Almost Famous – Oregonian

One Lucky Guy, on a Roll With Rock

Cameron Crowe isn’t necessarily the luckiest guy on Earth — but he might easily be mistaken for him.

When he was a mere stripling of 15, for instance, the writer- director of “Almost Famous” was granted permission by his disapproving mother to go out on the road with the Allman Brothers Band on assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, whose editors had no idea their new star reporter wasn’t old enough to drive and barely shaved. Result: a cover story and a gig as contributing editor.

A few years later, he was still baby-faced enough to enroll under false pretenses in high school and observe the mores and ways of a new generation, giving him fodder for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the book and film he wrote from his memoirs of the ruse.

Then (skipping over, as do all his official bios, the flaccid young-adult comedy “The Wild Life,” which he co-wrote) came the opportunity to make movies of his own, and he turned out quirky, funny, charming, affecting hit after hit: “Say Anything” (1989), “Singles” (1992) and “Jerry Maguire” (1996), which earned him Oscar nominations for best screenplay and, as co-producer, best picture. Along the way, Crowe wrote the liner notes to “Frampton Comes Alive!” (once the biggest-selling album of all time), married rock star Nancy Wilson of Heart and produced a memorable book of interviews with another stellar writer-director, Billy Wilder.

In other words, one lucky guy.

But it wasn’t always that way. “Almost Famous” recalls the days when Crowe was a wide-eyed innocent in love with rock ‘n’ roll and getting his first glimpse of the world outside his mother’s house. The film, which, Crowe says, he wrote large chunks of while hunkered in seclusion in Cannon Beach, is built on key performances by virtual unknowns: Patrick Fugit, who plays the Crowe role, and Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn’s daughter, who plays a groupie who changes the young writer’s way of seeing the world.

To date, Crowe has worked slowly, putting out four films in 11 years. But he’s already at work on a picture for 2001, “Vanilla Sky,” a romantic comedy that reunites him with “Jerry Maguire” star Tom Cruise and adds the leading ladies Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz.

Speaking from the Seattle stop of his nationwide barnstorming tour in support of “Almost Famous,” Crowe meditated on the ’70s, working with young actors, taking advice from old masters, and loving rock ‘n’ roll and a certain type of movie with equal passion.

Q: There’s a lot of retro-’70s stuff on TV and in the movies lately, but your film doesn’t really play to the garish look and feel of so many of the other films and shows.

A: I tried to base a lot of this movie on the photographs of Neal Preston and Joel Bernstein, both really good friends from back then and great photographers. And they both shot a lot of audiences. And I would say three out of five looked like they could be walking around fairly anonymously right now, the fourth one was a throwback to a beatnik kind of a thing, and the fifth had a mullet (haircut). But everything that you see today is the fifth guy, the kitsch guy, and I think the other people deserved a little airing, too. I tried to populate the movie with the non-“look-at-our-funny-hairdo” people as much as possible to try and tell a hopefully timeless sort of story. And then every now and again remind people that it’s a period movie. That was the idea, so that you could get past holding up a mirror and parodying ourselves. We worked real hard to get it authentic in that way.

Q: Was Lester Bangs right when he told you that rock was dying and you had arrived just in time to hear the death rattle?

A: Yes, he was right, but rock dies every year. Rock is dying this year.. . . And the debate over rock being dead happened in the late ’80s. Someone was trying to get me to do a cover story for Esquire, “Rock is Dead, Elvis Costello is the only living remnant.” And shortly after that, Kurt Cobain wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the whole thing was alive again.

Q: The film isn’t as tough on, say, big music companies as it might have been.

A: I tried not to take too many of the easy potshots. It’s about manipulation and jealousy and the attempt to make a family and find where you belong.

Q: So is Stillwater a good band?

A: Stillwater is, as the singer says at the end, an average band – – jealous, breaking up, trying to make the best of what life is outside of that garage where they first went “Oh my God, people are actually listening to us!” What responsibilities does that bring? They are an average band with one good song: “Fever Dog.” If they had a box set, I’d probably dig out “Love Comes and Goes” and say, “Hey, that wasn’t a bad song. Better than Bad Company.”

Q: You survived the rock era of the ’70s, and not everyone you knew did. What does it take to survive?

A: I think to stay a fan and stay enough of a fan of the music that you’re making to not get swept up in the trappings of the music. The trappings of success as a musician. To me, hell would be you’re just another band on “Behind the Music,” but in fact now we live in an era when a lot of these people are auditioning their lives and trying to fit their lives into the formula. If they had a guy who was addicted to cocaine, they push that guy up front to try to sell the story to “Behind the Music.”. . . For every band that doesn’t fit into that grid, there’s a Blodwyn Pig, a second-level Jethro Tull knockoff band with one really good song — which is in our movie. And I thought, let’s tell the story of one of those bands and put that alongside my story, which is that music changed our family. And I still love it and I loved it then and I can’t think of a world where that wouldn’t exist. It’s a love letter to music at the very heart of it, this movie.

Q: You’ve got a love story here where the lovers don’t really acknowledge their feelings and a coming-of-age story that leaves off before anyone really succeeds. Are you allergic to traditional storytelling?

A: I take that as a compliment. “Jerry Maguire” is probably the most overtly happy ending, it seems: The couple goes off into the sunset holding hands with the kid. But they’re not holding each other’s hands; they’re holding onto the kid. I always thought that five minutes after the movie faded out, he could realize that he’s not really in love with her and that it’s all over. Hopefully you capture life, you have fleeting moments of victory, and I was always taught by my mom and dad to grab onto those fleeting moments and make ’em last as long as possible, because if you expect ’em or you stand up and beat your chest, that’s when a bullet comes flying out of nowhere and lays you out. So they’re sort of humble movies about happiness and love where you can find ’em and the battered idealist, who I always end up writing about no matter what I do.

Q: Is this film autobiographical in fact or in spirit?

A: It is autobiographical in fact, but I love the idea of autobiographical in spirit. Autobiographical in spirit is all the other movies. This one is autobiographical in fact.

Q: So your mom really taught at a university?

A: Yep. She taught at San Diego City College: Humanities and sociology, and she was a counselor. Her counselees still show up at the door; she still lives in the same house. I thought Frances (McDormand) captured the syndrome of the teacher/parent very well. Even when the parent is taking your head off, they want to teach the head a lesson as it’s rolling down the steps of the guillotine.

Q: The actors in “Almost Famous” have widely different levels of experience — particularly in comparison with your previous films. What did you face as a result of that, and what did you get in return?

A: As you might think, experience changes a lot from guy to guy. Patrick (Fugit) and Kate (Hudson) are both a different ballgame from Billy Crudup. And basically you’ve gotta do a lot of takes sometimes, because they weren’t there in the ’70s or they, thankfully, don’t have the technique that allows them to glibly punch out a joke. But what you get in return is a glimpse of real life. You get somebody who feels like somebody you know, not like somebody you might have seen on a TV show. And Kate and, particularly, Patrick are very fresh. Patrick has his own rhythm. The movie adapted to his rhythm.

Q: Just as you depict a tutor-tutee relationship between yourself and Lester Bangs, I’m wondering if you’ve developed a similar relationship with Billy Wilder. Has he ever given you a specific bit of practical advice that informed your work on this film?

A: I called Billy the day before we started the movie and I said, “How you doing? I’m starting my new movie tomorrow . . .” And he said, “How are you doing?” And I said, “I am nervous. Did you get nervous the day before you started a movie?” And he said, “No. No. I get nervous the first day we show the preview to the audiences who will judge the picture, and I get nervous when I know we have to film a scene the next day that’s not yet written and there’s an empty page. Every other time, no problem.” And it helped chill me out before filming this movie. . . . I wanted to get a little more stylistically interesting on this movie, and I wanted to let the camera be a tour guide and do some stuff that I hadn’t done yet, but at the same time I always had Billy’s voice kind of thundering in my ears saying “unmotivated camera moves take away from your story and it’s grandstanding and beware every time you are moving the camera for the sake of moving the camera.” As he says, “When you cut to a shot of the back of the fireplace, whose point of view is this — Santa Claus’?” So I didn’t go too far with the glorious camera moves.

Courtesy of the Oregonian – Shawn Levy – September 22, 2000