Almost Famous – Billboard Magazine

‘Famous’ Captures Real-Life Rock Story

NEW YORK–DreamWorks Pictures’ “Almost Famous” — a Cameron Crowe film on the ’70s rock scene, due for wide release in theaters Sept. 29–is generating the kind of enthusiastic early reaction that might make it an instant classic.

Many in the industry who have seen “Almost Famous” consider it a brave and powerful statement about music. The “Almost Famous” soundtrack–to be released Sept. 12 on Dream Works Records–also has the distinction of being the first to ever feature music by Led Zeppelin.

Crowe–who previously wrote and directed 1996’s “Jerry Maguire,” 1992’s “Singles,” and 1989’s “Say Anything”–wrote and directed “Almost Famous,” an autobiographical story of his experiences in 1973 as a 15-year-old journalist writing for Rolling Stone magazine.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says of making the film. “The story couldn’t be glib, because it was about my life. I couldn’t hide behind a sports-agent character [like Jerry Maguire]. This story about music was just aching to get out.”

Although “Almost Famous” is based on Crowe’s real-life experiences, the teenage journalist character in the film is given another name, William Miller, played by Patrick Fugit in a mesmerizing debut. “Almost Famous” is also the story of a fictional American rock band named Stillwater, led by guitarist Russell Hammond (played to perfection by Billy Crudup) and lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee).

Most of the film is about Miller’s experiences on tour with Stillwater, falling in love for the first time, and coming of age at a time when the music business was less corporate and more of a community.

For the film, Crowe drew on his experiences touring with such legends as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, the Who, Neil Young, the Allman Brothers Band, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Among the other key characters in “Almost Famous” are Penny Lane, a charming and enigmatic groupie (played poignantly by the luminous Kate Hudson); Elaine Miller, William’s overprotective mother (played brilliantly by Frances McDormand); legendary music writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a stunning performance), who becomes William’s mentor; and Anita Miller (Zoeey Deschanel), William’s older sister who was a big influence in his discovery of rock music.

“Almost Famous” was produced by Crowe and Ian Bryce and co-produced by Lisa Stewart. The film’s world premiere takes place Sept. 8 at the Toronto Film Festival. Another premiere will be held Sept. 11 in New York. The movie opens Sept. 15 in New York and Los Angeles.

“Almost Famous” is a multilayered film that shares authentic experiences that accurately reflect what many in the music industry have personally lived: the awe-struck elation of fans who see their favorite performers in concert and offstage; being conflicted by becoming a close confidant of a band and keeping a professional distance; band in-fighting and ego clashes; the often-surreal traveling-circus atmosphere of the tour; and the exhilarating feeling that never goes away when listening to music you love.

On a universal level, “Almost Famous” is also a story about love: the highs and lows of falling in love, sometimes unrequited, sometimes with the wrong people; the love between families, both real and surrogate; and the love of music, which drives the industry but is often lost in cynicism, greed, and disillusionment.

Music is the heart and soul of “Almost Famous,” which features more than 50 songs. Along with Crowe, two of the people chiefly responsible for the music in the film are his wife, Nancy Wilson (of rock band Heart), who composed the score, and music supervisor Danny Bramson.

Wilson says, “Cameron would make road tapes for years, and when he was writing this movie, he would find songs that identified characters and emotions. He would read aloud to me scenes from the film so that by the time I went to score the film, I was so steeped within those elements that all the feelings and sounds were there. The effect is so personal because these are songs that we love.”

Wilson says of the film, “It’s almost like a feast that Cameron has prepared. He captured a moment in time when the music business was a little more innocent, and he presented the film from a fan’s perspective. When you’re in this business, those are some of the things that are so easy to lose sight of.”

She adds with a laugh, “Cameron was almost dragged kicking and screaming to do this movie, because it’s so personal, and he instinctively knew it would be the hardest thing he ever did. He didn’t want to be self-aggrandizing.”

One of the most impressive musical aspects of “Almost Famous” is that it is the first movie to have a soundtrack with a Led Zeppelin song. The song, “That’s The Way,” is also featured in the movie, along with four other Zeppelin songs: “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Tangerine,” “Bron-Yr-Aur,” and “The Rain Song.”

Bramson, a longtime friend and film collaborator of Crowe’s, recounts how the breakthrough was made. “Cameron and I flew to London and sat with [Led Zeppelin’s] Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and their manager, Robert Rosenberg. It wasn’t considered an audition but a chance to show them this film.”

Bramson continues, “They loved the movie so much, and their reaction was so sincere and heartfelt in wanting us to use Led Zeppelin’s music, that it was the most personal reaction from artists we’ve ever received.”

The film’s realistic scenes with the band Stillwater were helped in large part by a “rock school” that actors Crudup and Lee attended to learn how to play instruments and perform onstage. The other two members of Stillwater were played by real-life musicians Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters) and drummer John Fedevich (the Szuters).

“The actors rehearsed during the day and went to rock school at night,” says Bramson. “By the end of rock school, we thought of Stillwater as a real band.”

The majority of Stillwater songs were written by Wilson and Crowe. In the studio, musician Marti Frederiksen took the helm as Stillwater’s lead singer. Other musicians who played on the Stillwater songs included Wilson, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and John Bayless and Ben Smith from Wilson’s other band, the Lovemongers.

Contributing to the realism of “Almost Famous” were technical consultants Peter Frampton (who has a small role in the film playing the road manager of Humble Pie, a band in which Frampton was a member in the ’70s) and Kelly Curtis, who manages Pearl Jam.

Curtis says, “There are so many rock movies that have come out that are unrealistic, but this movie is so real. That’s why people are reacting the way they are to it. People in the music business and anyone who loves music can relate to this film and see themselves in it. I ran into Robert Plant in London, and he said about the characters in the movie, ‘I’ve known all those people!’ This movie should, at the very least, get Oscar nominations for writing, direction, music, and, of course, best picture.”

“This movie captures why we’re in this business,” says Steve Hochman, a music journalist who writes for Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times. Hochman also believes “Almost Famous” should get Oscar nods for best writing, best song (for Stillwater’s “Fever Dog”), and supporting-acting nominations for Hudson and Crudup.

“People are going to love ‘Almost Famous,'” says Tom Muzquiz, Epic Records’ associate director of media relations. “Especially how a love story revolves around a breaking band trying to make it big. The other leading factor is the amazing soundtrack.” Muzquiz adds that the movie is worthy of Oscar nominations for writing, director, score, and picture.

One person whose life has been transformed by the film is actor Fugit, who had the daunting responsibility of not only starring in his first feature film but portraying the life of its director.

The movie caused a dramatic change in Fugit, a Salt Lake City native who was discovered through a nationwide talent search. “Before I was cast in the film, I wasn’t that interested in music. I didn’t even know who Led Zeppelin was. I thought Led Zeppelin was a singer. Now, I’m totally obsessed with music,” he says.

“Before we started shooting the film, Cameron had given me a huge boxful of albums of music from the ’50s to the ’70s, and he told me to listen to it, because he wanted the music coming out of my pores,” he adds.” There are a lot of movies about sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but Cameron writes [about] people and relationships so well that this movie is different.”

Crowe says that scenes in the movie did happen in real life. “The only thing that was different in the movie was that my character didn’t have a father, [because he] had already died, but my father actually passed away when I was much older.”

One pivotal scene in the film is when William and the band are on an airplane that gets unexpectedly caught in a fierce rainstorm. Crowe says the scene was based on two real-life experiences: “The first time was in 1973, when I was on tour with the Who. The second time was in the ’80s with Heart.”

The filmmaker also says that “Almost Famous” is my thank-you to everyone who had a hand in my early career.” Those people include Bangs, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner (who has a silent cameo), and former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres–all of whom are portrayed in the film.

“Watching the scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs was very emotional for me,” says Crowe. “Lester was the most passionate guy I ever met. I think he would be grateful that we didn’t trade in the sentimentality in the movie.”

As for comparing the current state of music journalism with how it was when he was a journalist, Crowe says, “There are more places to write about rock now, but there are fewer places to stretch. Artist profiles are shorter, and access to artists has changed. Back then, rock was more about lifestyle and less about business.”

Regardless of any industry accolades the film may receive or what its box-office revenue may be, Wilson sums up what many feel about “Almost Famous,” saying, “What Cameron has achieved with this film is an incredible love letter to music.”

Courtesy of Billboard – Carla Hay – September 2, 2000