Almost Famous – Illinois Entertainer

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous

It’s the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend, like when Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads. It was a few days before Christmas, 1973, and Lester Bangs, already a notorious renegade in the new profession of rock journalism, was guesting on KPRI-FM in his native San Diego. Waiting outside to meet him was a local 15-year-old kid who was just breaking into the writing racket. That boy was Cameron Crowe, who, with a little of Bangs’ mentoring, would go on to become an associate editor at Rolling Stone.

O.K., it’s the stuff of rock journalism legend – and why would anyone besides rock journalists care? Crowe is going to find out soon enough. The creator of some of the key American youth films of the last 20 years – Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Singles, and, onto adulthood, Jerry Maguire – has finally made the movie of his youth. Almost Famous follows 15-year-old Crowe stand-in William Miller, a wide-eyed innocent embarking on the adventure of a lifetime: a tour with the fictional band Stillwater, for his first Rolling Stone assignment in 1973.

From a hotel just a stone’s throw from where the young scribe copped his first copy of Creem magazine at a “head shop,” Crowe explains the importance of filming some key scenes exactly where they took place in real life. “The ghosts of events stay in the place they happened,” Crowe says. “So I had to come back and shoot at the back of the San Diego Sports Arena. It’s just a ramp and a stage door like any other. But to me, it’s unlike any other.”

It’s a very important door for William Miller, played by big-screen newcomer (and Jeff Tweedy ringer) Patrick Fugit, because to pass through it is to lose his rock ‘n’ roll virginity. Assigned by Bangs to write a story about Black Sabbath for Creem, Miller is turned away by the guard because his name’s not on the list (how true to life!). The crestfallen kid makes the acquaintance of some young ladies who are also waiting for access, including Penny Lane (played by the radiant Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn’s daughter), who explains that her crew aren’t groupies, but rather “band aids.”

The distinction between mere groupies and the super-fan band aids – who, along with Penny, include Polexia (Anna Paquin) and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) – is important to Crowe. Like the young journalist Miller, the girls are there for the music – the glamour of the lifestyle just happens to be part of the dillio. “It’s why Penny Lane isn’t a pathetic groupie with a needle hanging out of her arm,” says Crowe. “That’s why her character is more of a muse.” In a telling moment, Lane explains to Miller that whenever she’s off the road and by herself, she can find “all her friends” on the records at the store. “There were girls who were there because of the music,” Crowe emphasizes. “That notion may sound ridiculous today. But I wanted to capture this place in the not-too-distant past where there was a glorious, passionate naïveté.”

In invoking this passionate naïveté, Almost Famous is more akin to rock films portraying the ’50s and ’60s than the current tide of ’70s rock nostalgia – Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, VH1’s “Behind The Music,” even the 15th anniversary DVD debut of Rob Reiner’s mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap – with its ironic, rueful tone. Even the grunge rock musicians and hangers-on in Crowe’s previous rock film, the 1992 romantic comedy Singles, seem more aware of the Seattle scene’s hype than of their own inspiration. (Remember Matt Dillon’s screamingly mediocre band Citizen Dick ?)

Musically, Stillwater’s hirsute boogie is very much of their time, thanks to Crowe’s wife and longtime composer, former Heart wailer Nancy Wilson, who knows her way around a heavy riff. And the band behind the music is pretty believable too, thanks to the well-cast Billy Crudup (Jesus’ Son, Without Limits) and Jason Lee (Chasing Amy, Mallrats) as guitarist Russell Hammond and singer Jeff Bebe, respectively. Both took a crash course from technical consultant Peter Frampton, and Crudup, who came in knowing only a few chords, displays surprising dexterity. (Frampton’s band Humble Pie was the subject of Crowe’s first national magazine piece, for Creem.)

Because Crowe gained intimate knowledge of several superstar acts – Led Zeppelin in particular – speculation ran high as to who Stillwater is supposed to represent. The writer maintains that it’s not any single band, but Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles make up a good portion.

With three albums under their belt, the hard-touring band from Troy, Michigan is poised to break through to national stardom. (Midway through the tour, Miller’s editor at Rolling Stone tells him his story might make the cover.) Despite Jeff’s charisma as frontman, Russell is clearly Stillwater’s guiding musical force – biz talk that his talent is being held back breeds paranoia and resentment in the others.

These plausible intra-band tensions are one of at least four trains about to simultaneously crash into Stillwater’s tour bus. Train two is Miller’s unsteady balancing of professional objectivity and personal trust with the band; train three is Russell and Miller’s competing love for Penny; and train four is the worry of Miller’s formidable, protective mother Elaine, played by Frances McDormand (Wonder Boys, Fargo). Her phone calls to Miller on the road provide comic relief – band aid girls or musicians often end up on the line, reassuring her that her son has resisted the temptations of drugs and sex. But there’s a poignancy to the relationship; by the end, Elaine comes to realize that her work is done in preparing William, and that a rock ‘n’ roll tour is an extreme, but not premature test of his character.

And he does get his cherry picked by the band aid girls on a slow night in Topeka. They don’t call themselves groupies, but they party like ’em. “That’s true to life,” Crowe admits. “For me it was in Portland on tour with Lee Michaels [‘Do You Know What I Mean’]. And just like in the movie, Steely Dan was on ‘The Midnight Special’ on TV, playing ‘Do It Again.’ We had to get that clip. How sad is that?”

The casting of Almost Famous is aided by the real-life parallels between the actors and characters. Like Miller, Patrick Fugit is a green newcomer – his best-known spots to date have been on “Touched By An Angel,” which shoots in his hometown of Salt Lake City. (The only music he ever paid attention to was on skateboarding videos.) Kate Hudson, who resembles a smaller-boned Drew Barrymore but with the same radiance, is an attention magnet, like Penny. Like Russell, Billy Crudup is poised to ascend to the next levels of stardom, where his celebrity will gradually overshadow the talents that brought him there. And Jason Lee – well, he’s always been great at playing obnoxious guys. “He’s the movie’s hidden savior,” Crowe says. “He shows you what a lead singer’s ego and attitude is like. Without that, the band wouldn’t be believable, and neither would the movie.” And during this year, perhaps the apex of Lester Bangs’ renown, it’s remarkable how naturally Phillip Seymour Hoffman seems to inhabit the late journalist’s manic persona.

Crowe’s adeptness as a screenwriter and director, so fully realized in the Oscar-nominated Jerry Maguire, serve him well in telling his own life story, which must be harder than it looks, even given the acuity of his memory (and the fact that he still has all his diaries and journals from the time). There are patches of sentimentality – the whole busload spontaneously launches into a singalong of Elton John’s groupie appreciation “Tiny Dancer” – and contrivance – thinking their plane is certain to crash, the panicked band airs their deepest secrets to each other. There are also some bravura sequences made from clichéd scenarios, like when Russell accepts an invitation to a teenage house party and drops acid, or when the arrival of a poorly executed band t-shirt embodies everything wrong with the organization at that moment.

But Almost Famous succeeds, like all of Crowe’s films, in capturing the dynamics of relationships – it’s more about that than Jerry McGuire was about sports management or Fast Times was about high school, though the studious filmmaker gets his milieu right as well. Uncontested, it’s certainly the best film about rock journalism, at least until Bangs’ life is made into a movie. And it’s a wonderful companion piece to Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, another meditation on extreme fandom and the price you pay for loving music too much.

“Every story felt like life or death,” Crowe recalls. “And I didn’t buy Led Zeppelin’s albums because they threw TV sets out of hotel windows, I bought them for the music.” Crowe showed the film to Robert Plant, in seeking clearance for the soundtrack’s several Zeppelin selections. “Robert joked, ‘Wow, we really were kind of like that. It was all so deep and . . . meaningless.’

“But,” says Crowe, “it was sure meaningful to me.”

Courtesy of Illinois Entertainer – Ben Kim – September, 2000