Almost Famous – Bergen Record

Crowe Can see himself in that kid

From the bottom of his drawer, he pulled the script for “Almost Famous,” his mash note to Seventies rock-and-roll. Now a $60 million DreamWorks production, the movie tells the intensely personal story of Crowe’s early days as a rock journalist.

“This is the film I wanted to be my first feature,” says Crowe, relaxing in a hotel suite in his hometown of San Diego. “But then ‘Say Anything’ took hold. And then after that, it felt like ‘Singles’ was the right move, and then ‘Jerry Maguire.’

“But given a few minutes to talk about it, I would always veer over into, ‘You know, there is this other thing that I really want to do’ and it would be this rock movie.”

Dressed in denim shorts, a faded T-shirt, and black sneakers, Crowe still looks more like a rock journalist than a big-time filmmaker. He’s warm, friendly, and not the least bit pretentious.

Crowe is the first to admit he doesn’t exactly exude inner-circle vibes.

“There’s something about me that says I don’t belong,” he says with a chuckle. “I still can’t get backstage. When we came to the San Diego Sports Arena to film ‘Almost Famous,’ I went to the door and the guy behind the door said, ‘You can’t come in.’ I couldn’t come in to film a scene about not being able to come in. It was bizarre.”

There’s nothing bizarre about the great buzz being generated by “Almost Famous.” No less a rock-and-roll authority than Courtney Love calls it “the best damn thing I’ve ever seen.”

The bittersweet stunner stars newcomer Patrick Fugit as the 15-year-old Crowe, referred to in the film as William Miller. Over the objections of his protective mother (Frances McDormand), the teenager accepts an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to go on tour with Stillwater, a fictional band led by a moody but charismatic guitarist (Billy Crudup).

With the help of a groupie named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Crowe’s character is accepted as part of the band’s inner circle. A problem arises when the teenager needs to write about the people he’s been hanging out with. Does he offer an accurate portrait, or sugercoat the truth?

Crowe says that 90 percent of “Almost Famous” is autobiographical. Just like his alter ego in the movie, he was constantly pushed toward greatness by his overprotective mom, Alice.

When it was discovered that Crowe had a high IQ, his mother skipped him ahead several grades. She imagined he’d be the youngest lawyer in California history. But then he discovered rock-and-roll.

Soon Crowe was hanging out at the Door, San Diego’s underground newspaper, which published his rock reviews. The first time he got backstage, it was to cover a Yes and Black Sabbath concert at the San Diego Sports Arena.

“I went wild that night,” he recalls. “I interviewed everyone. I went into every dressing room. It was an amazing night. And that was when the addiction began setting in.”

By the time he was 15, he was writing for rock magazines such as Zoo World and Creem, home of the legendary Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). At 16, Crowe went on the road with the Allman Brothers Band. Later, he tagged along with Led Zeppelin and the Eagles.

“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “I had always been around adults, and I had been going to school with people who were so much older than me and I was invisible to them, especially to girls. When I went on the road with these bands, some of whom were my idols, I was not invisible to them. So, it was a dream come true, and then a dilemma.”

When Crowe went on the road for the first time, his mother sent him off with two pieces of advice. “She said, ‘Call me every five minutes, and don’t do drugs,'” recalls Crowe with a laugh.

During the “Almost Famous” press junket last month, Crowe’s mom was still telling her son what to do. “Yesterday, the doorbell rang, and I thought that it was a publicist,” says the 43-year-old filmmaker. “I opened the door to the room, and there was my mom, and she says, ‘You’re not drinking coffee, are you? Coffee is bad for your kidneys.’ I went back in, hid the coffee, and said, ‘Come on in mom.'”

When Crowe turned 18, he put rock journalism aside to write a series of articles for Rolling Stone about teen life. The stories eventually became the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

After writing a follow-up called “The Wild Life,” Crowe turned his attention to filmmaking. He scored a hit with his first directorial outing, 1989’s “Say Anything.” But it was “Jerry Maguire” that turned him into a Hollywood heavyweight.

“The weekend we came out that year, we were considered the weakling of the litter,” he remembers. “Everyone assumed we were going to get killed at the box office by ‘The Preacher’s Wife,’ and then there was also ‘Mars Attacks’ and ‘One Fine Day.’

“One of the suits at Columbia told me the studio considered ‘Jerry Maguire’ an in-between movie for Tom Cruise. They didn’t expect it to be a bomb, but they didn’t anticipate it would be a huge box-office hit either.”

“Jerry Maguire” not only went on to gross $154 million, but it cemented a close bond between Cruise and Crowe. In November, the duo will team up again for “Vanilla Sky,” another romantic comedy co-starring Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz.

“Tom was the first kind of big star who said to me, ‘I want to play a character in one of your movies. I don’t want the big starring part with the leading-man golden haze around me. I want to be like the guy in ‘Say Anything.’

“I’ve always had a hard time getting so-called stars to do my stuff, and then here comes one of the very biggest. ‘Jerry Maguire’ was such a joy because I could actually say to Tom Cruise, ‘Fall down. You’re going to walk into this office, and I want you to fall down and hit your head,’ and he would be like, ‘OK, I’ll do it again for you,’ and you just go, ‘This is amazing. This guy is really there for me.'”

During the preproduction of “Almost Famous,” Crowe lost two of his key cast members. Sarah Polley feared she wouldn’t be able to bring the prerequisite shimmer to Penny Lane and departed not long after she was cast.

A more serious problem occurred when Brad Pitt dropped out of the lead-guitarist role six weeks before shooting was set to begin. “Brad felt the role was the least developed in the script and that it still needed a lot of work,” says Crowe. “Brad was right, but I was hoping to work with him in developing the part. Billy [Crudup] was more willing to take that route. He dove in where others feared to tread.

“In fact, Billy made the character funnier and far more tender than I had envisioned. If Brad had played the role, it would have taken the audience at least 10 minutes to accept him as an emerging rock star. With Billy in the role, it keeps the story and character grounded from the first moment he enters.”

As with “Jerry Maguire,” the score for “Almost Famous” is provided by Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, who happens to be Crowe’s wife and the mother of his two 7-month-old boys.

“I met Nancy because I was looking for music for ‘Fast Times,'” he recalls. “I never got the song, but we ended up together, which is very cool. She was unaffected, and not part of the L.A. or New York scene. No one ever said to her, ‘Hey man, it’s not cool to date a rock journalist.’

“She didn’t know until later, until we were already together. Then I had to say, ‘Honey, I’ve got to tell you this, you’ve crossed the line, and it’s too late to turn back now.'”

Courtesy of The Bergen Record – Amy Longsdorf – September 16, 2000