Almost Famous – Washington Post

The Ultimate High

Director Cameron Crowe Looks at America’s No. 1 Drug: Fame


You never forget your first head shop.

Director Cameron Crowe is peering through a darkened plate glass window toward the dim mists of his youth, at a grimy, run-down store where he spent countless hours of adolescent rapture.

It’s abandoned now, in what used to be a seedy section of downtown San Diego, next door to the vintage Spreckels Theatre, near enough to the port so sailors would come for the girlie magazines, close enough to the wild side so hippies would come to buy roach clips.

Fourteen-year-old Crowe came for the Zap comics, Creem magazine and his very first copy of Rolling Stone. Mick Jagger was on the cover. Wearing lipstick.

Some things just stick with you.

A year later–it was 1973–Crowe was swept up in the whirlwind of rock-and-roll, a fabulous force that consumed him for the next several years. Defined him. Changed him. And marked him for life.

How could it not? At 16, Cameron Crowe was a writer for Rolling Stone magazine.

Later–and not so much later–the boy became a man. He wrote the teen manifesto “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the cusp-of-adulthood “Say Anything” and “Singles,” and then the definitive what-is-a-man? movie, “Jerry Maguire,” which catapulted Crowe into the premier ranks of Hollywood directors.

But he never let go of the kid sitting on the floor of the head shop, oversize and gawky, shaggy-haired and moon-faced. Sometime, he knew, he would have to tell the world what it felt like to be that kid–seeing so much, so young.

“There were only so many times I could not write about this period of time,” Crowe says. “I was always scared of the self-glorification aspect.” He pauses. “And then one day it felt okay.”

He turns from the head shop toward San Diego’s party-hearty, Saturday night din. He still has the shaggy, earnest look, though the city is now defiantly slick.

“Almost Famous,” opening Sept. 22, is the director’s long-awaited follow-up to “Jerry Maguire.” Although fall’s films explore many spheres–a teacher on a mission to improve the world in “Pay It Forward,” the 19th-century milieu of Toulouse-Lautrec in “Moulin Rouge,” a senator with sexual scandal in her past (“The Contender”) and Tom Hanks as a desert island rat (“Cast Away”)–this is the film that deals with what Hollywood knows best of all: fame.

But for Crowe, it is more than about fame. It is his treatise on rock music, on fandom, on celebrity journalism, on growing up and–no, seriously–being true to your rock-and-roll dreams.

In other words: on himself.

“When you get good at the glossy, fake legend of your life, you get so good at it that you believe it yourself,” Crowe says, an unprompted confession that lasts for the next two hours. “And that’s what I didn’t want to do.”

A beat. “I did it because it was in me and it had to come out. It was a story I wanted to tell. It feels better to have told it than not to have told it.”

So let’s dispense with the niceties.

“You can either be Woody Allen and say, ‘Don’t confuse the character with the person,’ or you can put your cards on the table,” he says, collapsed in a wooden chair at a quiet Mexican restaurant and clutching a chilled Dos Equis. “Let’s not play that game. Let’s just say it’s semi-autobiographical.”


“Okay, let’s dispense with the ‘semi.’ ”

Crowe, 43, is drained from an intense day of publicity in which he coughed up confessional sound bites to 50 successive television reporters. His brown hair, parted down the middle, flops onto his longish face, and he wears a baggy shirt, baggy pants and sneakers. “This is the first day of really copping to that. And I did cop to it,” he says.

“Almost Famous” tells the story of William Miller, a 15-year-old rock fan from San Diego who is hired by Rolling Stone to write a story about a quintessentially ’70s band called Stillwater.

Leaving behind a terrified mother (Frances McDormand) and rebellious older sister (Zooey Deschanel), William (played by dimpled newcomer Patrick Fugit) goes on the road with the band. He befriends the musicians (led by Billy Crudup, in the role coveted by most of young Hollywood, and Jason Lee), the roadies and the groupies–muselike lovelies led by the mysterious Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn’s daughter).

So, yes, Crowe did go on the road with the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and a lot of other bands. He did leave his distraught, professor-mother behind (Crowe’s father was there, though he died in the 1980s). Crowe was the apple of his mother’s eye, the family clown and the peacemaker between her and his angry older sister.

And there really was a Penny Lane. “Her ethic was, ‘I’m only here for the music,’ ” Crowe says. He would meet her on tour again and again, each time with a different band, and she would always act as if they were meeting for the first time. One day the real Penny Lane came onto the set, regal as a queen, recalled Kate Hudson, “and Cameron just shrank back,” a timid teen again.

But “Almost Famous” is not just a rock movie, in the same way that “Jerry Maguire” is not a sports movie. It’s more complex and more human; like the best of Crowe’s work, it’s not easily categorized.

In the mix, yes, is the seductive world of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, but there’s also a nod to the unique brotherhood of struggling musicians. There is the real-life element of Crowe’s family tensions, the painful estrangement of his mother and sister.

But it’s also about being a journalist and a fan, about the hypnotic draw and pure joy of a rock concert.

And it’s about figuring out who you are when you’re a teenager and Jimmy Page seems like your pal and Jann Wenner is calling you on the phone.

Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, was calling Crowe on the phone.

The writer had just landed an enormous scoop: an interview with Page, lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, who never gave interviews to anybody.

Crowe had been on tour with the band for three weeks, his eyes blood-red from lack of sleep. Finally he caught up with the elusive guitarist at the Plaza Hotel in New York (there are echoes of this incident in the film) and persuaded him to talk for the magazine.

“Suddenly I had all these friends,” Crowe recalls. “Bebe Buell [actress Liv Tyler’s mother, a model] showed up in my room. The Stones. Amanda Lear. It was like a Fellini movie–except I’d never seen a Fellini movie at the time.”

Crowe wrote the interview and sent it in. A detail: The band arrived for the cover shoot, and Page walked in clutching a bouquet of dead roses. Coolest photo ever. Except the light meter didn’t work and the photo didn’t come out.

Later, Wenner called and told Crowe to come to his San Francisco town house. When the writer got there expecting praise, instead the publisher said: “This was an important piece. And I was very disappointed. You didn’t write what you wanted to write. You wrote what they wanted you to write.” Crowe was devastated.

Wenner went on: “We’re going to run it. But you failed. And I say this to you because you have the potential to be a real writer.”

Crowe recounts this story 20-some years later, as breathless as the day he experienced it. It jolted him from his comfort zone, kept him from becoming a courtier with a pen among the royalty of rock. “Jann was right. . . . He affected me in a very deep way. He slapped me down from being on the verge of being cocky.”

Years later, Wenner doesn’t remember it that way. “He was so charming–big, with this sweet, goofy smile. You were disarmed by his sweetness,” he says by phone from New York. “But he’s dead-on as a reporter. He was coming to grips with whether he was on the inside or the outside.”

It’s a theme that is ever present in Cameron Crowe’s life, a persistent issue for a big-budget director of Hollywood movies who retains the heart of the quiet observer.

What was true then is true now: Is Crowe on the inside or the outside?

“It’s a dilemma and you’re 16,” he says, launching into the time when Gregg Allman, in a fit of paranoia, confiscated all of his interview tapes. He never told Rolling Stone.

But then he stops because he’s ducking the question. For Crowe, the dilemma is still very much alive. Is he in the audience or on the stage? “I do still debate that,” he says. “Every journalist makes moral decisions. Picks and chooses.”

“I think that’s a big fear for Cameron,” Crudup says. “I think he’s terrified of being the object of commerce. It seems to me to be one of the things that guides him.”

Danny Bramson, a longtime friend who coordinated the music for the film, remembers when Crowe first sent him the script. He was stunned that the director would splay his life across the screen in such an intimate way. “My first response was to call him, and I said, ‘God, are you ready for this?’ ”

Then there’s Patrick Fugit, who was born in 1983, and plays the role of Cameron, a k a William, in the film. He’s lanky and 17–grown two inches since the shoot–wearing a black Led Zeppelin T-shirt.

When he got the part, he thought Led Zeppelin was somebody’s name.

Here’s the direction that Crowe gave Fugit during six weeks of one-on-one rehearsals in the director’s Los Angeles office:

“What we don’t want to do is have the character be Cameron Crowe at 15,” said Crowe. “He’s not that interesting.”

So instead, they came up with a character who was, says Fugit, “bright-eyed, scared and nervous.”

Crowe, the screenwriter, wrote the following line for Crowe, the character: “I’m not sweet!” This is said in a fit of anger. “I’m dark and mysterious and [ticked] off!”

Completely unlike the director. Right?

Of course not. “He still is sometimes like that,” says Fugit. “He’ll say, ‘Try to play it this way.’ And then if you nail it, he’ll yell, ‘Cut!’ and start jumping up and down. You can see there’s still Opie in him.”

After years of writing cover stories for Rolling Stone–about the Eagles, the Band, Van Morrison–Crowe had had enough at the ripe old age of 23. He felt burned out.

He retired to write a novel about the high school experience he almost had and called it “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He sold the movie rights. Suddenly he was hired to be its screenwriter. Released in 1982, the film became a kind of cult hit.

His next movies, “The Wild Life” in 1984, “Say Anything” with John Cusack and “Singles,” a pre-“Friends” “Friends” set in Seattle, slipped under the cultural radar despite some critical praise. At least he met his wife, Nancy Wilson, the former Heart singer, during the scoring process; they now have 6-month-old twins.

And then in 1996 came “Jerry Maguire,” starring Tom Cruise as a down-on-his-luck sports agent searching, more or less, for the meaning of life. It knocked the critics and audiences back and won a slew of Oscar nominations; Cuba Gooding Jr. won a statue for playing the cocky, show-me-the-money football player.

How do you follow that act? Crowe didn’t. He ducked the pressure and became a journalist again, writing a book based on a series of conversations with one of his idols, director Billy Wilder. But eventually he had to face up to the pull of the story that had been banging around in his head for years. Crowe wrote it down, finally. He cast it. He shot it. But even then, he couldn’t quite give it a name. For months it hung around on Hollywood movie schedules known only as “Untitled.”

About two months ago, Crowe decided on “Almost Famous,” a noncommittal name that aptly conveys the shaky middle ground where the director feels most at ease–neither here nor there, neither famous nor anonymous, neither celebrated nor ignored.

“I’m not famous,” he insists. “It’s good. To not be famous.”

Courtesy of Washington Post – Sharon Waxman – September 10, 2000