Rock ’n’ roll naïveté

In 1973, when the closest most young people could get to their favorite bands was seeing them in concert, 15-year-old Cameron Crowe was going on the road with the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, conducting interviews for Rolling Stone. Crowe, who subsequently made a successful transition from rock writer to filmmaker (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire), has mined these experiences for Almost Famous, but found that he couldn’t get too nostalgic about his youthful pursuits.

“I didn’t want to do the misty, golden, beautiful memory-back-in-time,” says Crowe, “I wanted it to be more immediate. I didn’t want it to be an older guy’s memory. I don’t know if it suits rock, really, to be that sweet about it. I wanted it to be affectionate, but have an edge, because that’s how I remembered it.

“The funny thing,” he continues, “is that I kept my notes from everything. I have my diaries and journals from the time and I went back to them, and I do know that everything felt like life or death. Everything felt like all of it was depending on each story, or each interview. So that kept me grounded a bit.”

In the character of William Miller, Crowe has created a wide-eyed observer who wants to absorb everything while trying “to blend into the woodwork.” This precocious young reporter, thrust into a traveling circus of ego-driven adults (who don’t adhere to anything close to conventional behavior), does his best to determine the guidelines of a situation best described as professional intimacy. His guide through this labyrinth? Crowe’s real-life mentor, Lester Bangs.

“He was from San Diego, like me,” explains Crowe, “and he was blazingly original in the first rock magazine that I ever got, which was Creem. He had the balls to not even mention the record he was reviewing in his review. He would write a story about himself or his life and never even mention the music, but you got a sense of the music he was writing about. I thought he was just brilliant, but I thought he was untouchable and dark and nowhere near being a guy like I was.

“Then we corresponded,” he continues, “and I met him and he was a powerful softie to me. He said, ‘It’s great to meet you, I can’t stand here all day talking to my many fans.’ What’s not in the movie is the next thing he said: ‘I’m going to take the bus back to El Cajon and go by the house of the girl who broke my heart and look at the house for a while.’ And I thought, ‘Lester Bangs is going to do this romantic journey? I have a chance, I have a chance being who I am.’ He was very inspiring, and I thought he saw the future.”

In a private tribute to Bangs, Crowe named the fictitious band that’s central to Almost Famous “Stillwater,” and said they were from Troy. The two spent some time there when Crowe was in town with the Led Zeppelin tour and Bangs was working at Creem, whose offices were located in nearby Birmingham. It’s one of many personal details Crowe wove into the film, which is an amalgam of his experiences profiling musicians in the ’70s. Like many arts reporters, Crowe was a fan first, and although Almost Famous chronicles some typical rock-star bad behavior on tour, it never loses sight of Crowe-Miller’s primary motivation for being there.

“Not to be Pollyanna,” Crowe says emphatically, “but there were girls (on tour like groupie-muse character Penny Lane) who spoke about music, and they were there because of the music. It’d be a joke to hear some of that stuff said today, but it wasn’t a joke back then. It was true, and I wanted to show that time in the recent past where you sort of had a glorious but passionate naïveté. That endures to me more than the isolated instances of traditional rock decadence. Now you have ‘Behind the Music,’ which basically turns everybody into Spinal Tap.”

As a 22-year-old journalist, Cameron Crowe went back to high school to write a clear-eyed exposé of suburban teen angst, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and the screenplay adaptation served as his entrance into the film world. That’s a perfect example of the way he manages to simultaneously be a part of the action and calmly observe the results.

So against the advice of Bangs (who sometimes broke his own cardinal rule), Crowe did become friends with musicians. His wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart, wrote the score for Almost Famous (plus collaborating on Stillwater’s songs) and Peter Frampton served as a technical consultant. The surviving members of Led Zeppelin granted him the rights to use five of their songs in the film (a rarity for the band).

“We showed them the movie,” Crowe explains, “and I think it sort of battled back their desire not to be associated with the ’70s. Robert Plant said, ‘We were really sort of like that, weren’t we? It was all so deep and meaningless.’ I thought, ‘That’s pretty interesting because it was so deep and meaningful to me.’” Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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