Almost Famous – Denver Post

Crowe rolls in defense of rock

Autobiographical approach anchors “Almost Famous”

TORONTO – For someone who is himself famous as the writer-director of “Jerry Maguire” and “Say Anything,” Cameron Crowe enjoys forgetting all that, sitting back in a chair with feet propped up on a table, and remembering his own long-ago encounters with famous and almost-famous rock stars of the past. At the time, he was a 15-year-old San Diego-based writer for Rolling Stone. He was years away from his breakthrough book about high-school life, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” After he wrote the screenplay for the 1982 movie version, he became a filmmaker.

His 1996 “Jerry Maguire” earned five Oscar nominations – including best picture and screenplay – and gave him the freedom to make his new movie, “Almost Famous,” which opens in Denver on Friday.

The film, which had its world premiere here at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a bittersweet remembrance of his rock years.

Humble start

Back in the mid-1970s, Crowe’s introduction to the world of fast times and big stars was, well, humble. His first major writing assignment brought him to San Diego Sports Arena one night to interview members of a now-obscure rock group.

Crowe recalls it excitedly during an interview in his hotel suite here before the first public screening of “Almost Famous.”

“Humble Pie was my first assignment, my first interview,” he recalls. “I came backstage and interviewed (lead singer) Steve Marriott. He had a Heineken and a big hash-tobacco joint. (It) was the first time one of these guys said to me what they always say when I turned down dope: “Smart kid – more for me.'”

Crowe laughs, then turns almost wistful: “Steve Marriott was such a tiny guy. The bottle was as big as he was.”

The power of this recall is impressive. Marriott is now deceased and virtually forgotten, never really becoming the major star many thought he’d be at the time. And Crowe, too, was a small guy, with a cherubic face that made him look even younger than he was. He was self-conscious about that in the 1970s. Because he had skipped grades in school, he often was the youngest guy in his crowd. But, around Marriott at least, not always the smallest.

Still talks rock

Crowe is older now, 43, but still cherubic in a puffy-cheeked way. And he still dresses and grooms like a guy who goes to a lot of arena-rock concerts – black T-shirt, jeans, longish hair. And he certainly still likes discussing the music.

In “Almost Famous,” a 15-year-old Rolling Stone writer named William Miller (Patrick Fugit) goes on tour with a fictional, troubled American band called Stillwater. Its talented and moody lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) could depart at any moment because of intra-group friction.

The band hasn’t quite made it big yet, but has devoted fans from relentless touring. Band members are wary of William, but realize the power of a Rolling Stone feature.

Crowe acknowledges the Allman Brothers as an influence in his envisioning of Stillwater. He traveled with them in 1973, just as their “Brothers and Sisters” album turned the Southern-rock band into superstars.

“The Allman Brothers at the time had the dynamic of a leader (guitarist Duane Allman) having died, so who’s going to take the reins?” Crowe says. But the Stillwater story represents other bands he reported on, too – the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, the Who (particularly a scary plane ride) and even Humble Pie, whose guitarist Peter Frampton served as technical consultant on the new movie.

On the Stillwater tour, a groupie (Kate Hudson) not much older than William protects the cub reporter while falling in love with Russell. William in turn falls for her, trying to protect her from Russell’s seeming romantic indifference.

Meanwhile, William’s mom, a college psychology professor (Frances McDormand), keeps beseeching him by phone to come to avoid drugs and return home.

“It’s an autobiographical movie where I’m not going to be coy and say “semi,'” Crowe says. “Everything in it happened, and I wanted to put it in because everything happened that way. That was my experience.”

Crowe is more than just a rock fan. He’s a defender of its legacy as enduring art rather than nostalgia. During his interview with The Denver Post, for instance, he compares the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album to J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.”

In a way, he made “Almost Famous” to defend rock’s now-besieged honor. It’s a family honor, actually – his wife is Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart.

“Rock ‘n’ roll has been squandered,” Crowe says. “There have been too many movies in which the rock star must die or OD. I think “Behind the Music’ is one of the most entertaining shows on TV, but it reduces everybody to “Spinal Tap.’ There’s a certain mythic, inspiring quality that rock has, in the same way as great novelists, that I thought had disappeared from the way people tried to capture it (on film). I wanted to do a movie that was not about kitsch – not about “look at our funny hairdos’ – but was about something that I value.

“Look around when you’re driving your car and a lot of people are singing along to music. There is a private life we all have with music. That’s what I wanted the movie to be about.”

“Almost Famous” has a revelatory scene in which tension among the quarrelsome Stillwater entourage lifts as people sing along with Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as it’s played on the tour bus. Crowe the director gently lets each person have his or her moment to recognize that the song is the thing, and then join in. It’s a wonderful evocation of community – the opposite of so many rock movies that are about the way things fall apart.

Crowe has been on buses many times where moments like that happen. He specifically chose “Tiny Dancer” for this scene because it’s one of his favorites.

“I was on tour buses where they’d play “Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin and shut the lights out as the bus comes down into Denver. They’d time it so you’d hear, like” – and here Crowe sings high and soulfully – “way down inside you need love’ on an incline and a whole bus of hardened rock stars would be screaming with joy over a piece of music.”

Crowe’s mom didn’t love rock culture as much as he did. She abhored it. But it wasn’t because she was a conservative. She cherished the world of arts and ideas, but feared the rampant drug use in rock culture.

“There was probably more drug use than is represented in the movie, but I ran out of time and money to shoot a scene that showed the casual use of cocaine,” Crowe says. “But, on the other hand, we’ve seen those movies.”

In real life, Crowe’s mom brought leftist speakers like Cesar Chavez and Dick Gregory to San Diego City College. She once sent her son jogging with Gregory, after admonishing young Cameron that Gregory – and not pop music – was the “real deal” when it came to rebellion. “Know what he talked about? Marvin Gaye!” Crowe says.

She did, however, take him to see the important movies of the day, like director Mike Nichols’ sexually frank “Carnal Knowledge.”

“The manager of the theater did not want me to see the movie,” Crowe says. “She told him, “I will send him out to the lobby during the sexual situations, but this is Mike Nichols and we grew up on Mike Nichols and Elaine May albums. So move aside.’ And he did.”

“Almost Famous” also features scenes in which William seeks advice from the real-life rock writer Lester Bangs. Capable of brilliantly creative rants and fantasies about the possibilities of rock to change the world, Bangs was himself often out of control and self-destructive. But he befriended the young Crowe and offered advice on how to stay true to the writer within even when surrounded by famous celebrities expecting worshipful coverage. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the impassioned Bangs, living in a record-crammed apartment and taking young William’s pleading calls for advice. He is a mentor.

“I heard his voice a lot making this movie,” Crowe says of Bangs. “I still hear him railing against not buying into “surface thrills.’ But then again, he loved this music that was clearly all about surface thrills. He was a glorious contradiction, really.

“I never had brothers; I never knew that relationship,” Crowe explains. “Lester could have been my brother age-wise, but did not talk down to me. And I really loved how much he cared.”

As does Crowe about those days gone by.

Courtesy of The Denver Post – Steven Rosen – September 17, 2000