Almost Famous – Detroit News

The Boy Wonder

Cameron Crowe’s latest film recalls his wild life as ’70s rock writer

Therapy would have been cheaper, but eminently less entertaining than the movie Cameron Crowe has made out of his life as a teen-age rock writer.

“It felt like I was dragging a lot of people along in this cart, on a tour of my memories,” says the boyish, 43-year-old writer/director of his new film, Almost Famous.

Set in 1973, it tells the story of the 15-year-old Crowe, the intellectually keen, music-crazy but still sweet son of a widow who struggles to keep him from squandering his considerable talents on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. She is only partially successful. Crowe (or William Miller in the movie) fools Rolling Stone editors into thinking he’s an adult, scores an assignment going on the road with a major rock band, falls in love with a groupie and loses his virginity in a mini-orgy.

Along the way, he is mentored, long-distance, by Birmingham-based rock critic Lester Bangs of Creem magazine.

It all really happened.

Crowe was one of the youngest and best-known writers in 1970s rock journalism, and he scored his first national assignment for Creem. The story was assigned by Bangs, who died in 1982. As a teen-ager, he went on the road with Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd — an awestruck witness to the excesses of some of the era’s seminal rock acts.

Although Crowe quotes Bangs in the movie, and in real life disparaging sentiment (“While filming, I could hear him in my ear”), the bittersweet film stands as a love letter both to Bangs, and to the vastly more innocent music world of 1973.

Far from being just a rock movie, Almost Famous — opening today in Los Angeles and New York and in Detroit on Sept. 22 — is about unrequited love, the corporate corruption of music and the wild world of backstage intrigue.
It was a world Crowe longed to explore.

“At concerts I always used to see people on the side of the stage, sort of dancing out of the spotlight, and I’d think, ‘Who are those people? Who do they know and how did they get there? Are they friends of the promoter? Are they … Jimmy Page’s secret friends in San Diego?’ ”

The puckish, long-haired Crowe, beyond Hollywood casual in T-shirt and shorts, is talking about his movie in a suite at the Westgate Hotel in his hometown of San Diego.

He is particularly grateful that the success of Jerry Maguire earned him enough clout that he could film many Almost Famous scenes where it really happened.

“I’ve always felt that the ghosts of the things that happen stay in the place where they happen,” says Crowe. “When I leave this hotel room, the stuff that happened here will be the domain of this place. So yeah, there are ramps backstage everywhere, but if I can use the credit line of Jerry Maguire to get the extra money to go to the San Diego Sports Arena, it’s going to feel different.”

The scene at the San Diego Sports Arena is crucial. In it, wide-eyed young actor Patrick Fugit (who plays the Miller character) tramps down the ramp and up to the backstage door, determined to get into the arena so he can fulfill the assignment Bangs gave him: to interview Black Sabbath.

Predictably, the door is slammed in Miller’s face by a thuggish, indifferent security guard, even after he identifies himself, waving a Creem magazine. It’s a scene that played out at backstage doors in every town across America. And it’s the very backstage ramp where young Cameron Crowe was thrown out on his butt.

Only momentarily defeated, Miller stays on the loading dock where he meets a sunny, idealistic groupie, Penny Lane, who denies she’s a groupie; and the opening band, Stillwater, a sort of amalgam of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles and Zeppelin. Lane is based on Penny Trumble, a “band muse” who did cast a spell over the young Crowe.

Why set the movie in 1973? It was a key year for Crowe but also for pop music, which had a messy, rowdy post-’60s innocence that is vital for the movie’s mood.

“1974 — it had already gotten too big with stadium tours and the Eagles,” says Crowe. “1972 was mostly about the Stones. But 1973 was a transition year. And it was the year I realized I wasn’t turning back, that this was going to be my life.”

While image-conscious Britain rocked to a glam rock beat, American pop music was in a rather scattershot, undefined phase.

Crowe adopts a goofy midwestern accent, “We’re not hip enough to be glam. And we’re not glam enough to be hip. Are we … Grand Funk Railroad?. Are we … REO Speedwagon? I guess we could be the Eagles but .. who are we?’ ”

One of the key scenes in the movie takes place on Stillwater’s tour bus after an angry band fight, and after lead guitarist Russell Simmons (played by Billy Crudup) has been forcibly brought back from an acid-fueled romp at a fan’s house.

The band, groupies and road crew all sulk as Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” a new song at the time, starts playing on the bus system. It only takes a few bars until everybody is singing the words to John’s song about the “L.A. lady, seamstress for the band.”

Crowe still has a fan’s innocence about music — he laughingly tells how his wife, Nancy Wilson of the band, Heart, was watching TV recently and woke him up to tell him that yet another of his favorite songs, Cat Stevens’ “The Wind,” was on a Timberland commercial and thus “ruined.” The director conveys that sort of fan enthusiasm in the movie, and convinces — or reminds us — of a time when Elton John was considered “cool.”

But as in any Crowe movie, the mood is happy/sad — there’s no pleasure without pain. The band, groupies, and even Miller, believe as they sing that they are a family.

They are, but a deeply dysfunctional one.

The emotional pain is personal for Crowe; in the movie he depicts the real-life rift between his mother and older sister. The difference is, in the movie they are reconciled when the young music writer is still 15. In real life, Crowe’s mother and sister met for the first time in decades only recently, at a screening of Almost Famous.

“I think Cameron made this movie in order to bring his mother and sister together,” says Jaan Uhelszki, a former Creem editor who’s known Crowe for years.

The director is fortunate in his cast: Frances McDormand of Fargo plays the feisty but likable mother, the terror of hotel clerks and rock superstars alike. Goldie Hawn’s equally golden daughter Kate Hudson is a surprise as Penny Lane, looking born to wear the glitzy feather boas and snakeskin boots of the ’70s rock girl.

Billy Crudup strikes the right brooding note as the Jimmy Page-like lead guitarist, and actor Philip Seymour Hoffman manages to capture the energy and soul of rock critic Lester Bangs.

Hoffman brushes off the idea that the role of Bangs was too small for his leading actor status, just coming off star turns in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia.

“Lester was the crux of the movie,” he insists. “And very important to Cameron.”

The actor relished the challenge of capturing Bangs’ essence. “Even though I didn’t know Lester, I could tell by some of his writing that he was a pretty lonely guy and he had a huge heart for the down and out.”

To Hoffman, Almost Famous is about a broken heart. “The mother’s heart gets broken, William’s heart gets broken … and Lester lives with a broken heart,” says Hoffman. “That’s what I got from his writing. It’s very clear that the guy understood what it meant to be at home for days on end, yearning for someone. He was looking for that in music, and music constantly let him down.”

For Crowe, the two “keepers of the flame” in his movie are Penny Lane and Lester Bangs. “Lester is the good-natured truth teller who sometimes has to deliver the hard news. The cool thing about him is that he never talks down to the kid, he says (Crowe adopts a cool guy voice) “Hey man, I met you. You’re not cool! Guy to guy? It ain’t happening for you, OK?’ I love that.”

In the scenes where Bangs talks to the young Miller by phone, exhorting him to be “honest and fearless” in his reporting and to not let Rolling Stone editors ruin his writing, Hoffman is sitting in what is supposed to be Bangs’ album-strewn Birmingham house.

Crowe even has littered the set with empty ribs boxes from Detroit’s Checker Barbecue, which was Bangs’ favorite (and frequent) meal.

“It’s all journalism to me,” says Crowe. “Getting the right barbecue boxes, knowing what they look like. It’s the way that I work, from the inside out. I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for it — these endless scenes where the details are right, have to amount to something, you have to have a plot. But for me the most fun part is collecting the research and secondly, writing dialogue.”

Crowe made the whole cast listen to hours of ’70s music, but especially Fugit, who was playing, after all, a music-obsessed 15-year-old. The director dumped a stack of music “three feet long” on the Utah youngster who used to think Led Zeppelin was one guy.

“Cameron said, “I want this coming out of your pores by the time we do the movie. Get obsessed!’ ” says Fugit with a laugh.

The teenager did as he was ordered, and in fact wears a Led Zeppelin T-shirt to his press interviews; it’s his new favorite band. But he wasn’t thrilled with the 1973 fashions, even though Crowe was careful not to let the look of the film fall into a mullet haircut, disco era cliche.

“I’d expected the jeans to be tight, because I’d seen pictures, and my dad wears tight pants,” says Fugit. “But I wasn’t expecting that tight. You put them on and go, ‘Oh!’ ”

The mood of the movie is intensely romantic, as with most Crowe movies. But that undercurrent extends beyond the screening room, where it’s clear that young Fugit, paralleling the movie, is quite taken with Kate Hudson. While being interviewed, he can’t help but listen to what Hudson is saying about him to other journalists.

“She’s talking about my eyes,” he says at one point, blushing.

“Aww, he was listening!” says Hudson later. “I was talking about how I first met Patrick. We were rehearsing in Cameron’s office, and Patrick walked in and I said where did you find this guy? He has such a reflection of innocence coming out of his eyes — this whole experience was so new, and his eyes showed it.”

The night before, Hudson and Fugit both viewed Almost Famous for only the second time, along with an assortment of writers.

“We cried through the whole thing,” says Fugit.

Courtesy of The Detroit News – Susan Whitall – September 16, 2000