Almost Famous – Time Magazine

As the Crowe Flies

In his groovy new movie, writer-director Cameron Crowe creates a love song to ’70s rock and his own past

This isn’t easy to say: Cameron Crowe’s new movie, Almost Famous, is based on his own unique adolescence. Arrrrrrrrgh! you may be thinking. Here comes Crowe, another privileged male boomer, turning his teen years into a movie. How about a ticket to a sharp jab in the eye instead?

Settle down. First of all, Crowe’s movies tend to be quite entertaining. He wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and served as writer-director on Say Anything…(1989), Singles (1992) and Jerry Maguire (1996). Also, Crowe’s adolescence truly was unique. Before his 16th birthday, he had hit the road, covering 1970s rock bands for Rolling Stone. That experience “was always the best story I had,” says Crowe, 43, who started pounding out the screenplay for Almost Famous nearly 15 years ago and honed it between other projects. “It was the sweetheart that I ran back to every time.”

Make a few phone calls, and you’ll easily find endorsements. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner calls Almost Famous “probably the most accurate and heartfelt rock-‘n’-roll movie I’ve ever seen.” Tom Cruise, who has already seen Crowe’s movie twice, raves about “the depth he has in his characters.” Full disclosure: both men are friends of the writer-director. Cruise starred in Jerry Maguire, of course, and has signed on for Crowe’s next film, Vanilla Sky, a thriller co-starring Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. Wenner’s thumbs up is even more suspect. Not only is he portrayed briefly in the film as a Young Turk, he’s played by Eion Bailey, the best-looking actor in the cast. Still, these pronouncements will receive no argument here.

With a $60 million budget, Almost Famous vividly re-creates the ’70s rock scene. And any movie with Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Simon & Garfunkel and the Chipmunks on the sound track can’t go too far wrong.

Like Crowe–a big, smart, shaggy, excitable man, fond of baggy shorts and sloppy T shirts–Almost Famous is sophisticated but steadfastly innocent; less a rock anthem than a love song to rock, musicians, groupies and Crowe’s own family. In the film, Crowe’s 15-year-old alter ego, boy reporter William Miller (Patrick Fugit), gets his first assignment from Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres (a real person, played by Terry Chen) to profile an up-and-coming (fictional) rock band called Stillwater. Trying to get an interview with Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), young Miller finds himself traveling with the band and falling in love with the guitarist’s pet groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), all the while remaining bound to the apron strings of his mother (Frances McDormand), a liberal crusader who sees rock ‘n’ roll as nothing more than a drug-laden detour on her son’s path to law school.

Like the Miller character, Crowe was introduced to rock by his rebellious big sister and grew up in San Diego (his father James, who died in 1989, sold real estate and ran answering services). Crowe skipped three grades, graduated from high school at 15 and became a journalist by sending writing samples to rock critic Lester Bangs (played in the movie by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Writing became both his vocation and his mode of rebellion against his mother Alice, a teacher who banned rock music in their home and refused to buy Crowe a bicycle because “they’re too dangerous.” (“If she’d bought me a bike, I’d probably have a different job now,” says Crowe.)

Assignments for Bang’s Creem magazine led to gigs at Rolling Stone, where Crowe felt more like a groupie than a critic. “I always remember that us-against-the-world thing,” he says, recalling his days with the bands one afternoon in his office in Santa Monica, Calif., “the way it felt to sweep into a hotel lobby.” Says Wenner: “He was such a fan. Artists gave him access because of that.” Just as Miller pursues Stillwater’s members for a cover story, Crowe wrangled Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin for the cover of Rolling Stone in 1975. But several rock heavyweights are reflected in Stillwater, a band that slides into discord (shades of the Allman Brothers, though no one in Stillwater dates Cher), takes a bumpy plane ride (like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Who) and performs a song called Fever Dog, written by Crowe and his wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, with a nod to Zeppelin’s Black Dog. “There’s also a lot of the Eagles in there,” says Crowe. “They craved the spotlight, saw it coming, got scared, ran from it, all that stuff.”

Some dialogue comes directly from Crowe’s old notebooks. “Just make us look cool,” the Eagles’ Glenn Frey once told him. In the film, Crudup delivers the same line to Miller. “If I’d been completely on top of it, I would’ve printed that then,” says Crowe, “but it’s almost better [in the movie].”

Although Crowe never earned a college degree, he did go to high school twice. At age 22, he went undercover, spending two semesters passing as a student to research his novel, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which he later adapted for the screen. Crowe has been educating himself as a filmmaker ever since, with James L. Brooks, the producer of both Say Anything…and Jerry Maguire, as a de facto professor. Not entirely happy with his direction of Singles in 1992, Crowe took a break and began studying the work of other filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, he says, taught him how to make his gonzo structure hold together. Like Brooks, Crowe resists traditional screenplay rules, instead laying out his scenes like chapters or tracks on an album.

His directing style can be equally unconventional. While his camera is rolling, Crowe often shouts out impromptu lines to his actors and plays music on the set to generate emotion, later deleting the extraneous noise from the sound track. (Joni Mitchell’s River, for example, was a sure way to make Hudson cry during Almost Famous.) “He throws out a line, and you just go with it,” says Cruise. “You find the character as you’re going along.”

Watching the witty, often breezy autobiographical work of director Francois Truffaut helped inspire Almost Famous, but Crowe found his film’s muse nearly 30 years ago. At the same time that he was embarking on his journalism career, a striking young Portland, Ore., woman, standing 5 ft. 10 in. with waist-length red hair, moved to Los Angeles to be with a keyboard player for Steppenwolf. There she became enamored of musicians and their milieu, and when she returned to Portland, she continued hanging out with the bands that came through town. Adopting the name Pennie Lane and a vintage 1940s wardrobe of dresses, hats and gloves, she became one of the era’s more notable groupies, playing den mother to a group of attractive acolytes known as “the Flying Garter Girls.” “They had to be good students, and they couldn’t get drunk, and they couldn’t be heavily into drugs,” says Lane, who asks that her real name not be divulged. “Of course, they could smoke pot.”

Around 1973, Crowe and Lane met at a Portland concert. “I could always tell if someone had that star quality,” says Lane, who retired from the groupie scene at age 21, received her M.B.A. and now owns a marketing firm in Portland. “He had it all over him, the aura. I said, ‘You’re gonna be huge! Huge!’ He was so cute.”

Crowe, who spells her name Penny in his screenplay, says he wrote the character as “a mythical creature”–part the real Lane and a couple of other groupies, part Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment and part Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He intended to cast Sarah Polley, a restrained actress who has charmed critics in Go and The Sweet Hereafter, “but as we worked on the part, Penny became more obviously Shirley MacLaine,” he says, “a kind of deluded comedian, an angel with a broken wing.” Finally, Polley walked away during preproduction, and Hudson stepped in. “Sarah is like a Bob Dylan song, more ’60s than ’70s,” says Crowe. “That’s why it didn’t work. Kate Hudson is Zeppelin.”

Like a devoted son, Crowe had pursued Meryl Streep to play his mother. “I played all these Meryl Streep movies, and I played Neil Young to her silent shots, and I thought, How great!” he explains. Streep turned him down, making room for McDormand. Then, shortly before filming began last year, Brad Pitt–Crowe’s choice to play Russell Hammond–opted out, and Crudup took over. “He was so lucky that the big stars he wanted for this movie ended up not doing it,” says David Geffen, a partner in DreamWorks, which is releasing the film, and a friend of Crowe’s since the ’70s. “They would’ve unbalanced the movie.”

Until now, Fugit, the 17-year-old actor from Salt Lake City, Utah, who snagged the role of Crowe’s teen self, has been seen mostly in bit parts on television. “Usually I played a jerk,” he says. “I did a made-for-TV movie–I was a jerk and got eaten by ants. On Touched by an Angel, I burned down a mentally-retarded kid’s house.”

Fugit at last gets to play a good guy in Almost Famous. Because it’s all about good guys. Here was rock ‘n’ roll in the ’70s, dancing rapidly toward the edge of a cliff, but Crowe–still a kind of wide-eyed wonder–has given his story and his characters happy endings. We would like to do the same here, and so we return to the real Penny Lane. “I’m putting it together now,” she says. “It’s gonna be a retirement home called the Raisin Ranch for aging rock stars and wayward groupies. We’re all gonna be deaf because we didn’t wear earplugs. So where are we gonna go? I’m on it.” She needn’t worry. Thanks to Almost Famous, Lane–and the music she loved–will live forever in their prime.

Courtesy of Time Magazine – Jess Cagle – September 18, 2000