Almost Famous – Boston Globe

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll

Cameron Crowe’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Youth

Cameron Crowe’s latest film, “Almost Famous,” is his most personal yet: a highly autobiographical account of a teenager’s foray into rock journalism, covering a mid-level band on the road in 1973. The teen’s journalistic baptism by fire in the hallowed halls of the San Francisco offices of Rolling Stone – editor Ben Fong-Torres and publisher Jann Wenner are characters in the movie – mirrors Crowe’s own experience as a young writer at the legendary magazine.

Well, almost.

In “Almost Famous,” young William Miller (newcomer Patrick Fugit) travels with the rising (fictional) rock band Stillwater, fronted by charismatic lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Miller first writes a piece dismissed as fluff by Fong-Torres and Wenner. Up against a deadline, he then pens a gritty, behind-the-scenes account detailing the ego trips and drug use on the road that nearly derails Stillwater, an account denounced by embarrassed band members. Crowe, 43, a passionate music fan who began writing about rock ‘n’ roll at 15, said the incident in his film was modeled on his first big interview for Rolling Stone, with Led Zeppelin.

“Jann Wenner said, ‘You wrote what they wanted you to write.’ He gave me a copy of `Slouching Toward Bethlehem’ and said ‘Read it. This the difference between celebrity journalism and real writing.’ I thought he was going to say, ‘Way to go for landing an interview with Led Zeppelin, the band we’ve never been able to get an interview with.’ But no. He said, ‘We will print it. We appreciate you being able to get the interview. Is it the great, incisive piece on Led Zeppelin? No.’ Which killed me.”

If “Almost Famous” has the imprimatur of reality, of a kid’s coming-of-age dream and nightmare rolled into one heady, rock ‘n’ roll experience, it’s because “Almost Famous” is the movie Crowe nurtured for years while moving up the A-list of writer-directors in Hollywood. Even back in 1989, when his “Say Anything” starring John Cusack was being hailed by critics as one of the best date movies ever, Crowe had the early draft of this script about the 1970s and renowned rock writer Lester Bangs. But it remained on the shelf, untitled, for years while Crowe wrote and directed “Singles,” followed by his critical and commercial blockbuster, “Jerry Maguire.” That film, starring Tom Cruise, earned five Oscar nominations, including best picture and best screenplay, and won the supporting actor award for Cuba Gooding Jr.

“There was a difficulty in me cracking it,” says Crowe of the story that eventually became “Almost Famous.” “I’m not good at rewriting. After I’d done `Singles’ and `Jerry Maguire,’ I had nothing else to do to avoid finishing this movie. It was time, and I had the opportunity. It was scary to close my eyes and take the jump to my personal movie. What cracked it was making it more personal, not less. Which meant writing more about my family and how music connected us. Being slightly older now, I could see my family, and the arc of the influence they had on me, more clearly.”

Besides the music, “Almost Famous” pays homage to two other influences in Crowe’s life that molded his integrity and shaped his creative instincts. One is his mother, a teacher who still lives in his native San Diego. The other is the late music critic Bangs, Crowe’s mentor, who advised the fledgling writer to be “honest and unmerciful” in his reporting. It was essential that these two crucial characters be cast with care, says Crowe. He credits his longtime casting director Gail Levin with pushing from the start for Frances McDormand in the role of Elaine Miller, and for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs.

Getting Phil Hoffman

“This was right around the time when Phil Hoffman – I can’t even believe I’m calling him ‘Phil Hoffman’ – was doing ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and ‘Flawless,’ so we didn’t even know if we could get him,” recalls Crowe. “But he came in to meet us, and he was griping about how he’d just seen a famous director, one of his heroes, in an American Express ad on a billboard. He didn’t even know about the character of Lester, and here he is ranting about how this director had sold out. . . . I look at Gail, and she gives me that look, like, ‘OK, now can you smell the coffee?’ We only had him for a few days, but he read all the books and articles I gave him; he listened to Lester’s voice on tape over a headset. He made it so real.”

Crowe is delighted that his mother loves the film and McDormand’s crisp, generous performance. “Each time she’s seen it, she’s had the same reaction. She says, ‘I love Frances McDormand. She was the right person for the role. But I did not go around barefoot in the house.’ She digs it, she likes the teacher aspect, she likes that the character is always teaching, even going after Crud up [as Russell Hammond]. She keeps him on the telephone line long enough to quote him Goethe.”

Music is always at the heart of Crowe’s movies – a pivotal moment between Cusack and Ione Sky in “Say Anything” is set, memorably, to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” And Bruce Springsteen’s bittersweet “Secret Garden” will forever be linked to “Jerry Maguire.” But for “Almost Famous,” where the music is the message, Crowe knew that, even with his limited budget, certain songs were essential for the soundtrack.

“‘Jerry Maguire’ was a very personal movie for me, and I had to do all this research on football to hide it in another area,” he explains. “This one I couldn’t hide, and it felt that way from the beginning. It was, `Good! I don’t have to do research on this one! It just comes from my life! Oh my God! The stakes are a little bit different now.’ The saving grace was music. Because it always begins with the music. The joy of this one was that I could say, I want to do a scene about ‘That’s the Way,’ my favorite Led Zeppelin song. It’s not played on classic rock at all. Nor, thankfully, has it been in a commercial, so let me write a sequence about that. ‘Tiny Dancer’ was the same way. When I heard `Levon’ in `The Ice Storm’ I was like, ‘They’re coming our way. They’re already into “Madman Across the Water.” Aaaahhhh! We’ve gotta get it out!’ Scorsese thinks in shots. I think in music. I might as well embrace what I can do.”

Crowe’s wife, Nancy Wilson, from the band Heart, composed the score for “Almost Famous.” Another Crowe team member, Danny Bramson, supervised the song selection, just as he did for “Say Anything,” “Singles,” and “Jerry Maguire.”

“We flew to London to show the movie to Led Zeppelin, and they liked it,” Crowe says. “Then came stage two: We told them, `We don’t have a lot of money.’ . . . Hey, I would have paid myself to use `That’s the Way’ but [music rights are] very expensive. And this movie is a labor of love. To their credit, they cut us a break. They are so much a part of that era, especially before they became front and center. . . . There was a feeling when Led Zeppelin was playing in your town. I wanted that feeling in the movie.”

For years Crowe worked to get that feeling right, to capture the joy and the craziness of a particular point in rock ‘n’ roll, to re- create the awe of being backstage with a band, of being that close to the music. Now that “Almost Famous” is finished, titled, in release, and generating Oscar buzz, Crowe is finally starting to peer out of the foxhole.

“I just glimpsed doom at many places along the way. But the lesson of my upbringing is to grab joy where you can find it and just build a little shelter around it to try to keep as long as possible,” he says. “This one was a tough one. As it should have been.”

Courtesy of the Boston Globe – Loren King – September 17, 2000