Almost Famous – Philadelphia Inquirer

Making ‘Almost’ Count with the Widely Acclaimed “Almost Famous”

Writer-director Cameron Crowe brings to the screen the story he has always wanted to tell – one based on his own coming of age as a teen rock writer in the ’70s.

Obsessive? Cameron Crowe?

To prepare his actors – a gaggle of fledgling Hollywooders born, most of them, after 1973, the year his semi-autobiographical Almost Famous is set – the wunderkind- rock-journalist-turned-filmmaker force-fed them a diet of essential early ’70s rock: Led Zeppelin, Yes, Free, Allman Brothers, Cat Stevens, Deep Purple.

“Oppressively, obnoxiously, I’d push this music on them,” Crowe confesses, laughing. “I just wish they had been able to listen on vinyl, but nobody has turntables, so we would get CDs and give them these packages. It was their homework.”

Whole albums of extended drum solos, psychedelic power chords, and trippy couplets about sex and drugs and peace and love were consumed by Billy Crudup and Jason Lee (who play, respectively, the guitarist and lead singer in a rising band known as Stillwater), Kate Hudson (a starry-eyed groupie), and Patrick Fugit (Crowe’s alter-ego, a precocious 15-year-old scribe assigned by Rolling Stone to follow the band on tour).

” ‘You must listen to all of [Neil Young’s] After the Gold Rush!’ ” Crowe says, adopting a stern Teutonic tone not unlike Billy Wilder’s, the veteran director who is one of his godheads, and the subject of his immensely entertaining 1999 book, Conversations With Wilder. ” ‘You must bring this back to me with notes and tell me your feelings about ‘Birds’!” he snaps.

“And they all jumped to it.”

Almost Famous, which has received rave reviews and opened locally on Friday, is a sweet and rollicking – and mostly true – tale of a San Diego kid who abandoned high school to go on the road with a gang of weed-smoking, hotel-trashing, sex-crazed rock-and-rollers. A kid who sought counsel from Lester Bangs, the wild-man genius rock critic and crank (portrayed with a dead-on mix of omniscience and angst by Philip Seymour Hoffman). A kid who would call his worried college-professor mom (Frances McDormand, in a wonderfully funny and poignant performance) and listen to her stern warnings about the dangers of drugs and girls with backstage passes.

“What’s really fascinating about Cameron is that film is not his first vocation,” McDormand says, “and that shows in the script.” She means this in a good way.

Almost Famous is the movie that the 43-year-old Crowe – author of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and writer-director of Say Anything . . . (1989), Singles (1992), and a little Tom Cruise thing called Jerry Maguire (1996) – has wanted to make forever. It’s his story: Pubescent writer leaves home (which he shares with his sister and single mother) in 1973 to hang out with Gregg Allman, Jimmy Page and Fleetwood Mac, writing for Creem, Fusion and Rolling Stone. And, oh yeah, to lose his virginity in a hotel room with a trio of happy hippie groupies.

Crowe began his writing career in his early teens, doing album reviews and interviews for the San Diego Door, an alternative weekly. (Crowe on Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson: “Dressed in a plaid trench-coat and knee-high leather boots, his hair, parted down the middle, strains for length on both the right and the left. He anti-climactically rests an acoustic guitar on his lap and gently plays a melody.”)

He befriended Creem editor Lester Bangs, and soon was getting assignments from the rock mag – a scene that’s amusingly played out in the early going of Almost Famous. From the start, Crowe’s writing was clean and clear, and his passion for music – well, it was passionate.

If there was a rap on “the kid” – whose youth initially startled his interview subjects, then became part of his cachet – it was that his profiles weren’t hard-hitting. He made friends with the bands and label execs, and maybe because of that, never delved deeply into his subjects’ dark sides or pursued less flattering angles.

Crowe says that his ingratiating ways with Joni Mitchell, Peter Frampton, Van Morrison and others simply got them to open up in ways they wouldn’t in more traditional interview situations.

As adolescent rites of passage go, Crowe’s was hard to beat. He just knew it would make a movie.

“I’ve always had it in my back pocket, in a way,” he says of the film project, which was briefly titled Untitled (a name Crowe wishes had stuck), and then My Back Pages. “It was the wonderful excuse when I hit a wall on every other project. I would think, ‘I should be doing that movie about Lester Bangs!’ I drove my friends crazy with it, and finally, when I did it, I drove them crazy again, worrying, ‘Why am I doing this? It’s too much about me!’ ”

The $70 million DreamWorks production captures a time when things were still sort of innocent – even with all that sex and drugs and rock and roll. For Crowe, who had to be driven to some of his early interviews by editors (he was too young for a driver’s license), that all began to change in the early ’70s with the corporatization of the music business, the explosion of a global marketplace, the slick packaging of “talent.”

The filmmaker – a big, slightly gawky fellow who still wears his hair in a shaggy coif and exudes a friendly, boyish air – figures he got around to Almost Famous just in time, before it became imbued with drippy nostalgia. “Another minute and it would have been too late,” he says, holed up in a hotel on the eve of the film’s gala Toronto Film Festival premiere.

“We did it at the last possible moment, where my memory and desire were good enough – I remember all that stuff pretty clearly. . . . But mostly, I didn’t want it all to disappear into the mists of golden memory. That self-glory thing, that would be wrong . . . where the character that’s based on the writer has a more ornate name than the real guy and it all just feels icky.”

Crowe, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., is married to Nancy Wilson (of rock’s Seattle sister act, Heart) and is the father of 7-month-old twin boys, still thinks of himself as a writer first. His eyes light up when he talks about what he did over the previous weekend: pen the liner notes for a new Tom Petty anthology.

But with the great Billy Wilder – whose The Apartment is paid homage in Almost Famous – among his friends, and James L. Brooks and Lawrence Kasdan as mentors, Crowe is proving more and more agile behind the camera.

“I feel like it’s two steps forward, two steps back most of the time,” says Crowe, who hired Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) for the Almost Famous shoot. “Truly, it’s hard each time.

“There are moments, though, where I feel like it’s cool. I’m learning to tell a story with the camera. . . . There were moments on Jerry Maguire where I felt like a director, finally. And then on this one, every once in a while I felt that way, like when the kid was deflowered.

“That was a scene that we all agonized over, and I had no plan for it. I had this vague Officer and a Gentleman idea – you know, a raw quality, and maybe there would be nudity – and the poor kid [16-year-old Fugit] was traumatized. Patrick was just traumatized every day! It would be like” – Crowe slips into a quiet, worried voice – ” ‘Um, when are we doing the deflowering scene?’

“And then I got the idea to do it like a carousel. If I’m going to say that this is a movie about the circus, [then] this is the carousel ride, which is sort of how it felt. Maybe not as elegant at the time – there was more fear, really, than might be expressed in the movie . . . but I did feel like I was on a ride at the circus. . . . So I felt like a director that day. Particularly when Toll started playing with camera speeds, and John did this amazing thing where you can see the girls reflected in the whites of the kid’s eyes, twirling around in their scarves.

“And then Patrick was so happy. It was so easy, he could have just gone on for days doing the scene like that. ‘Oh, I don’t have to take my pants all the way off? And the girls are just in panties? It’s, like, ‘This is great!’ ”

Even as Crowe was editing Almost Famous this summer – cutting something like 45 minutes, including a scene in which Fugit’s character breaks out Led Zeppelin 4 and plays the epic “Stairway to Heaven” in its entirety to his mother (the segment will be on the DVD) – he was working on his next project. Titled Vanilla Sky and set to start shooting next month in New York with Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz, the film marks a turning point for Crowe.

No more coming-of-age stories, no more loss of innocence, which is what all his pictures have been about really.

“It’s super-contemporary and definitely not a star-vehicle type thing,” he explains. “It’s sort of like the opposite of Almost Famous, where we had a lot of unknown or fresh faces – with the exception of Frances – playing stars in their own world. This is the inverse, where we have bigger names playing very charactery parts. And it’s musical, too, but it’s not about music.”

And it’s the first time in Crowe’s directing career that he hasn’t been carrying around that little story about the kid who goes on tour with the rock stars.

“I think one of the reasons I’m moving so quickly onto the next film is that, if you’ve done the thing that was in your back pocket, now your back pocket is empty. So I wanted to escape that feeling of having nothing in the hopper.

“But it’s such a chapter-closer, this one,” he adds, talking of Almost Famous. “It’s really time to try fresh perspectives and themes.”

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer – Steven Rea – September 24, 2000