Yeah, we’ve all got one in us. in our heads it’s been plotted and cast, we know the big scenes, we’re starting to give some thought to the soundtrack. It is, needless to say, fascinating. We are, needless to say, deluded. Our story will never be filmed. Anyway, it’s boring.
Cameron Crowe’s is another matter. “I always felt that this was the one story that I had to tell,” he says. “I’d had it in my back pocket as the one that I knew would be tough, but …”
Before he wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High, long before he wrote and directed Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire, Crowe was a precocious music journalist, a star feature writer at Rolling Stone by the age of 16. That was bad enough. His subsequent marriage to a beautiful rock star (Heart’s Nancy Wilson), blossoming career as a filmmaker, and reputation as a decent fellow only contributed to a pervasive feeling of inadequacy among peers who didn’t even know him. Last year, as if to spite us, he performed a valuable public service by publishing a wonderful series of interviews with Billy Wilder. Now, at 43, he’s finally reached into that back pocket for Almost Famous, his Spinal Tap-via-Truffaut film, which, for better or worse, will remind people of a certain age exactly how they looked, acted, and felt in 1973. And, in no small degree, of what they were listening to.
In the film, Rolling Stone sends 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) on the road to write about a rising, workmanlike rock band called Stillwater. William quickly gets caught up in “the circus” – most intimately with Stillwater’s lead guitarist (Billy Crudup) and chief muse/don’t-call-her-groupie (Kate Hudson) – while his doting, worried, and formidable mother (Frances McDormand) tries to reel him home to California in time for his high-school graduation. Almost Famous isn’t satire, but it’s funny and knowing, the sort of film in which squabbling bandmates air such grievances as “From the beginning, we said I’m the front man, you’re the guitarist with mystique.”
Crowe isn’t coy about revealing his sources: He volunteers, for instance, that this plotline was drawn from his Allman Brothers assignment, that plot twist from an encounter with Neil Young. “I had the rock aspects of the story in different forms for a long time,” he says. “What made it worth making was to be able to do the family stuff, which is all kind of achingly true, I must admit. My mom didn’t go barefoot in the house – that’s about the only difference.”
Crowe is an anomaly in Hollywood, and not just because he’s self-effacing. (Compliment him on his Wilder book, and he’ll gleefully mention a “thrashing” it got in the London Review of Books; tell him how refreshingly free of anachronism Almost Famous’s soundtrack is, and he’ll reply, “There’s one screw-up, a harmonica piece from the beginning of ‘Cortez the Killer,’ which actually came out the next year.”) He also seems to have a pretty free hand in making his movies, thanks in part to what he calls the “shepherding” skills of such allies as James L. Brooks and Lawrence Kasdan. (“He’s the real deal,” says Brooks. “The great thing is that he’s making personal, true movies that are mainstream.”) Crowe also thinks he benefits from the fact that his output is but a relative trickle (“so the ones I do, I fight really hard for”) and from how low-key his movies tend to be. “My films have often flown below the radar and haven’t cost enough to make big waves, nor have they had stars that required advertising,” he says. “More often than not they were made in the shadow of bigger movies.”
Then why step out from the huge shadow of Jerry Maguire and Tom Cruise with a personal film assembled without marquee actors? “Probably because I could,” says Crowe. “There’s a credit line of, I think, one, after you have a movie that was a surprise success – even with Tom in it. It just seemed like the opportunity to kind of do the first movie in a way that I couldn’t have made it if it had actually been the first movie. I felt the time was slipping away where I still had all these vivid memories. It ended up being made pretty much the way I wanted to make it – lovingly and with the time to get all the details right.”
We can assume he got them exactly right: Apparently, a diary is about the only thing Crowe didn’t keep from those days. “All the notes in the montage at the beginning are my own artifacts,” he says. “Notes from a Jethro Tull story, I think, are the ones at the very end. I just kept it all. Those are my records at the beginning, and hotel keys, and pens. There’s a whole subplot in the movie that didn’t make it in – it’ll be on the DVD – where the kid just steals things from every hotel room, including phone books.”
You did this?
“I did. I still have the stuff. I still have phone books.”
“You know, because I would go through the phone books and just think, ‘All these people … and they live in Phoenix! How wonderful and mysterious and I’ll never meet them. I gotta keep the phone book! I may never be back here again!’ And that’s sort of the feeling of the movie, where you never know if you’re gonna be back there again – so take an extra look at that hotel room. Souvenirs – that’s what music is. It’s the souvenir of the experience where you were when you heard it. I’m into souvenirs.”
Crowe acknowledges the inherent strangeness of directing actors who are playing himself and people he knew in situations that actually happened, but says that “the weirdest thing was trying to get Lester Bangs right.” The late, great Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film) was the unruly and influential rock critic who mentored young Cameron/William. “When we shot the diner scene, when Lester says to the kid, ‘Don’t make friends with the rock stars’ – there was something about the way Philip was moving, getting up to get a Coke and lumbering back to the table. I got a cold chill that this was exactly what had happened 27 years ago. That was where the emotional weight hit me. It was difficult for a moment or two. And then we just moved on.”
That’s something Crowe will continue to do, now that he’s told his own story. “This is definitely a chapter-ender, this one,” he says. And what’s next?
“A love story, and I think it might be for Mr. Cruise again. I’ve just written it. See? Trying to pick up the pace! Tom is a big Billy Wilder fan, and he loves the whole idea that Billy Wilder was able to make a number of movies with Jack Lemmon. So how much do you love the guy who says, ‘Let’s find a way where I can be your Jack Lemmon?’ You gotta love that. So we’ll give it a try.”
Meanwhile, there’s Wilder himself to contend with. The 94-year-old director wants to see Almost Famous, and Crowe is arranging a screening. “That,” he says, laughing, “will be a nerve-racking afternoon.”