Almost Famous – Philadelphia City Paper

Music To His Ears

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous is a personal movie on a grand scale.

When it comes time for William Miller’s sister to leave home, she doesn’t make a speech or write a note. Instead, she simply hands her mother a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, and says, “This song will explain.”

The substance of the gesture — Simon singing of a woman who’s “gone to look for America” — isn’t as important as its sense, which is that music bridges gaps, fills in understanding between people who can’t otherwise communicate. In a time when the most commercially successful music is designed to segregate listeners into marketing groups, it’s a strikingly optimistic, even nostalgic gesture. What it says, most simply, is this: Music works. If you don’t have the words, Paul Simon does, and what’s in his heart is what’s in your heart. Even if we’re not the same, we can still speak to each other, and music is our common language.

Cameron Crowe may be rock ’n’ roll’s most fervent cinematic apostle, and Almost Famous is the most direct and personal movie he’s ever made — and probably ever will make — on the subject. Cashing in the box office clout he earned with Jerry Maguire, Crowe took the maybe-once-in-a-career opportunity to do exactly what he wanted, realizing a story he’d been working on for over a decade. Production delays cost him two of his stars — Brad Pitt dropped out to be replaced by Billy Crudup and Sarah Polley’s spot was filled by Kate Hudson — and Crowe kept gossip columnists buzzing with his months-long delay in choosing a title for the movie. But the hardest movie Crowe’s ever made turns out to be his best since Say Anything…, an on-the-money tribute to those who make rock ’n’ roll and those who merely worship at its feet.

Based on Crowe’s own experience as a teenage journalist, when he covered Led Zeppelin and the Eagles for publications like Rolling Stone and Creem, Famous follows 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) on the road with the fictional Stillwater, a band whose rising popularity is matched only by the tensions within the group, particularly the power struggle between guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). (Crowe insists the band is a composite of every band he covered, though Russell and Jeff look an awful lot like Page and Plant, and the soundtrack does boast five Led Zeppelin songs.)

William, meanwhile, has to contend with his mother (Frances McDormand), who leaves frantic messages at each tour stop telling him not to do drugs, and his complicated feelings for Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the soft-eyed hanger-on who’s in love with Russell and treats William like a brother, though William’s feelings for her run substantially deeper. And that’s all while desperately trying to score the interview with Russell which will land him on the cover of Rolling Stone, and do it in time to get home for graduation.

Crowe, who did press for the film several miles from the San Diego house where he grew up, says while writing the script, he went back and forth on how much personal content to include, but he found the closer he came to his own experience, the better he liked the movie. “I have my diaries and journals from the time,” he recalls, “and I know that everything felt like life or death. Everything felt like all of it was depending on each story, or each interview. I didn’t want it to be the misty, golden, beautiful memory of that era. I wanted to be immediate. It’s an affectionate look, but there’s a lot of pain and joy and sorrow just beneath the surface, and that’s the way I needed to make it.”

While Crowe was writing the script, he was also assembling Conversations with Wilder, his book of interviews with Billy Wilder, and he says that one of the things he was looking for was the great director’s permission. “I think on a basic level, I was trying to get Billy Wilder’s blessing for an autobiographical film, and he would never go for it. It’s like ‘Who would see such a picture? Maybe your parents?’ In a way, I ended up making a movie that Billy himself would never make, something that’s boldly and frighteningly personal.”

Indeed, Crowe seems fond of the idea that the movie is personal for everyone involved, not just himself. He cast his leads, he says, “for the way they are in their lives right now. Billy Crudup is a guy who sees the spotlight coming his way and wonders what it’s means, Kate’s that natural person who lights up a room when she walks into it, and Patrick is the wide-open-to-the world kid that William is supposed to be.”

Fugit, who walks into the room wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, had no experience beyond a couple of Touched by an Angel episodes (the show shoots in his hometown of Salt Lake City) when he was called to L.A. to audition. He still seems a bit goggle-eyed recalling that “Rachel Leigh Cook and ‘Q’ from Star Trek” were in the waiting room with him. Though you’d think musical knowledge would be prerequisite for any Cameron Crowe movie, Fugit says he’d never really listened to music before Crowe cast him and sent him home with a “two-foot stack of CDs.” “Cameron said, ‘I want this stuff coming out of your pores.’ So I went home and put on Led Zeppelin IV; from then on, I’ve been quite the music fan.”

Of course, there was a lot going on in the 1970s besides Led Zeppelin, but though Almost Famous’ soundtracks makes nods in the directions of a few lesser-known acts, Crowe doesn’t have the distaff spirit of his mentor Lester Bangs, brilliantly incarnated in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film makes Bangs William’s voice of reason (and it surely says something that the film’s voice of a reason is a recovering cough syrup addict), but it also paints him as a semi-paranoid loser who’s watching a 15-year-old deal with success better than he ever will. When William, who’s calling in for advice from the road, asks if Lester will be home later, Lester answers, “I’m always home. I’m uncool.”

In fact, The Uncool was one of Crowe’s alternate titles, though given his wish, he’d have released it with no title at all. (Just like Led Zeppelin IV.) After idolizing fellow San Diegoan Bangs from his writing in Creem, Crowe says he was unprepared when he met him to discover what a “powerful softie” he was. Their first exchange in the film ends with Bangs telling William he likes his writing, but he “can’t stand here all day talking to my many fans.” (They are, of course, alone.) What’s not in the movie, Crowe says, is the next thing Bangs said. “He told me, ‘I’m going to take the bus back to [his hometown] El Cajon and go by the house of the girl who broke my heart and look at it for a while.’ And I thought, Lester Bangs is going to do this romantic journey past the house of the girl who broke his heart? Maybe I have a chance being who I am.”

There’s more sugar than spice in Almost Famous, and at times Crowe seems to be fighting his own instincts — though whether his instinct’s telling him to go for broad sentiment or subtle heartbreak isn’t exactly clear. But it’s clear that, like the musicians he profiled, Crowe isn’t interested in small time success. He wants to talk to everyone at once, not just the in crowd. As much as the movie’s a tribute to another era of music, it’s a valentine to an older era of filmmaking as well, one where the only audience was the audience.

Courtesy of Philadelphia City Paper – Sam Adams – September 21, 2000