Almost Famous – San Diego Union Tribune

The life and times of Cameron Crowe: Director returns to home turf for Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe knows that in Hollywood they like big explosions, but that’s not how he makes movies. Even if that movie is a blast from the past.

“Almost Famous, says Crowe of his $60 million cinematic autobiography that opens Friday, “is about much smaller explosions — explosions you don’t even hear, but you feel them forever . . . like walking around the Uni High campus with a copy of Creem magazine.”

It was at University of San Diego High School, in 1971, that 15-year-old Cameron gazed out from the west end of the hilltop campus (a moment faithfully re-created, on location, in “Almost Famous”) and saw his future: as a rock critic.

“I loved music. I wanted to be able to write about this thing I loved, to take the joy of music and express ‘fandom’ in a legitimate way,” recalled Crowe, who was inspired by Lester Bangs’ stories in Creem. “It was a way of bringing the two things (writing and music) together somehow.

“I remember coming to school and talking about interviewing Humble Pie. It was one of the first assignments Lester Bangs gave me.” (The iconoclastic Bangs, who endowed Creem with fire and personality, was rock journalism’s first curmudgeon.)

So began a career.

And so begins a film.

The young Crowe’s unsentimental education in the academics of rock journalism by chosen mentor Bangs (sample lesson: “Be honest . . . and unmerciful”) is another of “Almost Famous’ ” small explosions. From Bangs (portrayed in the film, with all due gonzo ‘tude, by Philip Seymour Hoffman), Crowe learns that rock ‘n’ roll is in jeopardy of becoming an “industry of cool,” and that it’s the “uncool” who write about it.

Ah, but the uncool — they’re also the creative ones, Bangs enlightens young William Miller.

Rife with dichotomies between the cool and the uncool, and between “the real world” and a “Valhalla of decadence with no substance,” the film, set in 1973, bears the mark of a savvy writer who has observed from all sides.

“This movie,” says Crowe, “is definitely written from the heart of a journalist.”

Fast track

In a gray-blue T-shirt and baggy shorts, Cameron Crowe is taking advantage of the interview setting on the sunny rooftop terrace of the Westgate Hotel downtown. He may be 43 now, but he looks as though he could still go undercover as a student at Clairemont High School — which he did, of course, in writing “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

“Fast Times,” for which Crowe wrote the screenplay based on his own book, was his Hollywood breakthrough, back in 1982. It was also the precursor to three widely admired films that Crowe would not only write, but direct: 1989’s “Say Anything”; 1992’s “Singles”; and, in 1996, “Jerry Maguire,” which not only got Oscar’s attention, but stamped Crowe as one of the hottest filmmakers in the biz.

One of the boldest, too.

Directors who film their autobiographies tend to be those venerable “auteur” types whom studios indulge based on a large body, even a lifetime, of work. Quite to the contrary, “Almost Famous” is just Crowe’s fourth film (his next, “Vanilla Sky,” will re-team Crowe with “Jerry Maguire’s” Tom Cruise), and its heart beats not in hushed glories, but at high rock ‘n’ roll decibels.

When Crowe proposed the film to DreamWorks, “The studio told me, ‘We don’t know how to sell it,’ ” the director remembered. “I took that as a kind of badge of honor.”

“It’s easier to make the movie,” he insisted at the time, “than to try to explain what it is.”

What “Almost Famous” is, except for the title, is, well, “The Cameron Crowe Story.” (Crowe actually wanted to call the film “Untitled,” but that was a point on which he did relent — “I still get a pang when I see a painting or something that is called ‘Untitled,’ ” he muses.) Its 15-year-old protagonist, William (played by newcomer Patrick Fugit), lives in San Diego with his rebellious older sister and his watchful mother (Frances McDormand), a college teacher. His love for his family is rivaled only by that for the music of his generation.

An assignment from Lester Bangs to review a Black Sabbath concert at the San Diego Sports Arena changes the course of William’s life. He meets not only the members of a fictional band called Stillwater, including guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), but Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), one of the fledgling group’s adoring “band aids.” (These are the “almost famous,” Crowe said, the principals of “a movie about when the people who are out of the spotlight are in the spotlight.”)

It isn’t long before young William is on tour with them all, writing a story for Rolling Stone.

Crowe would become an associate editor at Rolling Stone by the time he was 16. Still the spinner of stories at once innocent and precocious, he’s never relinquished his pen and notepad.

Almost nostalgia

You don’t have to wait long to spot San Diego in “Almost Famous.” The California Tower in Balboa Park graces one of the film’s opening shots. Besides the Sports Arena, site of William’s eventful Black Sabbath assignment, Ocean Beach’s Newport Avenue (you can’t miss the Strand movie theater), the Uni High and University of San Diego campuses and snippets of downtown and Clairemont get screen time.

Crowe spent three weeks on location in San Diego, and says it was his “favorite part of the shoot.”

“I always feel that the ghosts of the things that happened stay in the places that they happened. There really was a catharsis about it (filming in San Diego),” he said. “It was a crusade to try to capture something in my head. I felt like I was dragging a lot of people on this tour of my memories.”

The San Diego sequences were more than just personal rediscoveries for Crowe; they were a break from the regimen of the movie-industry machine.

“Shooting here didn’t feel like you were part of any Hollywood structure,” he said. “Shooting here was like a hobby.”

The exterior of the Sports Arena and the ramp area that leads to the backstage entrance were vivid in Crowe’s teen-age memories. There was no question that the 34-year-old building would be part of “Almost Famous.”

“I dug in hard on wanting to shoot at the Sports Arena,” Crowe said. “The concerts here were so much better, because this wasn’t L.A. The bands weren’t under so much pressure.”

It’s at the Sports Arena that William Miller encounters his first formidable adversary on the road to rock-journalism legitimacy: the beefy guardian of the hallowed backstage area.

“There was a guy who used to work at the arena — Scotty,” Crowe recounted. “He did not want to let me back (stage). To me, my adolescence was a quest to get past Scotty.

“I got past Scotty (called Freddy in the film), and that becomes a heroic moment in the movie.”

William’s absentee high-school graduation ceremony (he’s still on tour with Stillwater at the time) was shot on the USD campus, which holds a different brand of significance for Crowe.

“Whenever I come down to San Diego to visit my mom (Alice Crowe, who still lives here), we walk around the USD running track.”

“That is where ‘Jerry Maguire’ began,” said Crowe, recalling where he was when the idea struck for his biggest-grossing film.

While the Civic Theatre downtown isn’t featured in “Almost Famous,” it inspired one of the film’s warmest scenes: a tour-bus sing-along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

” ‘Tiny Dancer’ had a lot of memories for me. I had this bad date at the Civic Theatre when Elton John played there,” Crowe confessed, though obviously not holding the song responsible for it. “I knew ‘Tiny Dancer’ had to be in the movie.”

Cinematic sounds

The music is the life flow of “Almost Famous.”

“Music itself is more cinematic than cinema,” professed Crowe. “I’m always thinking of a movie in my head.”

“Almost Famous” started, Crowe says, “with the music, with the road tapes I make every month. Those are diaries. On every one of those tapes was a reminder that there was a movie waiting to be made.”

The “Almost Famous” soundtrack is a who’s-who of rock in the early-to mid-’70s, as well as an homage to artists whom Crowe interviewed, wrote about and reviewed, beginning in San Diego’s alternative publication The Door, and later in Creem, Rolling Stone, Playboy and others. “What I wanted to do was capture a feeling like we all get, particularly when we’re alone with music that we love,” Crowe said. “You get to go to a place that might be embarrassing if someone else was there. You can get to that place in your head.”

In “Almost Famous,” that music can be anything from “Tiny Dancer” to Led Zeppelin to The Who to Neil Young to . . . Alvin & the Chipmunks? (A Chipmunks song turns up early in the film. Crowe: “It felt subversive and cool and funny and great!”)

Crowe realized early on that one of the biggest challenges of “Almost Famous” would be to depict a “real” rock ‘n’ roll band, something filmmakers have been attempting to do (mostly failing) for at least 30 years.

“Rock is not about movie acting, and movie acting is not about rock,” Crowe said, “and never the twain shall meet.”

But he endeavored to give his fictional band, Stillwater, the look, feel and, most important, the sound of the genuine article by adopting an “environmental” approach to directing — “creating an environment in which actors can feel like they are their characters.”

To that end, the production’s so-called Rock and Roll School was born. Peter Frampton (Crowe wrote the liner notes for “Frampton Comes Alive!” in 1975) was drafted as the film’s technical consultant, and worked closely with Crudup, who does play guitar, and the other members of Stillwater, which include Jason Lee as the band’s singer and two actual musicians: bassist Mark Kozelek and drummer John Fedevich.

“Every night, after shooting,” Crowe recalled, “we had the band get together and work on their songs. Nobody was ‘acting.’ It was just for that feeling of being in the band.”

Those half-dozen original Stillwater songs were co-written by Crowe and his wife, rocker Nancy Wilson (Heart, the Lovemongers), a deft guitarist who also served as a technical consultant.

In addition, both Wilson’s sister, Ann, and Frampton had hands in writing songs for the on-screen band.

It’s little wonder, then, that the music and the Stillwater concert performances project an energy and an authenticity all too rare in the movies.

Crudup, the group’s central character, wasn’t surprised by the eventual look and sound of Stillwater: “Cameron’s primary concern was making a band that wasn’t a caricature, that we weren’t spoofing or deifying music . . . that we were just a bunch of guys who like to play.”

Words of wisdom

The flair of the words is as much a signature of a Cameron Crowe film as is the music. (Case in point: Bangs declaring rock “gloriously and righteously dumb . . . and the day it ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real.”)

“It’s all about the writing for me,” Crowe said, considering a career that’s taken him from San Diego, down the rock ‘n’ roll highway and to Hollywood, with plenty of eventful stops along the way. “I write every day. I will always be a writer.”

In between “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous,” Crowe devoted his time to researching and writing a book of interviews he did with filmmaking giant Billy Wilder. “Conversations With Wilder” was released last fall.

“I learned a lot,” said Crowe. “He is an international treasure and not a man who likes to be interviewed about his work.”

Besides getting an education, Crowe happily won, over time, a friend.

He tells the story of him and Wilder sipping sake over dinner one night. There is obvious affection, and some of the old hero worship, in Crowe’s voice as he does his best Billy Wilder imitation:

“If you never do anything with any of these interviews, that’s OK. They’re just for you.”

“What he was saying,” Crowe said, “was, ‘I’m happy to be giving you this gift.’ It’s probably the highlight of everything that’s happened to me since high school.”

“Timeless,” Crowe reflected, “is cool.”

“Billy Wilder is cool.”

Double feature

The film may be called “Almost Famous,” but Crowe himself passed “almost” a long time ago. With fame comes its demands, and a studio publicity assistant now on the Westgate terrace is signaling to him that time for this interview is up.

But Crowe isn’t going anywhere until he shows off what he’s really proud of.

“Have you seen my kids?” he asks.

He takes out his wallet and holds out two photographs: pictures of Nancy with each one of the couple’s 7-month-old twin boys.

Now that’s cool.

Courtesy of San Diego Union Tribune – David L. Coddon – September 10, 2000