Almost Famous – Daily Telegraph

Crowe’s Coming of Age

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, based on his adventures as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone, is the celebrated director’s most personal film yet. He talks to Charles Laurence in Los Angeles.

Cameron Crowe is stretched out on the couch and talking about the day he lost his virginity. It is a vintage story for the rock and roll era in which it is set, for, as we can see in his new film, Almost Famous, his was a virginity lost to ladies he refers to as Band Aids but who are generally known as groupies.

He was just 16 and, by keeping quiet about his true age, had managed to finagle a job reporting a tour of the Allman Brothers Band for magazine.

And, just as in the movie, there were three girls. All at once.

“Well, yes, it really was like that,” he says. “I think I would call that scene painfully accurate. And the painful thing was that the girl I really wanted was the one who was not there. She left the room.”

Crowe casts a sideways look at his wife, Nancy Wilson, formerly of a band called Heart, and with whom he had twin sons seven months ago. There is a hint of a blush, but Nancy nods and smiles, and Crowe continues.

“The only thing that is really different is that when it happened to me, the music in the background was Steely Dan playing Do It Again,” he says. “But when I put that in the movie, it seemed like too much, just too cheesy. Oh, and I didn’t do it again.”

The girl who walks out as the trio of bored Band Aids leap from their motel-room beds deciding to “deflower the kid” is Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson – Goldie Hawn’s 21-year-old daughter – in a star-making performance that has been the talk of America. She is, technically, a composite character built from several groupies Crowe got to know in his career as a music journalist, but there really was, and still is, a woman with the nom de guerre of Penny Lane.

“And Penny Lane I have always loved,” says Crowe, now 43. “She had an aura, a curious innocence. She was special. There were girls then who really were not just groupies, they were muses. And Penny Lane looked after the others, too. She was something of a teenage mother hen.”

He lies back dreamily, staring for a moment at the ceiling. Almost Famous is billed as semi-autobiographical. Crow chuckles. The “semi” really refers to some compressed chronology, a couple of composite characters, and a rock and roll band at the centre of the story, fictionalised as Stillwater but clearly based on the Allmans and on Led Zeppelin.

The film reveals an extraordinary story, and a charmed life. Most people know Crowe from Jerry Maguire, his big 1996 hit as writer-director. It starred Tom Cruise as a sports agent torn between humanity and greed, and put the phrase “Show me the money” into the language at just the moment when all of America, rising on a tidal wave of prosperity, was demanding to be shown the money.

Before Maguire he made a series of lower-budget films, first as a writer, then as writer-director. Say Anything and Singles impressed the critics, but barely made a profit at the box office. It was a true-life book written in his early twenties, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, that first brought him to Hollywood, however, for it formed the basis of the film Fast Times, which launched the era of teen movies in the 1980s.

Fast Times could act as a sort of coda to Crowe’s early life, for he quit the rock scene depicted in the new film and his first career to write the book. It was an expose of teenage life – a classic tale of sex, drugs, divorce and insecurity – and he researched it by going “undercover” and actually enrolling at a California high school.

Crowe still looks young, with floppy bangs and unlined skin oddly unmarked by all that he has portrayed in words and film.

“Almost Famous is the film that has always been inside me,” he says, “the story waiting to be told. Jerry gave me my chance to tell it, although I didn’t realise that straight away. But I did start writing it as was on the screens.”

The key was to turn his own story into a classic coming-of-age fable. Critics in America, where the film has just been released, have gushed over the discovery of Kate Hudson, and most have been happy to bill Almost Famous as an introductory course for today’s young to an era when rock and roll meant more than just fast money – to when it stood for the cultural identity of a generation.

Part of Crowe seems to believe this, too. The late Lester Bangs, the real-life rock journalist who was his own teenage hero and the guru of rock as matrix of the counter-culture, is included as a character in the story (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and given the power to decree the authentic from the crass.

“Lester Bangs is saying what everyone says every year, that yesterday was the truth,” says Crowe. “But I do think the message of the movie is in the music, and it is to give passion a chance.”

There is something phoney about this. Penny Lane ends up crushed – at least for one suicidal night – by the betrayal of a rock star who trades her for $US50 and a crate of beer. But the turbulent, stoned and ego-maniacal heart of the rock circus where Crowe takes us seems safe and cosy in a way that it really was not.

Almost Famous is saved by Crowe’s own story. He is portrayed as William by a 16-year-old newcomer, Patrick Fugit, and before we even get to the music we discover that Crowe’s own mother lied to him about his age. As a college professor so determined to rush her beloved son over the fast track of education and into the lucrative profession of the law, she had him believe he was 15 when he was actually only 14. Unsurprisingly, one of his adolescent hang-ups was his rejection by peers who thought he looked like a baby.

“It was not so much a lie as a sort of gap,” says Crowe. “I have been talking to her a lot about it lately, really since we’ve been making the movie. What actually happened was that she told the school I was a year older than I was to get me into first grade early. Then I accidentally sat down in a class a year older than that, and she told me to stay there. So I sort of accidentally skipped two grades rather than one.”

To this day Mother, wonderfully portrayed on screen by Oscar-winning Frances McDormand, remains a formidable woman. “A real handful,” chips in daughter-in-law Nancy. “But she is intelligent, motivated and always, always teaching.” Not only teaching, adds Crowe, but still trying to twist his arm into going to law school and taking up a decent profession before it is too late.

Since seeing Almost Famous, Crowe says, she has denied some of the dialogue between the mother, son and his sister, a furious rebel who storms out of the house leaving Crowe a bag full of forbidden rock records which, of course, open the door to a new life and save his soul. She denies, for instance, telling Crowe’s sister that she was “unworthy” of her love.

“It’s all true! She did say that!” says Crowe. “The only thing I made up is having her walk around the house without shoes on! Oh, man! This is the stuff for shrinks!”

Just as Fugit plays it in the film, Crowe discovered his real age from his sister shortly before she ran away from home.

Crowe’s first cinematic love was none other than the Who’s film Tommy: a scriptwriter just couldn’t make this stuff up. The world of dope and electric guitars and funny hairstyles had by 1973 become the standard avenue of rebellion to teenagers looking for escape, but the difference with Crowe was his precocity. While most would have bought a bag of pot and a ticket to a concert, he really was the kid who lowered his voice over the telephone to persuade Rolling Stone editors to give him a job.

There was something about him that set him on the path to becoming not only the era’s youngest big byline journalist but a Hollywood auteur. Almost Famous might surely have ended with a kid running away from an overpowering mother to succumb to casual sex and bad drugs. Not Crowe.

“In a way I guess I was lucky to survive,” he says. “But I was never one of those journalists who tried to keep up with the sex and the drugs and the drink. After all, I had my mother’s voice thundering in my ears – No Drugs! No Drugs!”

Crowe is laughing, but then catches himself pushing himself further down into the recesses of his sofa. “Oh no!” he quips. “I really am on the couch now! And then again, maybe getting a shrink would have been a cheaper way of dealing with all this than making a movie!”

Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph – Charles Laurence – October 2, 2000