Almost Famous – Film Comment

The Uncool: Cameron Crowe

One of the best films of the year and the best movie ever about the rock and roll life, Almost Famous is a devoted fan’s love letter to the wayward pleasures and naive ideals of Seventies rock music, Mark Olsen interviews writer-director Cameron Crowe, Plus: Cameron Crowe on the movies that inspired him.

Cameron Crowe is a freelance writer. Until last October, he served as music editor for the San Diego Door and is now writing for the Los Angeles Times. He attends San Diego City College. Crowe is going on 16.

Change the name to Billy Miller and this 1973 writer’s bio for a Rolling Stone piece could be a rough description of the protagonist of Cameron Crowe’s new film, Almost Famous. In making his most personal film to date — a semi-autobiographical tale of a boy reporter adrift in the controlled chaos of a Seventies rock tour — Crowe has also managed to make his finest. Almost Famous incorporates everything witty, heartfelt and handmade about Crowe’s earlier films while charting his continued growth as a filmmaker — as opposed to a writer who directs. At the same time he’s made the movies’ most authentic and acute portrait of the off-kilter realities and moral compromising of the rock and roll lifestyle.

Way back when, Rolling Stone was the leading (or at least the loudest) voice of the post-Sixties rock counterculture. One day an absurdly young Cameron Crowe (he graduated high school at 15) landed an assignment from editor Ben Fong-Torres. “It was dark,” Crowe has said by way of explaining how any responsible adult could send someone so young on the road with the likes of Deep Purple or Fleetwood Mac. You can see the continuity between Crowe’s profiles and his films in his intense identification with his subjects, which stems from his complete immersion in their worlds.

Crowe spent 1980 posing as a high school student — at 22 he could still pass for 18. The resulting book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, was a unique document portraying the clandestine world of American teenagers from the inside. Adapted by Crowe himself and directed by Amy Heckerling, the film version, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (82), went on to become a cultural landmark. (A Crowe-written 1984 sort-of follow-up, The Wild Life, went nowhere, but it’s much better than its reputation suggests.)

Crowe found a movie mentor in James L. Brooks, who executive produced his 1989 directorial debut, Say Anything. The film’s directionless but noble hero, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack, portraying what Crowe once described as “a slightly more exciting version of myself”) falls hard for a gorgeous straight–A high school student (Ione Skye) who’s being academically fast-tracked by her over-protective father (John Mahoney). Anchored by its trio of outstanding performances and Crowe’s self-assured handling, Say Anything is one of the best American films of the late Eighties, enlivened by the director’s great ear for dialogue, supporting characters deserving of their own movies, and profound understanding of the importance music holds in people’s lives.

It’s that much harder not to think of Crowe’s subsequent Singles (92) as anything other than a letdown. Though long gestating, the script comes across as oddly undercooked, a series of interconnected vignettes that Crowe unsuccessfully attempted to structure like a record album. (Bad timing also saddled it with the unfortunate and inaccurate tag of “the grunge movie.”)

Backed by Tom Cruise, Crowe returned to critical and popular acclaim in 1996 with Jerry Maguire. Yes, it’s an earnestly commercial, award-winning film; yes, the romantic complications between Cruise and Renee Zellweger feel forced; yes, Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s bellowing wears thin. But, damn, it’s some kind of movie, made with confidence and infectious energy.

The same energy that courses through Jerry Maguire’s first hour takes Almost Famous all the way home. Every individual piece of rock and roll memorabilia scattered through the credit sequence prefigures a stop on Billy Miller’s long and winding road. The hold and slight push in on a key to the Plaza Hotel foreshadows an emotional epiphany late in the film: Billy watches as groupie extraordinaire Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) has her stomach pumped in a luxurious hotel bathroom, and as he gets a glimpse of bare ankle, shoulder, a hint of underpants, he knows it’s really love.

After a brief series of scenes set in 1969 that establish Billy’s bond to his progressive yet restrictive mother (Frances McDormand, portraying the film’s moral center) and the beginning of his love affair with rock music, the film moves ahead to 1973. Now an aspiring writer, Billy (played hereafter by Patrick Fugit) visits the local radio station to see legendary real-life rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In no time at all the battle-scarred pro becomes a mentor to the eager neophyte. Hoffman’s astounding portrayal rings true, resonating beyond Bangs’ writing. Throughout Almost Famous Bangs serves as Billy’s conscience and integrity-cop, much in the way that his writing did for many of his readers. Late in the film, he reminds Billy not to get too close to his subjects with three simple words: “We are uncool.”

Besides cautionary advice, Bangs also gives Billy an assignment, but unsurprisingly, he’s denied backstage access and has to wait outside the auditorium with a bevy of extravagantly decked-out teenage girls. They’re not groupies, they insist, but Band Aids, “at the service of the music.” Though the girls are allowed in, Billy gains access only by winning the confidence of late-arriving opening act Stillwater, with whom he quickly bonds.

Stillwater is a composite, a perfect re-creation of a “mid-level” touring band combining elements from former Crowe profile subjects — the Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin and others. Believable in every way, and devoid of parody, Stillwater’s authenticity is crucial to the film’s overall emotional footing. Crowe reinforces his notepad-in-hand, eyewitness recollections with a subtle, discerning strategy of re-creation grounded in the rock fan’s cultural memory banks. For example, as Billy and Penny are led to the side of the darkened stage, Crowe cuts to a shot looking out into the cavernous arena. A rose rests on the lip of the stage, caught in the glare of a flashbulb. Though it lasts only a few seconds, it’s a precise re-creation of the cover photo of Neil Young’s 1973 album Time Fades Away. Seconds later, as thundering drums pound out the opening to Stillwater’s “Fever Dog” (“scratchin’ at my back door”), the stage, is suddenly awash in the same saturated reds as the innersleeve photos of The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East. Do you need to get all this to feel the film’s energy? No, because even though you may miss as many references as you catch, you can feel how lovingly placed these details are, and savor the emotional snapshots and character portraits Crowe is also serving up.

Assigned to write an article about the band for Rolling Stone, Billy finds himself stuck on tour with Stillwater, desperately trying to land an interview with their mercurial lead guitarist and driving force, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), so that he can go home to graduate. And so begin the misadventures of Billy, Stillwater and the Band Aids on the road together. The picaresque situation of a rock band on tour enables Crowe to float through a succession of semi-disconnected incidents and delightful meanderings, all the while building toward a fulfilling, surprising emotional climax. Singles’ album-structure conceit has finally been successfully realized.

One of Crowe’s deftest feats in Almost Famous is his creating space to reencounter cultural artifacts and touchstones anew, allowing you to rediscover what made someone like Elton John a part of our pop cultural fabric in the first place. After falling out with the other band members and embarking on an ill-advised acid trip with some locals in Topeka, Russell reboards the bus to chilly silence. As they pull away, John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays on the radio, and a few heads begin to bob slightly. Soon, the entire bus is singing along, and they’re back on track, reunited by the very thing that brought them together in the first place: the music.

Tying together multiple strands from his earlier films, by moving inward Crowe has finally stretched out, and by looking back he has surged ahead. Yet for a filmmaker widely known for his use of music and cracking dialogue, it’s striking how fearless he is in his use of silence, of allowing characters to simply look at each other. Throughout Almost Famous, Fugit’s bewilderment is conveyed by raised eyebrows and tousled bangs, as his eyes become our own. It is with this same quiet regard that Cameron Crowe has evolved into that true rarity, a popular filmmaker who creates sensitively observed movies full of the richness and beauty of actual lives. And that is most definitely cool.

How did you come to leave rock journalism?

I had written about most of my heroes. I tried to be objective and I think I succeeded at least part of the time in being a responsible yet privileged fan. I still wanted to write about rock, but I had this idea about writing about people and their lives and how music affected them. Honestly, my dream was to get published in Rolling Stone. So I was already in uncharted territory. It was all a bonus. I was 21 and I was like, What do I do now? What was directing for the first time like?

Early on in Say Anything, one of the first scenes, there were a lot of people whispering in my ear, and it was like, “First time director bah-bah-bah …” and John Cusack was like, Come here, man. And the complete reversal of the usual situation, the actor takes me for the walk, and the crew were looking at each other on the set like, Oh boy, this is gonna be a long shoot. And Cusack said, “Look man, the directors that I really love, they are there for you after the take. The director’s eyes meet the actor’s eyes, you know how you did. That’s how you create a good performance in a great movie. You gotta be there for me and I will be there for you.” And I took that advice and to this day, I’m always there, nobody ever can break the bond between the actor and me after a take.

What were you after when you gave Singles the structure of an album?

It was meant to be a very specific album that captured the passion of what was going on in Seattle in 1988. It was meant to be something pure that gave you the feeling of a musical, with chapters that would be like cuts. But to have a movie that’s like music, you’ve got to have people not talk. And I don’t know if I had enough stuff where you could just let the characters exist in a world where they’re either listening to music or the music is speaking to them. I don’t know if it would have worked in Almost Famous if it hadn’t been for Singles. Singles was the movie where I started to realize that my stuff really isn’t that easy to do. It’s sort of a heightened version of real life, it has its roots in journalism and it’s just supposed to sound like you’re a fly on the wall listening, and not everybody can do it. Bridget Fonda had that quality, and so did Tom Cruise, which was such a cool thing — he got my rhythms and I didn’t even know I had rhythms.

After Singles you made a conscious effort to improve as a director. Why did you feel more writer than director?

I didn’t feel confident enough in how to tell the story with the camera. I had that a little bit with Laszlo Kovacs [dp on Say Anything], but for some reason I never had the opportunity to spend as much time with the cinematographer as I had with myself on the script. Which would have been valuable. So I’d always be out there, particularly on Singles, trying to protect the script and get it exactly as written. But sometimes you’re out there and you feel the moment and you love your cinematographer and you just say, Throw that speech away, let the camera and the music tell the story. And that was something I wanted to get closer to and I’m still trying to go to school on, because that’s the best feeling. The deflowering scene in the new movie was something that had more dialogue and I was stressing about that – how do you shoot a deflowering scene, and then the night before the idea came to do it as a merry-go-round and let [dp] John Toll’s camera just sort of float in as the girls circled him with scarves. And the extra gift that happened there, as we were sitting in dailies and I said to John, are those the scarves in the whites of the kid’s eye? You can actually see those girls in his eye. That was a defining moment just in terms of telling the story with the camera, which I’ve always wanted to do more of. Just to say one other thing about Singles if I could, Singles was meant to capture the passion of what was going on in Seattle in ’88. I loved that music so much, which my wife [Nancy Wilson, a member of the band Heart] turned me on to, because she’s from Seattle. And the irony, and still occasional pain of it, is that the movie was held from release for a long time and was only released after Nirvana and Pearl Jam [made it big], so it still looks on paper like we made this movie to seize upon the Seattle scene, and nothing could be further from the truth. I took no participation in the soundtrack album because I didn’t want to take any money that belonged to those musicians, and Warner Bros. came and wanted to do a TV show based on Singles, and I wouldn’t do it. It was meant to be something pure, and still is for me. The whole thing was a little bit muted about how to pay tribute to the Seattle scene because by the time it came out it was a global phenomenon.

It’s funny how it worked both –

For and against. Absolutely. Probably wouldn’t have gotten released without it, and definitely has a flavor that was unintended because of it. To me it was more an attempt to do Manhattan in Seattle than to capture the grunge scene.

In Jerry Maguire why was it important to you that Cruise and Zellweger silently look at each other, what you call regarding each other?

Because it happens in real life, and there’s nothing greater in a movie, to me, than when you feel like you know the characters enough so that just an expression on their face gives you a little thrill that you know what they’re thinking. It creates a world of opportunity as opposed to just a line of dialogue that tells you what to think. It’s like music: the space creates the power of everything else.

Apart from the Tom Cruise factor, what was it about Jerry Maguire that clicked with people in ways your previous films hadn’t?

The love story was more adult and had some moments of pain that people related to, like, “We could spend the next ten years being polite.” I think there were little spikes in the love story which people took to heart, which was a surprise and wonderful. And of course Tom Cruise playing a loser made it fun to watch. All the actors were on fire, everybody was happy to be there and competing with each other for the scene, so there was an energy there. And also, somebody who’s been betrayed by others, but mostly themselves, who ultimately finds some road back, is more universal then I realized.

Did the success of Jerry Maguire enable you make Almost Famous?

The question that had to be answered was, Is this gonna be the script from the bottom of the drawer? And I didn’t want it to be that, I wanted it to stand on its own feet and just be made correctly. And Jerry Maguire allowed me to get enough money to make it right, which is to say all the details would be right and we could go to the places where those events happened, the money could be spent on texture. I knew that after the last movie I probably had a credit line of one. And believe me, the credit line was slipping away, because by the time I finished the book on Billy Wilder [Conversations with Wilder, Knopf, 00] it was like, Yeah, what have you done since Jerry Maguire? And it was just time. Any longer and it slips away into the mists of time. And then if you make it, it becomes the golden-tinged memory that’s not quite the same.

So going into Almost Famous you felt nothing had ever really captured the heart of the early Seventies? What was missing, and what did you do different?

Well, I’m not saying we were successful, I’m just saying we were successful enough, so I feel like the opportunity wasn’t squandered. What was always missing for me was a lack of glibness. And on a real basic level, if you look at the movies set in the Seventies you’d think at the stroke of midnight on 1970, everybody had a mirror ball. That was the Seventies. But it wasn’t, disco didn’t come along until 1976. Glitter rock came along in 1972, and then glitter rock faded and there was a period between that and disco that was equally passionate, and beautifully naive in a way. Mick Ronson, David Bowie’s guitarist, died before we made the movie, and somebody got a deathbed interview with him and asked, “How did it feel to be at the ground zero of decadence in rock?” And he said, “It was a very loving time and a very naive time, or at least it was to me.” And I just thought that was profound, even the guys who were playing glitter rock, which was so subversive, had a lack of irony and cynicism about it that today would be quaint. But the whole global change in rock, cool being a mass concept, was still around the corner, so it was still a little more personal, and all I can say is passionately naive. And I really wanted to catch that.

What did you do to keep the film from feeling nostalgic?

The goal was to have it feel contemporary and still be reminded throughout that it’s 1973. [DP] John Toll captured it through the windows, so the movie does not play like a flared-out Seventies memory, it’s more like a vivid memory from today, but if you look out the window, out the window is the photo of our memory. I know it sounds trippy, but outside the window is the memory and inside the room life is being lived right now. And it helps, because as much as I like to think all that stuff just happened, it is ancient history already. So few of the actors were even alive then. What does that mean?

Was the concept of “the uncool” something that Lester Bangs actually talked about?

That is the one thing that I brought to it, it’s the one line he never said, but he always said it. It was the theme of almost every, conversation I had with him. Everything else is pretty much by the book. Hoffman did his homework in a big way. So many people in the movie got cast in the part that they represented in their own life: Billy Crudup being a guy on the verge, Kate being a very social, light-the-room-up kind of person, or Patrick being a real wide-open-to-the-world fan. But Hoffman really took ownership of Lester in a great way. We went back and forth a bit and the collaboration produced the true accurate portrayal. Left to my own devices I wrote more to the funny, clownish side of Lester. But he was a very lonely guy who lived with his records, and Hoffman added the loneliness, which made the jokes deeper and funnier.

How did you go about selecting character elements from people you covered in Rolling Stone?

I did not go back and read those stories, but the incidents and small moments always stayed with me. Basically, if the feeling was still vivid 27 years later I knew it had to be in the movie. It was a very natural composite with Stillwater. It was originally an English band in the earlier drafts, but as I started to write I realized how much those American bands had really affected me. Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the first guys to really like my writing and tell other bands they should ask for me to do their articles. And so making the band American, it became more truthful and less parody.

Are there bits of Ronnie in Russell Hammond?

A little bit. There’s a lot of Glenn Frey [of the Eagles] in Russell, but there’s bits of every person who felt like a role model of cool, hung out with me, made me feel like a part of the circus. I always liked the ones who would say, Hey man, write what you see, I trust you. But implicit in that was, Make us look cool. Which Glenn Frey actually said to me.

In writing Billy, how did you decide between what was dramatically interesting and what was accurate to your own life?

Billy is slightly more guileless than I was. I was a little more tenacious about getting my story and less of a victim after the first couple of times. It is pretty truthful to the first two or three stories I did. He’s a little more of an observer than I was, but that was a conscious decision, to make him more of the guy at the circus for the first time.

You were saying before you wanted the tribute to rock critic Lester Bangs to be a big part of the film. Did a lot get cut out? He’s definitely a presence in the film, but its not overwhelming.

Well, Lester was a bigger part in other drafts of the movie, but the family was less prominent. And when I felt the need to confront some of the personal stuff in my home life, the way that music affected our family, it made the story more complete. But oddly enough, it also made Lester more important, because he becomes the voice of reason, the other parent, the father that’s not there. The movie is filled with begrudging role models for this kid, and nobody wants the hero worship, but they sort of secretly dig it. Russell’s that way, Lester’s that way, and it’s a lot about going out in the world and trying to find role models when role modeling wasn’t that cool.

Did you prepare the concert sequences by watching a lot of the rock films of that period, or is that stuff ingrained in your system by now?

We had these rehearsals every night. We’d work on the movie in the day, and the band would practice at night and then we’d watch rock movies. Jason Lee is doing Paul Rodgers, of Free and Bad Company; that was the guy we picked to pattern the character after. The album covers, which you don’t see a lot of unfortunately, were based on the Allman Brothers Band’s albums.

Is the band really playing?

The band is half-playing. The drummer (John Fedevich) is a great real drummer, who used to play with Mark Kozelek, the bass player, and he’s the leader of the Red House Painters. And they’re playing live to a track that has Billy (Crudup) [miming] – well, Billy’s playing a little bit – and Jason is lip-synching. Really well, too, because we had all those rehearsals. Every night we’d do their set a couple of times and they got very comfortable with it, to the point where they could play it live. But only by the end of the movie did Billy really have the prowess on guitar to not need the tape. We always fooled the audience though.

Is it really Jason Lee’s voice?

No, it’s a guy named Marty. We auditioned a bunch of voices for that 1973 era voice. And the odd thing is, in the era of Whitney Houston, everybody oversings now so we had to work really hard to find somebody who just sang the melody. We found him in the Valley.

So Peter Frampton and your wife wrote the songs?

Frampton and a collaborator wrote two of the songs, and my wife and I wrote the others.

Who wrote “Fever Dog?”

Well, I’m glad you asked. That would be Nancy Wilson and myself.

The one line that’s in the movie is such a great rock line.

“Fever dog, scratching at my back door.” Oh, man.

How many songs did you write?

We wrote most of them on our honeymoon in 1986, as an exercise, knowing sort of one day we might do a movie where we could use the stuff, but mostly just in a cabin on the beach on the coast of Oregon, having fun on our honeymoon. And we had this idea that this was a band from 1973 with a little bit of a father fixation in the lyrics, every song has some not so vague reference in the lyrics to a father or daddy. And none of the production values could be post 1973, and it couldn’t be a parody. “Cheese and Onions” [by Beatles parody band the Rutles], you couldn’t top that, so the other thing you can do is just try and be real. The songs all exist, and the full “Fever Dog” will be on the soundtrack album, sorry to tell you. And then Frampton came in and decided there needed to be a rave-up show closer, even more superficial than the other songs.

“Guess You Had to Be There.”

Which Frampton now plays in his shows, and it’s embraced exactly as it was written to be, a retro show closer.

If I can, I’m gonna ask you one small set of fan questions that have to do with Gram Parsons. In the movie, there’s sort of a Gram and Emmylou Harris thing in the Riot House sequence, but it’s kind of oblique, no one says his name.

Man, you caught it. Well, in the long version, the movie that we filmed, Gram Parsons dies halfway through the tour and they say “That guy, we were just with that guy,” and they sing his “A Song For You” on the bus. It’s great, I really wish it could have been in the movie. At the hotel, I really wanted it to be just a stolen moment where William’s getting pulled down the hallway and Gram Parsons is just a couple rooms down. Gram Parsons was one of the first guys I interviewed. And I actually interviewed him when he brought Emmylou Harris out from Maryland, I think it was, and she’d just arrived and they were at his house, and he, on this tape, introduces me to Emmylou and says, here’s this new songwriter you’re going to be hearing a lot about, and that was one of those moments I wanted to pay tribute to somehow in the movie. So it’s in there just a tiny bit.

Did you write a Rolling Stone piece on Gram?

I wrote a Rolling Stone piece about Emmylou later, and I wrote a story on Gram Parsons for a paper called Music World, and I did his bio for Warner Brothers.

In real life was he the doomed prince that he’s now made out to be?

He was a Southern gentleman. He was not that druggy, he just seemed like a southern prince. The feeling in the air then was that he had boldly bucked the commerciality of The Byrds and was this grand fringe character. And Emmylou on that day asked him to sing [The Byrds’] “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and he laughed and did the most amazing version of that song you’ve ever heard, with her singing harmony. Photos exist of it, and it may be on my tape somewhere, but what I got was a huge, huge, huge talent that he was only showing a little bit of because he was obsessed with doing this pure country thing, but inside of him was all the Byrds history and all that stuff and he had chosen to be a fringe character for a while. I got the feeling he was going to be as huge as he wanted to be. He also seemed a little overweight, and not really in fighting shape. And I dug him.

There’s a book with a photo of you with him –

It’s from that day. Does that answer your question?

I was just asking for an anecdote about Gram Parsons. So, yes.

Yeah, he had that floppy hat and he was just really cool. But the real live wire was [road manager] Phil Kaufman, who was just really keeping the whole thing going. Looking back, Gram seemed very laid back, but he didn’t seem that druggy. It seemed more like he was the kind of guy that everybody came to, as opposed to him going to everybody else. And you just ended up in really comfortable chairs, studying him. And that’s what the day was.

To wrap up, I wanted to ask a couple questions about your journalism and interviews. What are some of the things you do to get something extra out of someone, because in your interviews, you always get more than you imagine someone planned to give up.

Thanks. It’s sort of the same way I direct, which is to stay there until you get something that feels a little different or a little more, the kind of thing that you do when the pressure of the situation is over. It’s the kind of thing where once you shut off the tape recorder and somebody is relaxed, then they tell you the really great shit. That’s sort of the way I direct and it was always the way I interviewed. To spend enough time where it became more of a conversation and less of an interview. And you can’t even really do that now because of junkets and there are so many publications, they can’t really let someone on the road as long as they used to.

Is it also because the interview subjects are so much more aware of the machinery and are interviewed so much that it’s harder to break them down?

Well, the publicists are different figures now. In earlier versions of Almost Famous there was this incredible character I was so proud of named Russell DeMay and he was this fading English publicist who was sort of a Derek Taylor [famed publicist to The Beatles and others], sort of not, and he had worked with The Beatles and he didn’t ever discuss The Beatles and then one day on the way to New York City he started talking about The Beatles one by one. And he talks about them all gloriously and somebody asks, But what about George, and he goes, “George. George’s mother had the rehearsal space, need I say more.” I wanted David Bowie to play that part, I just thought it would be the greatest thing, rumpled white suit, and that was an important character that I’m sorry is not in there, because the publicist used to not be the buffer, the publicist used to be one of the band. The publicist was a participating band member whose job, whose instrument, was the press. So they would hang out with you and reveal stuff to you and pull you in on the trust level so you were a friend and you didn’t want to betray a friend. The publicists were much more complex and almost Shakespearean characters, many of whom died early because they did have to party so much as part of their game. Now the publicist is more the one who screams No, who limits the time, choreographs covers; wasn’t the case then. And that is one of the big things that’s changed, but mostly as rock became more popular culture and popular culture became more establishment, from Time magazine on down, everyone would put Madonna on the cover as opposed to just a music magazine. So once everybody needed access, it destroyed the in-depth profile.

Last question: what’s the difference between interviewing Jimmy Page and Billy Wilder?

Wow. There is no way an answer is gonna be as good as that question. They’re pretty similar, both of them have been interviewed a lot, and both appreciate a question that comes more from the heart of a fan than an academic question. And they both enjoy a good meal, I must say.

Courtesy of Film Comment – Mark Olsen – September 2000