Almost Famous – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Musical ‘Boot Camp’ Taught Actors How to Rock

Funny how time slips away.

We may feel and think like the kids we were 20 years ago, but our children would beg to differ. Seeing yourself through memory’s eye is hard enough. But writer-director Cameron Crowe set out to find himself in the most public possible way – to make a personal film about a turbulent era of which everyone who lived through it has strong, though not always vivid, memories.

The film is “Almost Famous.” In telling a true tale about his life as a 15-year-old rock critic for Rolling Stone magazine and sharing his memories of touring on the road with various bands at that impressionable age, Crowe went back, Jack, and did it again. But the alter ego he chose was nothing like him at that age.

“Before the movie, I didn’t listen to music at all,” said Patrick Fugit, 18, who plays the Crowe surrogate in the film. “I did have a Chumbawamba CD that I got for Christmas and that I didn’t even want. I thought Led Zeppelin was one person. And I liked to wear Grateful Dead T-shirts because they had a skeleton on them. But that was the extent of my musical interests.”

Crowe, 43, on the other hand, is musically obsessive. Like many of his generation, he was raised on rock. He wrote multiple articles for Rolling Stone, and his experiences posing as a high school student at a baby-faced 22 years of age became the book “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” It later became a film, for which he wrote the screenplay.

His directorial debut was “Say Anything,” and he also directed “Singles.” In preparing Tom Cruise for “Jerry Maguire,” Crowe had him listen to a live version of the Who’s “Magic Bus” to communicate to him the energy and attitude he hoped to achieve with that film.

His “Almost Famous” actors, including Jason Lee and Billy Crudup, who play members of a band called Stillwater, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs, were put through a similar musical boot camp.

“We went into rehearsals,” said Fugit at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, “and Cameron said, ‘Do you listen to rock?’ I said ‘No.’ And he said, ‘I forgive you.’ And he gave me this huge collection of CDs and said, ‘This is rock. Enjoy it.’ ”

Kate Hudson, 21, the daughter of Goldie Hawn and musician Bill Hudson, plays a groupie called Penny Lane in the film. She has similar memories of Crowe “sending over about 25 CDS. I really got into them. I’m a big Joni Mitchell fan. And a huge Bob (Dylan) fan. There’s one (Dylan) song when I hear it I think of ‘Penny Lane’ and that’s ‘Visions of Johanna,’ which I listened to every day before I started work. And of course, Joni Mitchell’s ‘River,’ which was a big one for Cameron and I. He loved to play that and make me very emotional.”

“Music guided us the whole way,” Crowe said.

Even Frances McDormand, who plays Crowe’s conservative mother, “is a big rock fan,” said Crowe. “She probably had to travel the greatest distance (as an actor) pretending she didn’t love Black Sabbath. Which she does. Now Patrick is a huge Led Zeppelin fan. Jason is a musician and (Hoffman) is a huge music fan. So we all came together to try and express what we love about music.”

Hoffman’s character of Bangs is a sort of Cassandra, railing about the commercialization of rock. And while his predictions have come true, “as long as you can be alone in a room with music you can feel that deep connection” that transcends commerce, said Crowe.

“You see it in people driving their cars all the time just singing along. And then they look over and see you and immediately stop because it’s embarrassing how deeply they were getting into (a song).”

Rock is more of a spectacle today but, Crowe said, “my little niece probably connects to Britney Spears the way I connect to the Who.”

Music, said Crowe, is “the door I walk in through” in the creative process.

“I can’t carry a tune,” said Crowe. “I barely play guitar. But I write movies so I can use the music. A musician told me that I directed like a musician. And it was a compliment that I’ll never forget. Because that was the goal.”

He was helped in this by consultants who were veterans of the rock scene: Peter Frampton (Crowe wrote liner notes to an early Frampton album), and Nancy Wilson of Heart, to whom Crowe is married.

Crudup said that watching Wilson perform was an “inspiration” and said Frampton was a “constant presence” as the actors tried to develop their own stage style.

Lee was inspired by watching concert footage of Paul Rodgers of Free for the “simplicity he had on stage. And, slowly, I started finding my place. I went from not being very confident at all to being very confident. I was on a rock ‘n’ roll boat, man. I rocked.”

Crowe said the band in the film is “a combination of bands. There’s a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd. A lot of the Eagles. Some Led Zeppelin. And a bit of the Allman Brothers Band. The Allmans were the first band to take me on the road, and I did not want to go home. My mom said I never did come home. And when I see the movie I remember where all the little pieces came from. It was Glenn Frey of the Eagles who told me, ‘Just make us look cool.’ ”

But Crowe’s memories of all that are more keen than the impression he created.

A writer who interviewed the musicians Crowe wrote about told him that their memories of that time and of him were “all very fuzzy,” said Crowe. It turns out that “the people who were so vivid to me at the time barely remembered me.”

Yet, he vowed, events in the film “all happened. In a slightly different order and sometimes exactly the way it’s portrayed. Which made it tough on these amazing actors because they knew they not only had to please me, but they had to please a memory, which was a tough thing.

“But it all happened. It wasn’t a spoof or a parody. It’s a tribute to the people we knew back then.”

Courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Duane Dudek – September 24, 2000