If you find yourself enjoying a few songs by a phony band called Stillwater, don’t be TOO embarrassed. The 1973 mustache collective featured in writer/ director Cameron Crowe’s ”Almost Famous” has a legitimate rock pedigree. Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready is the real talent behind Russell Hammond, the band’s charismatic lead guitarist (played by Billy Crudup), while ex Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson (Crowe’s wife) plays rhythm guitar for the group. What’s more, ’70s vet Peter Frampton penned several of the Stillwater tunes heard in the movie, and Wilson and Crowe cowrote the band’s bass driven anthem ”Feverdog,” which made the film’s soundtrack.
Wilson, who also scored the film, says she recruited talent with classic rock roots (Frampton) and contemporary know-how (McCready), because she knew she wouldn’t create a believable sound otherwise. The goal was to make a band ”that’s really good, but not all the way formed yet,” she tells EW.com. ”An ‘opening for Black Sabbath’ kind of sound.” And she also wanted to complement the movie’s satirical — if loving — take on rock & roll Über egos. ”We had to walk the line between parody and something that sounds legit,” says Wilson. ”The lyrics and music had to be likable, but the humor had to be tucked in there, too. We couldn’t just go totally ‘Spinal Tap.’ ”
To achieve Stillwater’s sound, Wilson composed the score while listening to collections of road tapes she and her husband had made during the ’70s — to be ”steeped in the feelings of those songs and sounds.” Likewise, instead of using the latest digital technology to produce the group’s tracks, she employed old style analog mixing equipment, tube amplifiers, and tube microphones. ”That’s the authentic gear that would have been used at that time,” she explains. Wilson says she favors the ”warmer” tones this ’70s production style produces: ”To me, it’s like the difference between video and film. Film is deeper, richer. Video is a little flatter, more brittle.”
In the end, of course, Stillwater’s effect also hinges on whether the group looks and acts like a real ’70s rock band. For this, Wilson and Crowe drew upon their shared experiences (Crowe’s early years as a reporter for Rolling Stone; Wilson’s as an up and coming pop star) traveling with what she calls the ”rock & roll circus.” While Wilson long ago abandoned the grueling tour schedule that bands like the fictional Stillwater must maintain to make their name, she hasn’t forgotten the camaraderie, rivalry, and music industry exploitation she experienced. ”I toured for 20 years once, ” she jokes. ”Being on stage, I miss that, but the touring I don’t. [Heart] used to tour in the most inhumane way, for years without any breaks. One of the reasons that so many rock people are so emotionally stunted is because of that lifestyle. There’s no time to grow up!”
Leaving the road has helped give Crowe and Wilson the mature perspective to make the Stillwater tale a success. Certainly, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant — who have no shortage of experience with the ’70s rock scene — have identified with the fictional band. Crowe nervously showed an early cut of the film to the pair in London last summer, in hopes of receiving permission to use Zeppelin songs in the film. The two not only liked the movie, says Wilson, they allowed Crowe to use their tune ”That’s the Way” on ”Famous”’s soundtrack (Zeppelin has never before allowed one of their songs to be used on a movie soundtrack). ”Robert Plant was pacing around saying, ‘That guitar player, I know that guy!”’ recalls Wilson. ”And Cameron goes, ‘Well, that’s Billy Crudup, he’s the actor. And [Plant] goes, ”No, no, no. I mean I know that GUY from that TIME. I’ve known that guy all my life.”