Almost Famous – SF Chronicle

A Lot to Crowe About

Legendary Rolling Stone writer turns inward for his next movie

San Francisco, the mythic land of dreams and flakes, is way out of character in Cameron Crowe’s new rock ‘n’ roll period piece, “Almost Famous.”

“Yeah, San Francisco is the principal’s office,” says the scruffy director, plopped onto a hotel- suite couch on a recent Monday morning.

In the movie, William Miller — a thinly disguised version of Crowe, who was a cub reporter for Rolling Stone in 1973 at the tender age of 15 — is on the road with a rock band. As he tries to pry the true story of the band’s internal struggles out of the musicians, he keeps eluding his Bay Area editors.

:Finally he has to go to San Francisco and turn in his story,” Crowe says of the panicked Miller, played to perfection by the delightful greenhorn Patrick Fugit. “It’s the reckoning city.”

“Almost Famous” is Crowe’s first film since the 1996 touchdown “Jerry Maguire,” the sports-world romantic comedy that starred Tom Cruise. The new movie takes place in an entirely different era — the budding arena-rock scene of 1973.

Stillwater, the fictional band in the movie, is a composite of several real-life groups that Crowe covered for Rolling Stone, primarily the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. Rising star Billy Crudup plays guitarist Russell Hammond. Kate Hudson is a “band aid,” a groupie with the purest of intentions, and the wonderful Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) plays the young writer’s doting mother.

From his childhood home in San Diego, Crowe would take the airline shuttle to the Rolling Stone offices in San Francisco (“$14 on PSA,” he remembers).

“Now when I come to San Francisco, first I think of Neil Young. Neil Young is probably nearby, which is a cool thing,” he says, beaming, still the unabashed fan.

“Then I think about trying to learn to be a real writer.”

Crowe’s considerable success in Hollywood is directly linked to his development as a writer. Besides the fast-paced “Jerry Maguire,” which received five Oscar nominations, including one for Crowe’s screenplay, he wrote and directed the John Cusack charmer “Say Anything” and wrote the script for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

The critical and commercial triumph of “Jerry Maguire” bought the director a one-picture pass to make any movie he liked. He’d always known there was a storybook quality to his own career in rock journalism — always, that is, except when he was living it.

“I was writing over my head, but I was probably able to do it because it felt like a hobby,” he says. “It didn’t feel like life-or- death until later. The early stuff was like shooting baskets with no one around.

“Only later did I realize, holy shit, these (editors) are real people, in real offices, with correction pencils in their hands! A lot of it feels like a dream, really. But to do the movie like a dream was wrong. I wanted it to feel vivid.”

The actors say he got it. “I never felt like there was a director in the room,” says San Francisco musician Mark Kozelek, leader of the Red House Painters, who steals a few scenes as Stillwater’s rambunctious bass player. “I just felt like he was another guy hanging around.”

Crowe was anything but typical Hollywood, Kozelek says. “He worked harder than everyone. Never once did I see him showing signs of fatigue. In the entire seven months of the shoot, I saw him on the cell phone three times.”

At its heart, “Almost Famous” is about the perception that the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is impenetrably cool. “We are uncool,” says Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the incorrigible rock critic Lester Bangs, Crowe/Miller’s late-night confidante and career counselor. The Bangs character advises Miller not to get too close to the stars. (The members of Stillwater jokingly call Miller “the enemy.”)

It’s the music, Bangs says, not the elbow-rubbing, that will see you through: “If you ever get lonely, go to the record store and visit your friends.”

Crowe surely felt a little lonely at times during the filming of “Almost Famous.” He lost Brad Pitt, who was originally recruited to play guitarist Hammond. “It started to get dire,” he says. “The movie was actually put on pause for a while, which is very dangerous.”

Even after they resumed production, Crowe says he was pussyfooting around his own story.

“The truth was, I was avoiding that whole directing-a-version-of- me thing a lot. I kept thinking that character could just disappear into the movie someplace.

“I’d work on (Hudson’s) Penny Lane, or the Billy Crudup character. Finally, people had to say, ‘Wake up! There is no movie if you don’t have the kid.'”

Enter Fugit, a high-schooler from Salt Lake City with just a few local TV appearances under his skinny belt. “He saved the movie,” Crowe says flatly.

Fugit says he’s well aware that his inexperience got him the part: “A huge part of it was the fact that I was so green.” The screen test, he says, was his first time in Los Angeles. He and his parents were put up in a Best Western next to an International House of Pancakes, “which I thought was pretty cool.”

“Patrick’s qualities are very real,” Crowe says. “What you sacrifice in terms of a TV-familiar sheen, you get the world in terms of feeling like you’re glimpsing real life.”

By now, Crowe is considered a natural at creating scenes that become common currency in the pop dialogue: Cuba Gooding Jr. shouting “Show me the money!” in “Jerry Maguire.” Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli, the ultimate stoner dude, in “Fast Times.” John Cusack holding a boom box over his head, blasting “In Your Eyes,” in “Say Anything.”

“That stuff is mostly serendipitous,” the director says. “There have been a few times when I actually tried for it, and I failed miserably.

“I think there’s a high-pitched siren that goes off when people feel they’re being led to something like that.” It’s a crapshoot, this business of trying to capture a tiny moment that rings true for millions. Some of Crowe’s most memorable scenes just as easily could have died a quick death with the “delete” key.

In “Jerry Maguire,” there is a famous scene in which Cruise is trying to convince Renee Zellweger he’s not as crass as she thinks he is. “You complete me,” he tells her.

When he first wrote it, Crowe was embarrassed: “I thought it was too cheesy. I thought, ‘They’ll laugh this off the screen.'”

But Cruise insisted on it. “And as we were filming,” the director says, “I turned around, and every woman in the room was weeping. Damn!”

He affects the deep voice of false arrogance: “Well, you know, I always knew this line might work.” He grins widely. It still makes him laugh.

Random Notes on ‘Almost Famous’

Kate Hudson, who plays the groupie Penny Lane in the film, probably could ask her father about groupies. He is Bill Hudson of the Hudson Brothers, an underrated ’70s pop-rock group whose “So You Are a Star” crawled up out of the mid-charts in 1974. The Hudsons also hosted a summer-replacement TV variety show, but their real claim to fame was their stint as hosts of a Saturday morning kids’ show.

Kate’s uncle, Mark Hudson, has kept the teenybopper thing going, writing songs for Hanson, although his most recent project is producing Aerosmith’s next album. Her mother is Goldie Hawn.

She could also ask her boyfriend about groupies: He’s Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes.

Salt Lake City native Patrick Fugit, 17, says he knew absolutely nothing about rock ‘n’ roll history when he was picked to play the young Rolling Stone writer in “Almost Famous.” “I was rock-illiterate. I thought Led Zeppelin was one person.

“This girl gave me a tape of them in the sixth grade, but I never listened to it. I should have.” Now, he says, he is converted. He wore a plain black T-shirt on the day the “Famous” cast and crew were in San Francisco, but he said he debated wearing his Zeppelin shirt instead.

Cameron Crowe planted a number of “inside” cameo players in the movie. Peter Frampton, who was a technical consultant on the film, played Rex, the roadie. Crowe’s real-life mother, Alice, whose fictionalized double is played by Frances McDormand, plays the part of the high school principal, handing out diplomas. The director’s sister, Cindy (whose film counterpart is called Anita and portrayed by actress Zooey Deschanel), is glimpsed in an elevator. And, in one quick shot, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner is sitting in the back of a New York taxi.

It wasn’t long ago that actor Billy Crudup, who plays Russell Hammond of Stillwater, had a job parking cars someplace in Florida. One night he took the keys from Peter Frampton. The ’70s rock star tipped Crudup a whopping five bucks. When Crudup was introduced to Frampton on the movie set, where he was serving as a technical consultant, Crudup recalled the incident and Frampton remembered him. “He was like, ‘Ten years, man. It brings a lot of change,'”‘ Crudup told Esquire magazine. “There he was, changing my guitar strings. I thought, ‘Damn.'”

For Mark Kozelek, the San Francisco musician who plays the bassist in the fictitious band Stillwater, the role was an eye-opener. As the leader of the cult-favorite Red House Painters, Kozelek is known for his glum voice, which defines the band.

Playing a sideman gave him new perspective into rock-group dynamics. “A lot of times the guys in my band, I can feel them getting bent out of shape about things,” he says. Now he understands. On the set, he says, “a pretty girl would come up to me and ask, ‘Is Jason (Lee, who plays the lead singer) available?'”

“Almost Famous” was Kozelek’s first acting job; already he is being typecast. The producers of “Metal God,” a new project set to feature Mark Wahlberg, sent him their script. “It was for the same thing, a guy playing the bass in a band,” Kozelek says. He declined: “I didn’t want to do that again.”

Or Maybe They Just Remembered the Flattering Cover Stories: Crowe took the finished film to London for a special screening last May for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. They liked what they saw so much, they let Crowe use a Zep track, “That’s the Way,” on the movie’s soundtrack album, the first time Led Zeppelin has ever allowed the band’s music to be used on a soundtrack. Page and Plant even granted Crowe rights to use four other Zep songs in the movie itself.

Crowe is married to Nancy Wilson, one-half of the sister duo of Heart. The couple co-wrote three of the five Stillwater songs featured in the movie, with Wilson and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready playing the guitar parts. Peter Frampton wrote the other two Stillwater songs.

The production team of “Almost Famous” features an embarrassment of Oscar-nominated talent. Crowe had two nods for “Jerry Maguire.” Frances McDormand won one for “Fargo.” Cameo actress Anna Paquin won an Academy Award for “The Piano.” Producer Ian Bryce was nominated for “Saving Private Ryan” and cinematographer John Toll won back-to-back awards for “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart.”

“This was a multimillion-dollar budget, shot by the guy who did ‘Braveheart’ and ‘The Thin Red Line,'” says Mark Kozelek. “It’s a whole different context than seeing yourself in a $10,000 video some student did, or in some footage shot by a kid in Philadelphia.”

Cameron Crowe says that he got his first Rolling Stone assignment after contributing an item on Bob Dylan’s acting debut in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”

“I was interviewing Kris Kristofferson for my San Diego paper and he casually told me what Dylan was doing next. I used that to call Ben Fong-Torres and get my first Random Note published.”

Crowe and Fong-Torres, the real-life former Rolling Stone editor portrayed by Terry Chen in the movie, have different recollections of their first in-person meeting.

Fong-Torres says they met at the old Gibson and Stromberg publicity office in Los Angeles.

Crowe thinks he and the editor first met at a Rolling Stones show, when the lights were already down. “He didn’t know how old I was (just 15 at the time) — he couldn’t tell.”

Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle – James Sullivan – September 10, 2000