Almost Famous – Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Guided by music, Cameron Crowe and cast used ’70s rock as inspiration on the set

This is the movie of your life, Cameron Crowe, or at least a scene from one of its most important interludes: I Was a Teenage Rock Journalist, on the road with the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, doing coverage for the Rolling Stone.

“Almost Famous,” which Crowe wrote and directed, tells a fictionalized version of the story. So how do you cast yourself? What about the musicians?

Patrick Fugit, who plays the surrogate Crowe (he’s called William Miller in the movie), was born in 1982. The Allmans were about to split up for the second time. Half of Lynyrd Skynyrd had died in a plane crash five years earlier. What would this whelp, or anyone young enough to play the role, know about any of it? Why, he probably couldn’t tell Derek from a Domino.

It turns out the kids are all right.

“Cameron was really easygoing about me making him look kind of dorky,” Fugit says during a press conference at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival.

“He didn’t want me to play Cameron Crowe at 15 years old. He wanted me to play William Miller. He really emphasized that. So we basically came up with our own character and added a little of Cameron in it.”

Miller — er, I mean Crowe — knew what he wanted from whomever he chose to play the role.

“I wanted to find someone that captured the way it felt back then to be a fan and to be wide open and to just be so happy to be in the circus and slightly afraid he might get thrown out at any given point. I felt that in Patrick’s eyes, really. It was the feeling I was remembering so clearly.”

For Crowe, it might have been harder to figure out what memories he had to cut from the movie. The original script was 172 pages, which likely would have resulted in a movie running at least three hours. A longer version will be released on DVD, he says.

“At this length,” he says of the movie, “it plays like the album I wanted it to play like.”

Casting Fugit, of course, was just the start. Kate Hudson plays Penny Lane, who insists she is not a groupie for the movie’s fictional band, Stillwater.

“Kate has a very kind of timeless quality that reminded me so much of the girls that I met back then, that really did believe they were there for the music,” Crowe says. “If you said that now backstage at a show, people would laugh. But back then, you took it for granted that people were there out of the pure love of these records. Kate sort of has this quality where joy is so present in her face and so is pain and so is laughter and tears, sometimes all in the same sentence.”

The cast had the luxury of four to six weeks of rehearsal, Hudson says. “I really got a chance to understand the essence of who Penny Lane was.”

Jason Lee, who plays Stillwater’s lead singer, was 3 years old in 1973, when the movie is set. Immersing himself in the era, he says, “I rediscovered Led Zeppelin and ended up loving them more than I did when I heard them as a child.”

Billy Crudup, who plays the band’s lead guitarist, is two years older than Lee. “I was really into Motown when I was in high school,” he says.

Crowe used the music of the era to get the actors there. “I would say, ‘Kate, listen to the song “People’s Parties” by Joni Mitchell and just have it in your head, float around the room and make everybody feel great and be selfless about it.’ ”

He used Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promise” to help Crudup find his character. “I’d sneak it on him in the middle of takes. The poor guy would just be in the middle of talking and he’d hear Bruce Springsteen start to play and it would be, ‘OK, we’re going to that place now.’ Music guided us the whole way.”

Frances McDormand may have had the hardest task. She plays William Miller’s mother, a teacher who desperately tries to protect her children from such bad influences as rock ‘n’ roll. The character is so out of step with the times that you can’t help laughing, yet her humanity shines through in her love for her children and the vulnerability behind her stalwart facade.

“Frances is a big rock fan,” Crowe says. “She had to travel the greatest distance, acting like she really didn’t love Black Sabbath when she does.

“We all came together to try and express what we love about music. Generally, they got the part or lived the part through these songs.”

Yeah, but is Cameron Crowe’s mother anything like the character in the movie?

“Every time I see Cameron’s mother she says, ‘Stop smoking!’ ” says McDormand, herself a mom in real life who doesn’t necessarily want to keep playing them in movies.

“I’d much rather be a psycho killer,” she says, but at age 42 she knows that roles as wife, mother, aunt are more and more likely.

“In the range of mothers, this was really an extraordinary possibility that came along because she’s not just a mother. She’s not even just a woman. She’s a person, who quotes Goethe. I’ve haven’t had any other job in a movie that gave me that opportunity.”

Crowe showed the film to his sister, who is also a character in the movie.

“In the end, she said something really amazing to me, which was, ‘I didn’t realize we were that funny. Thanks for letting me laugh about all that stuff.’

“To be quite honest, I think one of the things I wanted to accomplish with the movie was to create a little bit of a bridge between my mother and sister. And that bridge is almost built at this point, because they were able to laugh a little bit at themselves.”

But his mom “still thinks I’m going to go to law school,” adds Crowe, who is now 43.

“She loves Frances’ portrayal. They really had a wonderful relationship. I think Frances calmed my mom down. My mom was on the set a little TOO much.”

The times may have changed but in some ways, it would seem, the song remains the same.

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Ron Weiskind – September 22, 2000