Almost Famous – Ottawa Citizen

Rolling Stone’s teen ace puts his story on the screen

Cameron Crowe had a front-row seat at the circus of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll

He was a 15-year-old San Diego kid with a passion for rock and a yearning to become a pop journalist. By the time he was 16, he had been on the road with Led Zeppelin and written a no-holds-barred account of the experience. He was now selling stories to the likes of Creem, Rolling Stone, Playboy and The Los Angeles Times.

By the time he was 17, he was on the staff of Rolling Stone, first as a contributing editor and later as an associate editor. He profiled some of the top names in the business: Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills And Nash — the list is endless.

And then, somewhere along the way, Cameron Crowe got into movies — first of all making his mark as the 22-year-old writer of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and then moving into the coveted arena of writer-director with such successes as Say Anything and the Oscar-nominated Jerry Maguire.

Crowe is 42 now, gracefully sliding into middle age, but he’ll tell you that his entire professional career has been shaped by those remarkable years as a teenager — a time he considers the most memorable of his life. So he says there’s a certain inevitability in the fact that he’s about to unveil a new movie, Almost Famous, which deals with a 15-year-old San Diego rock fan and aspiring journalist (newcomer Patrick Fugit) and what happens when he hooks up with a rising band known as Stillwater back in the early 1970s.

“You ask me why I made this movie?” says Crowe, a filmmaker who remains boyish and outgoing in his enthusiasms. “I sort of had to. It was the one story that I wanted to get out. It’s the kind of story which surfaces when you meet someone and you’re talking to them and you want to tell them something about yourself. I would ultimately end up talking about all this stuff — being a young guy, missing out on all the things that were supposed to be important like prom might and dates and stuff … but I did get to go on the road with Led Zeppelin.

The film is a highly personal homage to the music of that period and Crowe had some of his happiest moments working with wife Nancy Wilson, a respected guitarist and former co-leader of the rock group Heart, and music supervisor Danny Bramson, in compiling a soundtrack that includes the music of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Elton John, Black Sabbath, Joni Mitchell, Yes, Simon And Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers.

“I know I would go and see a movie like this, because I love music,” he says disarmingly. He worries about the response of a wider public and then reassures himself. “When we started showing it to a younger audience they seemed to be appreciating it too,” he says cautiously. “So we’ll see. It’s definitely from the heart.”

Stillwater, the band which enraptures young William Miller in the movie, is a fictional creation — but it is, of course, inspired by artists Crowe knew during those formative years. Billy Crudup plays Stillwater’s charismatic lead guitarist and Jason Lee its lead singer. Kate Hudson plays the leader of a bunch of groupies who call themselves “band aids.” And Philip Seymour Hoffman takes on the real-life role of legendary rock writer Lester Bangs, who became the young Cameron Crowe’s mentor.

Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays William’s concerned mother — and this character was very much written from the heart. Crowe’s own mother taught the humanities at San Diego City College and was also a local councillor who at one time “thought rock music was the devil.”

Crowe says his mother has never been afraid of speaking her mind and standing up for liberal causes. “She was a real movement person, but she drew the line at rock. She thought it was a cheap sell for sex and drugs. She’s since eased up on that. She’s kind of a rock fan now.”

People keep telling Crowe that Almost Famous could have been a book, and he says he knows what they mean. “I wanted to do a movie that felt a bit like a novel,” he says, adding that he tries to break new ground with each new project. He cites Jerry Maguire, saying that in style and subject matter it was intended as a homage to legendary director Billy Wilder, subject of a critically acclaimed book which Crowe wrote last year. Jerry Maguire was deliberately “free flowing,” whereas Almost Famous has a stricter structure, he says.

When people ask Crowe why he likes directing, he can only answer in the context of being a writer. In fact, he can’t imagine himself ever directing someone else’s screenplay.

“When a film is right, when it works, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. It’s all about the writing for me. I will always be a writer in my soul, and the best part of directing comes when you’re able to capture something you’ve always had in your head … that’s when you go home feeling on top of the world.”

Courtesy of Ottawa Citizen – Jamie Portman – September 20, 2000