Almost Famous – Elle Magazine

The Boy On The Bus

Cameron Crowe, acclaimed director of Jerry Maguire, returns to the scene of his youth – rock ‘n’ roll in 1973, as a sixteen-year-old Rolling Stone reporter. What he saw then is the stuff of pop-culture mythology and now the subject of a raucous movie.

Almost Famous, the new film written and directed by Cameron Crowe, opens with the camera prowling across a spread of rock-tour detritus from the early 1970s: ticket stubs, backstage passes, hotel keys, jotted notes. Nearly all the material is genuine, keepcases from Crowe’s years as a teenage rock journalist. It had been sitting in boxes for two decades.

Like Crowe’s previous films, which include Say Anything… and Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous is about searching for both a vocation and a family. But this time, the searcher is Crowe’s younger self: a high schooler getting an initiation into rock, writing, strange goings-on backstage, and the mysteries of adulthood. The movie is a thinly fictionalized remembrance of 1973, when the sixteen-year-old Crowe covered his first tour for Rolling Stone. “I won’t pretend to be coy, saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the character,'” Crowe says. “It still feels fresh. It all seemed so epic back then.”

Crowe, forty-three, grew up in San Diego. He was a precocious kid, raised by a father who ran real-estate and answering-service companies and a mother who was a sociology professor at San Diego City College. Alice Marie Crowe had strong, sometimes eccentric ideas about culture. Upset by the commercialization of Christmas, she told her children to give each other “spiritual gifts” (which didn’t go over well), and even moved the celebration to September, a detail Crowe used in Famous. She frowned on the open sexuality of rock music, but she loved film, taking her young son to R-rated and X-rated fare like Carnal Knowledge and Medium Cool. Mrs. Crowe appears in Jerry Maguire, and frequently reminds her son, he says, that “Martin Scorsese put his mother in all his movies.”

When Crowe’s sister moved away from home, she left him a stash of rock albums that kindled a lifelong fondness for music. “The motivation to write came from being younger than everyone I was at school with, being ignored by girls, and finding many thrills in sneaking copies of rock magazines from head shops,” he says. He covered music for the local San Diego newspaper, for Creem, and, soon, for Rolling Stone, though, Crowe didn’t tell the magazine his age. “I began submitting these articles to [Rolling Stone editor] Ben Fong-Torres, and I was getting published,” Crowe said in an interview. “He called one day, and my sister, Cindy, answered the phone and told him, ‘It’s so great my fifteen-year-old brother can be in Rolling Stone. And he said, ‘What! He’s fifteen?'”

“Nothing seemed odd in those days,” says Jann Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, who has a cameo in the movie as a taxi passenger. “Cameron charmed the socks off every person he ran into. He was a big kid, like a cute monkey, and everybody took him under their wing. He was kind of a gee-whiz, learn everything guy. Who knew all the calculation that was under that gee whiz?

“He was so open to everybody that everybody opened up to him,” Wenner adds. “The most hardened rock star would see these twinkly eyes and this fan that ‘really likes us.’ He was trusted and brought inside, and he brought the reader inside that experience without betraying confidences. He would capture the feel of it and show these characters deftly and charmingly, all of which translates into the way he makes his movies.”

Crowe is still a charmer; a tall, affable guy without a hint of director’s megalomania. Actors and acquaintances consistently describe him as attentive, above all. And he’s far more likely to reveal his insecurities than to tout his self-importance. He has never been able to shake what he calls “Am-I-on-the-list paranoia.” He explains: “There are people who act like they’re on the list and they always get backstage, even if they’re not actually on the list. And then there are people on the list who seem so guilty and paranoid that they don’t get in. And that’s me, still. It’s like I’m saying, ‘Hi, I’m a fake. I don’t really belong here, please turn me away.'”

Crowe slipped into the film world as a writer, beginning a stellar career that has had only the occasional setback. In his early twenties, he masqueraded as a high-school student to gather material for what became a book, Fast Times At Ridgemont High. He turned it into the screenplay for the movie directed by Amy Heckerling in 1982, one of the decade’s enduring comedies. His next script, for The Wild Life in 1984, was greeted as a Fast Times retread. But when he directed his own screenplay, Say Anything… in 1989, its love story between the beauty and the good-hearted shy guy made it a hit. As with all Crowe’s films, it found more comedy in characters that in gags. In a 1998 article for Newsweek, he spelled out his credo: “The great moments of comedy tend to be stolen moments.”

He credits actors in Say Anything…, John Cusack and John Mahoney, with turning a nervous rookie into a full-fledged director. “They said, ‘There’ll be a lot of people whispering in your ear after every take,'” Crowe recalls. “‘Be a fucking director. Let us know how we did, right there. Cut those other voices out of your life.'”

By the ’90s, Crowe was outgrowing teen chronicles. His next movie, Singles, was about twentysomethings. He had married Nancy Wilson, from the band Heart, in 1986 (they had twins last year). “She was from Seattle and didn’t know how uncool it was to actually date a rock journalist,” he says. “By the time she realized how poorly this reflected on her as a rock star, we were already together for a year.” Crowe placed his new characters in the Seattle club scene, alongside then little-known bands like Soundgarden and members of Pearl Jam. Singles came out in 1992, just as grunge was making headlines. But its soundtrack album fared better than the movie.

Crowe seemed headed for an awkward career niche: too glossy for independent films, too thoughtful for blockbusters. Still, actors loved his scripts, and he enlisted no less than Tom Cruise for Jerry Maguire in 1996. Shooting ran late and over budget as Crowe did countless takes, seeking perfection. But Jerry Maguire was nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay) and grossed more than $150 million. Finally, Crowe was showing Hollywood the money.

“After Jerry Maguire, I was trying to figure out what to do next,” he says. “A friend said, ‘You always used to say you wanted to do this movie about 1973, and you’ve still got all those boxes of stuff. You should either never write that movie, or write the movie and put the boxes away.’ I knew that Jerry Maguire gave me a credit line of one, and I used it to do the movie that was in my heart.”

In Almost Famous, Patrick Fugit plays William Miller, Crowe’s stand-in. He’s a wide-eyed, very straight fifteen-year-old who knows every detail of the music he loves. The late, great rock critic Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) becomes William’s mentor and conscience, urging him to be “honest and unmerciful” and warning him not to think the stars are his friends. It’s a warning that William can’t yet understand.

The band that takes William on the road, Stillwater, is a composite of bands Crowe covered in the 1970s: four longhaired guys crossing America in a bus, strutting and squabbling, on the verge of full-scale stardom. While William’s mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), frets that “rock stars kidnapped my son,” Stillwater’s guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup), and his sometime girlfriend, a groupie who calls herself Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), end up giving William more kinds of education than he could have imagined.

The early ’70s were a heady time in rock. It was post-Woodstock, with hippie ideals giving way to sex-and-drugs indulgence and big business. It was also pre-punk; bands took themselves seriously, with no ambivalence about success. Rock journalism itself was nearly new – Rolling Stone got started in 1967 – and bands were unguarded enough to provide writers with all access and all excess. Journalists like Crowe stayed with their subjects for days or weeks, sometimes becoming as intimate as family members. “I loved being able to disappear into the environment of the bands I loved,” Crowe says. “I did fool myself into thinking that they would be my friends whether I had an assignment or no, and with this movie I wanted to write a little about that.”

How much of Almost Famous is true? “Pretty much everything,” Crowe says, give or take some telescoping and composite characters. Yes, he was deflowered by groupies, though it happened while he was covering the nearly forgotten Lee Michaels. (Crowe wrangled the rights to the music that was playing on the hotel television at the time, Steely Dan performing on The Midnight Special concert series.) Yes, he was in a small plane over Tupelo expecting to crash, while on tour with Heart. Yes, Lester Bangs told him, “Your writing is damn good,” and gave advice that Crowe remembers now, word for word.

Crowe’s third story for Rolling Stone put him on tour with the Allman Brothers Band, Southern rockers who were already strained by drugs and internal dissension. Neal Preston, a photographer friend of Crowe’s, was also on tour, and recently photographed Gregg Allman; Allman asked Preston whatever became of the teenage writer, not connecting him with Cameron Crowe the filmmaker. He still remembered putting the kid through the wringer.

Almost Famous has its share of kindly, uncynical characters, particularly its good-hearted groupies. “I didn’t want to do groupies with a needle hanging out of their arm,” Crowe says. “I think stuff got uglier overall later. I just remember there was a little more honor in being the person who was there for the music, in crafting themselves as the muse. But that’s where the golden haze of memory takes effect. The movie is about the kid’s perception. To the kid, all those people are a little more mythic than they are.”

Kate Hudson says that Crowe hasn’t lost that sense of wonder. “He’s still a true fan,” she says. When she met the real Penny Lane during the shooting, Hudson says, “I saw the way she interacted with Cameron, and he was still that little boy. And she still had that elegance. That little bit of fairy dust was still on her fingers and in her eyes.”

Hudson was daunted at first by the thought of re-creating the director’s youth. “We all knew we were shooting something important, because it’s Cameron life story,” she says. “But Cameron didn’t want us to know what happened and what didn’t. Billy would say, ‘Did this happen?’, and Cameron would go, ‘Mmmmmm…'”

Crowe knows the perils of autobiographical filmmaking. “It could all have gone horribly wrong at every moment,” he says. At one point in San Diego, he was directing a complex scene with McDormand while his mother looked on. It grew so emotionally tangled, he says, that somebody wisecracked, “Wouldn’t therapy have been cheaper?”

Drawing on his own past also made Crowe a stickler for authenticity. “I wanted to take the time to get every detail, every bit of music, and every piece of clothing right,” he says. The director agonized over casting his younger self. He found Patrick Fugit, who is from Salt Lake City, and had never been to Hollywood, in a nationwide search. “Patrick was this long-faced kid that seemed untouched by any kind of current angsty stuff,” Crowe says. “He waved his arms around a lot, and didn’t have acting habits. He just seemed like a fan.”

Fugit, who was born nine years after the film takes place, was given his own accuracy regimen. He carried around the clunky Sears tape recorder Crowe used in the ’70s, and an orange bag that was Crowe’s constant companion on the road. He practiced using a relic of word processing: an electric typewriter. And of course, there was music. “I had a two-foot-high stack of CDs sent to me,” he said. “He gave me everything: Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, everybody. They told me, ‘We want this flowing from your pores by the time you start.'”

During production, Fugit also studied Crowe, the grown-up version of his character. “A lot of William’s motions, the way he carries himself, the way he talks and receives what people are saying to him, it’s from Cameron,” says Fugit. “He’s just a really, really good listener.”

Before making Almost Famous, Crowe took up another project: a book, Conversations With Wilder (Knopf, 1999). He extensively interviewed one of his idols, legend Billy Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot – and who, like Crowe, was a journalist before he made movies. “I heard Wilder’s voice in the back of my head a lot with this movie,” Crowe says. “I learned from him to celebrate the women characters, and to always have a little bit of romantic dancing going on in a scene. But this is the kind of movie Billy Wilder would never make. It’s too personal. It would be navel-gazing to him.”

Writing about Wilder returned Crowe to his old role as a perpetually curious fan. “That form of journalism is still my first voice,” he says. “Screenwriting is harder, it’s not as natural, and it’s always changing. Being able to talk to somebody whose stuff you love is still a joy. I’ve found that detailed questions about people’s work is considered bad manners in social situations, and I can’t help it – I always do it until they go, ‘What are doing, writing a story?’ You need to have credentials, an assignment, or else it’s indiscreet.

“Once a journalist, always a journalist,” Crowe continues with a laugh. And even now, he confesses, he still hasn’t put away those boxes from 1973.

Courtesy of Elle Magazine – Jon Pareles – October, 2000