Almost Famous is the movie Cameron Crowe always wanted to make--and the movie he tried to keep from making as long as he could. The writer-director insists he didn't want to make a film about his wonder years as a Rolling Stone writer in the 1970s, because he didn't want to look like an egomaniac. That's why he spent a year interviewing Billy Wilder for a book about the director of Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot--for love of the man, and fear of the future. Crowe swears he would have preferred doing anything other than documenting his life as a 15-year-old rock writer who lost his innocence backstage, and fell in love with the musicians who broke his heart and the groupies who tried to mend it.
"Hell to me would be the fact you made a movie that glorifies yourself, and heaven would be that you caught a moment in time," Crowe says. "I was always looking for an easy way out." He emits a high-pitched laugh, and you wonder if that's how he has always sounded--the grown man who giggles like a little boy. It's little wonder that musicians who despised Rolling Stone in the 1970s allowed Crowe access to their backstage lives.
Crowe, of course, couldn't resist making his life story--not after the success of 1996's Jerry Maguire gave him that one shot to make any movie he wanted, no matter how personal. But in the end, Almost Famous isn't really Crowe's story (his surrogate is a wunderkind writer named William Miller, played by moptop Patrick Fugit), but rather a movie about how it feels to listen to rock and roll. It's the story of children turned on to and by music for the very first time. It's about how it feels to hear a needle drop on a slab of revolving vinyl, when that hiss gives way to an acoustic guitar which gives way to a lyric that speaks directly to you. It's the story of The Fan, the true believer who offers his gods and goddesses only unconditional love.
Almost Famous is the film Crowe tried to make in 1992, when he set Singles in Seattle for a grunge-rock Manhattan. But nobody in Singles heard the music; they just watched it from the sidelines. They were bystanders nodding their heads in smoky clubs while trying to chat up a would-be girlfriend; they used their record collections as mate bait. When it arrived in theaters, Singles already felt like a vestige: a used Pearl Jam CD wallowing in the nice-price bins.
Crowe's new film, set in 1973, is timeless. It is classic rock, a Led Zeppelin song or a Who album that never shows its age. It's the scene in Crowe's 1989 film Say Anything... in which John Cusack packs his bags to the soft, sad "Within Your Reach" by the Replacements. It's the scene in 1982's Crowe-penned Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in which Jackson Browne coos "Somebody's Baby" while Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity in a dimly lit dugout. And it's the scene in Jerry Maguire in which Renée Zellweger sees her son kissing Tom Cruise, while Bruce Springsteen moans "Secret Garden" in the background.
"With Singles, here was this thing that was supposed to feel like an album, but nobody listened to music in it," Crowe says. "So I just wanted to make sure Almost Famous had those moments where music kind of scripted the lives of the characters for them. There are times in the movie where I watch it and go, 'Cool, we caught Zeppelin's "That's the Way" on a summer day, when the sun just flares out and you're listening to this acoustic guitar that's getting stronger, and you'll remember that moment as the definitive listening experience for that song.' I wanted to catch the way it makes you feel."
Crowe likes to refer to Almost Famous as his "chapter-ender"; it's the final installment in his films about "the brutal journey of the idealist," as he says in mock seriousness. He does not hide the fact that he's always been the "star" of his movies. Lloyd Dobler, Steve Dunn, Jerry Maguire, and William Miller exist as Crowe's stand-ins, the thin façades behind which he barely hides. He decided to be more honest about it this time only because Almost Famous is the inevitable conclusion to his series of autobiographies. Everything until now was a semicolon. Almost Famous is the period.
"The next movie I'm fortunate enough to be able to make is gonna be the beginning of the next stage--not the corruption of that idealism so much as just accepting the responsibility of never hiding behind your youth, and dealing with the world as an adult," he says, referring to Vanilla Sky, which will star Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. "All my characters, in a way, trade on their youth, and I've done that too, and I have a lot to say about that as well. But melancholy's still melancholy and sweet is still sweet, even if you're an adult."
When Crowe joined the staff of Rolling Stone in 1973, the 15-year-old was the most precious of commodities: a young acolyte not yet damaged by the industry of cool. In his 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, Austin-based writer Robert Draper insists that had it not been for the discovery of Crowe, the magazine "might have trundled through the Seventies like a blind man in a wheelchair." Jann Wenner's magazine had lost touch with its readers and the fans--and, worst of all, the music. The magazine had no identity, save for that of the yellowing relic. "The senior writers of the magazine were probably growing more distant from the music," former music editor Abe Peck told Draper. "And then here's Cameron, reacting the same way that everyone from Jann on did in 1967. This is his first flush of rock and roll."
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Crowe, trading on his youth and innocence, managed to woo bands that had come to loathe Rolling Stone. Led Zeppelin had long insisted it wanted nothing to do with the magazine, since it had trashed every one of its albums. Crowe got Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to sit down for a lengthy interview in March 1975--and, in fact, Crowe is the only filmmaker to receive permission from the two to use Zeppelin songs in his films. He adored the artists whom the older Rolling Stone writers despised: the Eagles, Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers, Poco, Linda Ronstadt, and Yes.
Though Draper suggests that some writers bristled at Crowe's "lack of a critical edge," by the mid-1970s, many West Coast musicians told the magazine they would only agree to appear in Rolling Stone if Crowe did the interview. Crowe was never bothered by accusations that he used his job at Rolling Stone to become friends with musicians, despite the advice of critic and mentor Lester Bangs, who is Almost Famous' conscience. The thrill of being so close to the source of creation rendered all accusations a moot point. He always considered himself the fan's surrogate, the guy reporting from the front-row seat a Rolling Stone reader might never have.
But Almost Famous is hardly a love letter to the 1970s or, for that matter, the author himself. It is criticism couched in nostalgia, the bitter pill coated in sugar, as Wilder used to say of his own films. The writer-director has made a cinematic version of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds: There's a heartbreaking story lurking just beneath its grinning, stoned exterior. Crowe, still the true believer, revels in the metaphor.
"I love Brian Wilson," he says. "I love the thing that sounds sweet and is sort of pop, but you go back and listen to it again, and you realize that this is a guy who has given up, who's heading for the sandbox. Listen to Brian's song 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times.' It is deathly sad, but you'd never know it till the second or third listen. The same is true of Fast Times. It's very sad when the girl gets an abortion, but she's just fuckin' glad that her brother is parked outside and she has a car she can get into. I just like celebrating the small, sweet moments. I love that in Almost Famous, we cut to a kid's face who hears 'My Cherie Amour' in his mind while a girl's getting her stomach pumped, because he's just happy to be in the same room with her. It's sort of my sensibility, and you get it or you don't, but to me it's more interesting. And, yeah, it all comes from music."