Almost Famous – L.A. Times

This Time, It’s Personal A ’70s rock film co-starring . . . Mom? It’s Cameron Crowe’s life story, and he’s tried to tell it for years.

For anyone who’s ever been a teenager, one of the most exquisitely soul-piercing moments in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical new film, “Almost Famous,” comes when the 15-year-old rock writer goes to the San Diego Sports Arena to interview Black Sabbath for Creem magazine–driven there by his mother.

As he gets out of the car, his mother, played by Frances McDormand, tells him that she’ll be back at 11 o’clock sharp to pick him up. “If you get lost,” she says, “use the family whistle.” She watches her baby-faced boy disappear into a crowd of 1973-era stoned concert-goers. Overwhelmed by a powerful maternal instinct, she lets out a piercing whistle, calling out to him, sweetly but loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Don’t take drugs!”

Dozens of kids instinctively jerk their heads in her direction, having heard the jarring sound of a mom. Her son cringes as he looks back at her, and from everywhere comes the jeering refrain: “Don’t take drugs!!”

Alice Crowe admits that her son didn’t use that much dramatic license in writing the scene. A former psychology professor and family therapist, she was clearly the major force in raising Cameron and his older sister, Cindy (Her husband, James, died in 1989, but is not depicted in the film). Alice was fiercely protective and intensely nurturing, a familiar combination for anyone who’s seen the parental figures depicted in Crowe’s films. If she was a teacher, Cameron was her star pupil, as if she were grooming her son to be her intellectual companion.

So it seems fitting that when she gives a rare interview in the 43-year-old director’s Santa Monica condo, reminiscing about her son’s boyhood years in San Diego, he sits on the floor at her feet.

Due out Sept. 13 from DreamWorks, “Almost Famous” is Crowe’s valentine to the wild-eyed world of ’70s rock ‘n’ roll. But the $60-million film is also a rarity in today’s bottom-line-oriented Hollywood: an intensely personal story focusing on Crowe’s turbulent family life and his early days as an impossibly young rock journalist. It’s almost a contradiction in terms: an intimate big-budget movie.

The picture stars newcomer Patrick Fugit as the 15-year-old Crowe, known in the film as William Miller. His first assignment for Rolling Stone takes him on tour with Stillwater, a fictional band whose lead guitarist and lead singer (Billy Crudup and Jason Lee) are coming to grips with their first success. Aided by a winsome young groupie played by Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn’s daughter), Crowe’s character becomes a part of the band’s inner circle, losing his objectivity as a reporter but gaining an appreciation for the value of friendship and family.

Alice Crowe says she always wanted Cameron to be a lawyer, but his obsession with rock quickly outstripped any academic ambitions. At 15, he wrote pieces for rock magazines such as Zoo World and Creem, home of Lester Bangs, the legendary rock-critic bomb thrower who is played in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman. At 16, Crowe was writing for Rolling Stone, where he interviewed innumerable rock icons before writing “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and later writing and directing such films as “Say Anything” and “Jerry Maguire.” Most recently he published “Conversations With Wilder,” a series of interviews with legendary film director Billy Wilder.

When Cameron was a boy, Alice brought him to farm worker meetings and peace demonstrations. She also took him to see movies she felt were intellectually provocative: She sneaked her preteen son into “Carnal Knowledge” by claiming he was 17. When Cameron was 12, they went to an Eric Clapton concert together. Everyone was smoking pot, Alice recalls, but if someone passed a joint to her, “I just passed it along, right past Cameron, to the next person.”

Soon Cameron was hanging out at the Door, San Diego’s underground newspaper, which began publishing his rock reviews. When Crowe, who was too young to drive, went to Los Angeles to do interviews, he would sometimes hitch a ride with the paper’s editor, a giant of a man named Bill Maguire (whose name Crowe appropriated for the character of Jerry Maguire).

On one trip, Maguire crashed with Crowe, who was staying at the Continental Hyatt House, the ’70s-era Sunset Strip in-spot for touring rock bands. Crowe shot several “Almost Famous” scenes at the hotel, re-creating its garish ’70s-era look.

Sitting with his mother, Cameron regales her with a tale that didn’t make the movie but exemplifies the spirit of the time. “This story’s going to scare you, Mom,” Crowe says, explaining how Maguire brought a woman back to their room, believing Cameron was already asleep.

Alice shoots her son a look, as if to say: You can’t scare me now. Cameron proceeds with the story: “Of course, I’m awake, knowing this huge man and this babe are in the bed next to me, wondering what’s going to happen. And they start kissing and then I hear them getting it on. And the girl says, ‘He’s going to hear us.’ And Bill goes, ‘Don’t worry, he’s asleep.’ And I’m going, to myself, ‘I am not asleep! In fact, I’m not going to sleep all night!’ ”

Alice Crowe takes the story in stride. She turns to me and says dryly, “So I guess you can see why Cameron didn’t become a lawyer.”

When Crowe was 18, he wrote his first autobiographical story–a piece for Rolling Stone about how he learned about sex. Much to his surprise, it was an instant favorite. The experience stuck with him when he began writing scripts, especially as he wrestled with the idea of making a film about his formative rock journalist days. For him, it’s not so much of a leap from a commercial project like “Jerry Maguire” to the more personal “Almost Famous.”

“I don’t worry about whether what I write will mean anything to the rest of the world because the stuff that people respond to best has always been the most personal things–the scene that embarrassed you the most when you wrote it,” he says one day, stretched out on an office couch beneath photos of various rock idols. Wearing shorts and a floppy T-shirt, he still looks more like a music writer than an A-list Hollywood director whose last film grossed $154 million and was an Oscar nominee for best picture.

“So I thought, maybe I could do a movie about really personal things, and it would be like my sex article. It would be the thing people liked the most. Still, it’s hard, because you’ve got nothing to hide behind.”

For years, Crowe worked on scripts that revolved around his rock ‘n’ roll adventures. One early version, “Ricky Fedora,” chronicled two journalists on an all-night drive with an English rock band. But the story didn’t come easily and other projects always intervened.

His mother always encouraged him. After all, she’d kept his room intact from when he was a teenager; everything was in boxes–old articles, interviews, backstage passes, fan mail, even hotel keys.

“I must have nine notebooks of early drafts of his script,” says Alice. “Cameron had a really difficult time writing it because it was so personal. So he’d go off and write another script and then he’d be on the phone with me, saying, ‘The boxes are calling.’ Whenever Cameron would come talk to the kids in my class, he’d tell them to write what you know. So I’d say, ‘Walk your talk. Write about your memories.’ ”

Still, Crowe was nervous. When he went to Danny Bramson, his music supervisor and one of his oldest friends, Bramson told him it wasn’t a good idea to bare his heart: “I know you,” Bramson told him. “You’re too sensitive. Every bad review will be like a dagger in your heart.”

But Crowe realized the clock was ticking. Most of his favorite memory films, Francois Truffaut’s “400 Blows” and Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” were made early in the filmmakers’ careers. When Crowe was making “Say Anything,” he’d told director Lawrence Kasdan about his idea for a personal film. Several years later, Kasdan asked how the project was coming. Crowe said he was going to do something else next.

“Larry asked how old I was,” Crowe recalls. “I told him I was 40. And he looked at me and said, ‘Geez, I always thought you were younger.’ ”

Crowe laughs. “That’s when I decided I better get going.”

Alice’s biggest fear was that the movie might paint her as too demanding. Cameron had told her not to talk to McDormand when she showed up for work, but his mother ignored him. “Alice got right to the point,” the actress recalls. “She said, ‘I find the character to be written a little shrill and I hope that you don’t intend to play it that way.’ And I said right back that I’m an actor, so it’s not going to be me or you, it’s going to be [the character].”

When I asked Alice what she said to McDormand, it becomes obvious that mother and son recall things a tiny bit differently:

Alice: “Cameron told me, ‘Don’t talk to Frances.’ ”

Cameron: “Mom, what I really said was, ‘Stay away from her. She’s won an Academy Award, just leave her alone. It’s enough that you’re even here, on the set!’ ”

Alice: “We got along fine. She had her little son with her and we just talked about kids and how I took Cameron with me around the country when he was little. . . .”

Cameron (jumping in): “And I’m looking at the two of them, yakking away, and I saw it all going down the tubes. Here I am, directing this great actress with my mom standing right behind me on the set. There were a lot of nights when I was doing takes and takes, imagining that the people on the set behind me were saying, ‘Therapy would’ve been a lot cheaper,’ and I’d call Mom and say, ‘You got me into this!’ ”


* * *

Early in the film, Crowe’s sister, (called Anita and played by Zooey Deschanel) leaves home with her boyfriend, bequeathing her record collection to her little brother. As the car pulls away, Cameron’s mother pronounces, “She’ll be back.” After hearing her daughter whoop with joy, she says less confidently, “Maybe not soon.”


In real life, his sister Cindy didn’t talk to Alice for nearly a decade. They only recently had a tentative reconciliation at a family get-together, which Cameron hosted after he’d finished the film. Like most family squabbles, the fracas is complicated in origin.

“Cindy never got me, Cameron did,” Alice says evenly. “I think in some ways I must have embarrassed her. For a teenager in high school back then, a mother was supposed to stay home and be more conservative, not be out picketing the ranchers who were mistreating their farm workers.”

James Crowe was the peacemaker in the family, the role Cameron assumed after his father’s death. “Dad was the balance,” says Cameron, who is now the father of two 7-month-old boys with his wife, Heart’s Nancy Wilson. “Mom and Cindy each heard only the barbs in what the other said.”

Jaan Uhelszki, an old rock-journalist pal, told Crowe after seeing the movie that she thought he made the film to bring his mother and sister together. He agrees.

His sister still hasn’t seen the finished film. Cameron brought a rough cut to the family get-together, but when he started screening it, one of Cindy’s kids asked if they could go out and swim and as he puts it, “suddenly real life intervened. It was kind of sweet, because this thing–the elephant in the room–wasn’t as important as our kids, so I just took the tape off and said we’d show it another time.”

After so much talk of family strife, Alice volunteers a subtle reminder that things were not always as grim as they appear. “You know, I remember once when Cameron was 21 and he came home, looking pale and horrible, and he said to me, ‘My girlfriend just dumped me. She’s with another guy and I’ve left Rolling Stone and it’s all over, I’m a has-been.’ ”

Alice laughs. “And I told him, ‘Cameron, you’re only 21. How can you be a has-been’ ?” She turns to her son. “You remember that?”

Cameron nods uncomfortably. “Oh, yeah, I remember that.”

In the Crowe family, everyone keeps telling the story until they get it right. Alice starts to tell the story again, finding new details she had left out of the first version. Then, recalling another detail, she starts the tale anew.

“Mom!” Cameron says with a loud groan. “Two times is enough!”


* * *


Crowe has a lot riding on “Almost Famous.” So does DreamWorks, which has been on a roll over the past year, having had hits with a series of unconventional films, from “American Beauty” to “Gladiator” to “Chicken Run.” But Crowe’s film will perhaps be the studio’s biggest challenge; young audiences have shown little interest in movies about the ’70s or ’70s-era rock bands.


Autobiographical films haven’t been an especially commercial genre either. But they’re often the most personal and revealing movies a director ever makes. Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” based on his Vietnam experiences, was a career-making film, while Barry Levinson’s Baltimore films, most notably “Diner” and “Avalon,” are considered some of his best work. But other films such as Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” or Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” were viewed as too rawly personal for audiences to embrace as entertainment. Today’s young moviegoers seem more interested in their own time than past eras–a feeling shared by Hollywood studios.

Unlike “Jerry Maguire,” which had the star presence of Tom Cruise, Crowe is carrying “Almost Famous” all on his shoulders. He’s not only the writer and director, but also co-wrote four vintage Stillwater songs for the movie with wife Nancy, who did the score for the film. DreamWorks is essentially treating Crowe as its drawing card. The film’s poster doesn’t bill any cast members; it simply presents the movie as “from the writer-director of ‘Jerry Maguire.’ ”

It wasn’t always a star-free film. Crowe spent considerable time wooing Brad Pitt for the lead guitarist role, but the actor passed on it six weeks before filming was to begin. Always the diplomat, Crowe puts most of the onus on himself. “His role was the most underwritten part in the movie, and Brad had taken a flier on other scripts that weren’t fully on the page and he couldn’t bring himself to do it again.”

Crowe had originally cast Sarah Polley (“Go”) as Penny Lane, but when filming was delayed, she moved on. He’d already cast Kate Hudson in a smaller role and decided she would be right for a bigger part. He’d considered Rita Wilson to play his mother, but ultimately opted for McDormand.

The director’s biggest fear was whether his actors would be believable as ’70s rock musicians. Before filming began, Crowe had actor rehearsals during the day and rock school for the boys in the band at night. Everyone got gift packages with ’70s-era rock magazines, many from Crowe’s own collection. Billy Crudup and Jason Lee would practice their onstage personas and then watch rock films like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “The Song Remains the Same.”

“Cameron bought me this 10-part video history of rock ‘n’ roll,” says Lee. “I must’ve learned something. I was watching ‘Celebrity Rock ‘n’ Roll Jeopardy’ the other night and I got almost every question right.”

Even though Stillwater is a composite of several bands Crowe spent time with on the road, the ego dynamics of Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page clearly played a big role in many Stillwater scenes. Zeppelin also gave Crowe permission to use five of its songs in the movie after Crowe flew to London and screened the movie for Page and Plant.

Crowe sat in the back of the theater, watching the duo’s body language as the movie played. He was particularly concerned about a Zeppelin-ish moment in the movie where Crudup, stoned out of his mind, has climbed atop the roof of a fan’s house. Basking in the adulation of fans below, he bellows, “I am a golden god!” before diving into a brackish swimming pool.

Later in the film, a chagrined Crudup mutters, “I never said I was a golden god.” Crowe says Plant nearly jumped out of his seat, roaring back at the screen, “Well, I did!”

“Cameron got it right,” says Peter Frampton, a ’70s rock god himself, who served as a technical consultant for the film. “Music was much more of an adventure then, because we were making everything up as we went along. Bands just had more camaraderie, with each other and with the fans. It’s all a corporate business today. Back then, you knew you could make records the way you wanted and not immediately get thrown off the label if you failed.”

Crowe always seemed to get it right as a rock writer, even if he was viewed by some of his critic peers as being more of an enthusiast than a hard-nosed journalist. Crowe even has a scene in “Almost Famous” where his Rolling Stone editors belittle an early draft of his Stillwater story, dismissing it as a puff piece. When he calls Lester Bangs for consolation, the critic lectures him: “Aw, man, you made friends with them! See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.”

But musicians trusted Crowe. “He never came across as one of ‘them,’ he came across as your friend,” says Frampton, who had Crowe do the liner notes for his best-selling 1975 album, “Frampton Comes Alive.” “Cameron had a way about him where you wanted to tell him everything.”

In 1975, Rolling Stone went to the notoriously uncooperative Zeppelin, offering the band its choice of writers for a pivotal cover story. The band picked Crowe. “I always thought I was the representative of the fan with a front-row seat,” he says. “Call me soft or gentle, but that’s the way that world seemed to me.”

If Crowe presents a somewhat romantic view of rock’s gaudy era of excess, perhaps it’s because he wanted to give his family of vagabond musicians the kind of happy ending he’s always wished he could experience with his own family.

“It wouldn’t take the greatest shrink in the world to see that I’m playing peacemaker as a director the way I did in real life,” says Crowe. “In our family, we’re ever so gently moving toward some kind of resolution.”

Cast members could tell how emotional it was for Crowe when he was filming a climactic family scene near the end of the picture.

“At one point it was clear things weren’t really working, so we took a timeout,” recalls McDormand. “And one of us said to Cameron, ‘We don’t know what happened in real life, but what we’re doing now is fictional. So do something–you’re the director. It’s your life.’ ”

Courtesy of L.A. Times – Patrick Goldstein – August 27, 2000