Steven Tyler (their daughter is Liv Tyler). Crowe said some of Penny Lane’s dialogue was taken from interviews Buell conducted over the years. Edwards was another famed groupie, who dated Eric Clapton and Robert Palmer. Penny Lane’s character was essentially a fusion of Crowe’s real-life interaction with two famous groupies, which certainly explains why Hudson’s character was such an effective blast of nostalgia. There simply aren’t groupies like Buell and Edwards anymore, and Hudson brought an extinct breed to life.

Another memorable character in Almost Famous was that of William’s sister Anita, played by the always-frenetic Zooey Deschanel. Like most other characters in the film, she was based on a real-life person as well. Guess who? Crowe’s sister, who like her film counterpart did not speak to her mother in years after a falling out. Ironically enough, the family reunited after the completion of Almost Famous. Perhaps seeing the film made them realize the importance of family, and how caring sentiments can occasionally come across as nagging and overly controlling. After all, Crowe’s own mother allegedly followed him around the set of Almost Famous, just to keep an eye on him. She should know by now that Crowe is best left to his own devices, as the result is almost always fantastic. Crowe directed and wrote Almost Famous, not to mention co-writing three of the five Stillwater songs in the film with his wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart. Peter Frampton wrote the other two. As for the accompanying soundtrack, which included Led Zeppelin tracks with the band’s rare permission, it won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. Crowe also nabbed the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, which is no small feat even for someone who started writing for Rolling Stone at the age of 18.

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