The best time to be in a band? Definitely the 70s. Sure, bands were mostly touring in a bus rather than on a plane, and there wasn't as much money for artists as there would be in the dreamy days of the 80s and 90s. But there was hard liquor, big flares, and the sweet beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll excess.
Almost Famous is set in 1973, when Bowie was still wearing glitter, Led Zeppelin were the biggest band in the world, and 15-year-old Cameron Crowe (the film's writer and director) was calling up Rolling Stone, putting on a deep voice, and landing his first writing job. The film is based on Crowe's experiences in the music industry as a sweet-faced teen, sitting side by side on tour buses with Bebe Buell, model, singer and girlfriend to a myriad of superstars including Elvis Costello, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Todd Rundgren, and, most famously, Steven Tyler. Without her we wouldn't have his daughter Liv, or THAT Aerosmith video, so thank god those two got together. It makes sense that when Crowe was penning his autobiographical script he would base the part of Penny Lane (played perfectly by Kate Hudson) at least in part on Buell.
Crowe's version of 1973 seems somewhat more tame than other reports of the time—perhaps because we're seeing it through the eyes of an innocent virgin. Sure, we still get glimpses of the “Riot” Hyatt Hotel in LA, topless girls draped in furs, and hallucinogenic drugs, but it's all pretty vanilla. For example, said drugs are ingested at a suburban teenage party by the fictional band's lead guitarist after he has a crisis of confidence. While wearing these swimming shorts.
This isn't shark meat and orgies. But that's OK, watch Gimmie Shelter or Sid and Nancy for a more gritty take on this glorious but extremely politically incorrect world. Instead Crowe delivers a sweeter version—a young boy falling in love twice, first with music, then with a girl—and a dissection of what it is to be in a rock band who are never happy with their ranking, because their ranking isn't good enough to get them on the cover of Rolling Stone.
But the film isn't just about the music (though that earned Almost Famous a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack). It was just as much about the clothes and all of the decade's astonishing fashion trends: muted colours, platform shoes, suede. And in LA it was all about tassles, fur, peasant blouses, and worshipping long, big, natural hair.
Since the 70s are sartorially back in full swing, with festival fashion reaching a saturation point and runway designers like Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Marni putting a modern spin on the decade's styles for fall 2014, what better time to talk about Almost Famous' iconic wardrobe?
Penny Lane is not a groupie. She is a band aid: a young woman who acts as a muse. Penny makes it her mission to be the living, walking inspiration for rock 'n' roll songs. At the beginning of the film, as she inducts William (the Crowe character) into her world and gives him one key piece of advice, "I always tell the girls, never take it seriously. If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt, if you never get hurt, you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends." Unfortunately sometimes it's hard to take your own advice.
Penny's style is relaxed and boho, she's the girl pretty much every basic bitch at Coachella is trying to emulate. Free The People have based an entire company on this woman's outfits. Most of her clothes are embroidered, even her boots. She wears lace bralets underneath heavy suede coats, denim is her best friend, and her hair is always loose and curly. She even wears sunglasses at night.
Since she's away on the road a lot with bands Penny uses an old tackle box (seen above) to store her essentials. From what I can tell, this was a trend that became quite popular in the 70s, so much so that when Plano Molding saw a photo in People magazine of "Wheel Of Fortune" hostess Vanna White using a tackle box to store her makeup they decided to set up Caboodles, and started making cases inspired by said tackle boxes. I have one from the 80s and it's splendid.
See, denim shorts (although hers cover her butt cheeks), oh and crop tops.
My favourite outfit of Penny's has to be this one: a tan suede skirt and peasant top, worn with bare feet and a rose in her hand. She glides around on crepe paper after the show, and we all fall in love with her.
Of course, as with many of those who seem carefree and relaxed, Penny is actually a fragile mess, but she always puts on a brave face. She's bittersweet. She's Joni Mitchell singing "River"—which just makes the way she's treatment by the man she loves all the more heartbreaking. This is a woman who when she finds out he's sold her to another band for 50 bucks and a case of beer, wipes away a tear, smiles, and asks, “What kind of beer?”
I mean, yeah sure she later turns up at the same bar as the band in New York, gets upset, ingests an icky cocktail of spirits and Quaaludes, and then has to have her stomach pumped by the hotel doctor. But who cares? Certainly not William, who looks on in awe, "My Cherie Amour" by Stevie Wonder playing on the stereo inside his head. Can you blame him? Look how amazing she is during the whole sad escapade.
The dress is embroidered, of course, and the boots too. Need.
The best thing about Penny is how cool she makes everyone around her feel. She looks after William. She gives him oversized sunglasses and offers advice on how to talk to guarded band members—while she's peeing, and wearing a huge fur hat.
Oh, and this girl can start a sing along to "Tiny Dancer" in a bus even when everyone is seriously pissed at each other.
By the end of the film Penny has changed. She realises she's not happy being a muse any more so she packs up and heads for Morocco, dressed in a travelling outfit that would put even in the most glamorous of fliers to shame. The Allman Brothers say it best, there's only "One Way Out."
Love you Penny.
RUSSELL HAMMOND AND JEFF BEBE
I was going to look at these two separately but how can you split up a writing duo? And these guys fit the classic music partnership dynamic perfectly: They're Lennon and McCartney, Plant and Page, Jagger and Richards. Bebe, in typical lead singer style, is loud and charismatic, and aching, longing, for approval. He's thwarted by a jealous streak, and endlessly disappointed that he will never be as elusive and mysterious, and therefore interesting, as Russell Hammond. Because the only way to be like that is to not give a fuck, and Bebe gives many, many fucks. This leads to some embarrassingly petty behaviour—he's furious when an accident with the band's t-shirt printing puts only Hammond into focus, as it just reinforces all of his vain insecurities about how he is perceived in comparison to Stillwater's lead guitarist.
But perhaps Bebe's greatest downfall is his over eagerness to spool out endless hyperbole on the nature of being a rock star: “Rock 'n' roll is a lifestyle and a way of thinking... and it's not about money and popularity. Although, some money would be nice. But it's a voice that says, 'Here I am... and fuck you if you can't understand me. And one of these people is gonna save the world. And that means that rock 'n' roll can save the world... all of us together. And the chicks are great. But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music." Rookie mistake Jeff, everyone knows the best band member is the one who never speaks. In this case, Hammond.
I mean, Bebe is a man who wears a T-shirt with his own fucking face on it.
While Hammond wears this amazing silk bomber jacket.
Hammond is a reluctant star. He too longs for acceptance, but he wants it on his terms. Namely being recognised as a credible, good musician. He trusts few and speaks to fewer. He's handsome and quiet so when he decides he likes you and gives you an insight into his sense of humour and psyche, you feel like a million bucks. But as with so many quiet brooding types, he's actually a bit of a tool. How easy it is to mistake silence with a secret amazing personality *ahem* Jordan Catalano. He sells Penny Lane for god's sake. And he's married.
The music of Stillwater is classic 70s jams. Sweet-ass guitar solos, lyrical references to spirituality and big animals, philosophical ponderings on what it is to be A Man. Nasal vocals, splashy drums, loving like a FEVER. Sounds sweaty. They wear their influences and their peers (Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd) on their long sleeves—long bell sleeves that lead to button up T-shirts which look far too hot for stage in the middle of summer.
Although who gives a shit when your belt is that great and studded?
Oh and shirts. These guys have some amazing shirts: flannel, floral, flimsy. All the 'f's.
You know Russell and Penny were meant to be together because they're both into embroidery.
On one occasion Russell wears a purple velvet jacket. Can you say Prince?
I would be remiss not to discuss the performance of the excellent real-life musician and all-round great person Mark Kozelek, who plays the band's dour bassist Larry. Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters is known for his very personal and often autobiographical lyrics—he's a bit of an over-sharer. He's also something of an expert when it comes to re-arranging other's songs. In 2000, the same year this film was released, he put out an EP which featured covers of AC/DC tracks re-imagined as gorgeous acoustic ballads. So he's the perfect addition to the cast, as he is clearly a fan of rock 'n' roll, but can also reveal it's softer sides. Plus he knows what it's like to be on the road. My favourite Larry quote?
William: "Larry Fellows, how would you describe your role in Stillwater? What is the chemical you add to the chemistry?"
Larry Fellows: "I'm the bass player."
William: "Right. And when you take that away what would be missing stylistically? What chemical?"
Larry Fellows: "A bass?"
Together Larry, Russell and Jeff are the Stillwater stars (sorry drummer), and they never look as good as when they're sat at the back of a cab, driving over the bridge into Manhattan. Their jackets and sunglasses perfectly accessorised with some golden hour lens flare.
Larry wears a lot of t-shirts, but he's also not afraid of a leather vest.
POLEXIA APHRODISIA, SAPPHIRE AND ESTRELLA STARR
I don't think those are their real names. These three ladies are the other band aids, friends of Penny's, and badass women in their own rights. Estrella can read auras, Polexia can read romantic entanglements. And Sapphire runs into a brick wall and has the best wardrobe of anyone, ever. These are also the women who steal William's virginity—a theft he was pretty happy about. The moment plays out in a beautiful slow motion montage, all scarves and pristine white underpants, scored by acoustic guitar. (Apparently when Crowe lost his virginity in a similar way: it was Steely Dan playing on the TV).
But anyway, Sapphire's clothes. She is all about crotchet, black lace, multi-coloured fur, braids laced with feathers, flares and cowboy hats. She is the Keith Richards of the Band Aids.
Polexia and Estrella belong to more to the wardrobe of Penny Lane. But Polexia is more pink and floral, and Estrella has a pagan good-witch vibe. They remind me a lot of Daisy Lowe and Florence Welch, and to support my argument I feel like I should mention something Alexa Chung said in an interview recently, “‘The other day, I bumped into Florence (Welch) and Daisy (Lowe), who were staying at the Bowery Hotel. It was Sunday and I had to file copy the next day, so I had my laptop with me. We go up to their room and Florence starts singing and draping scarves over lamps, Daisy strips off to her matching underwear, and I’m wrapped up in jumpers smoking a cigarette with a laptop. None of us were hanging out, we were just being us. I’m trying to get more work in, over- achieving, Daisy is floating around being sexy and Florence is just singing away.’” See? The influence of those bohemian '70s band babes has never gone away.
But anyway, back to the originals. They liked their kimonos, lace, dressing gowns and other boudoir attire.
The real-life women who roamed the country with bands in the 70s no doubt inspired many songs. Buell herself is said to have been the catalyst for tracks on Elvis Costello's 'Armed Forces' and of course Chester French wrote a song about her. After watching this film many, many times I can't hear "Feel Flows" by The Beach Boys without thinking of them.
He's never going to be a style icon. Although, he's actually pretty normcore, so maybe I'm wrong. William's style is simple. He's a working journalist. He's not trying to impress anyone with his outfits. Comfort and utility are what is most important for the teenager lying about his age and missing his High School graduation to follow a band around the country. So that means shirts over T-shirts, jeans, a bag worn across the body, and a bewildered look.
Of course it's William's brain that matters most, his writing talent and way of drawing people out of themselves. Which is something Crowe was reportedly a master of: he got interviews with Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Page and Neil Young when no one else could. In fact when he spoke to Young they talked for so long he ran out of tapes, so Young gave him some of his demos to record over so they could carry on talking. This kid is magic. He's "That's The Way" by Zeppelin, he's "Sparks" by The Who, but he's also Alvin and The Chipmunks.
I have to end on a special mention of some of the actors in the film who had small parts but are now massive TV stars. Plus all their costumes are jaw-droppingly good.
Before The Fringe.
“We take all kind of pills that give us all kind of thrills, but the thrill we never know was the thrill that'll get you, when you get your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.”
Elizabeth Sankey is a certified expert on Almost Famous. She's on Twitter - @sankles.
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