Crowe’s Nest: Film Festival becomes Almost Famous for its 25th anniversary

Director Cameron Crowe presented his poetically autobiographical Almost Famous to the Toronto International Film Festival at a world premiere gala screening in the Roy Thomson Hall September 8. It is the story of how Crowe began his career as a rock writer at the tender age of 16. The movie is highly accurate in the cultural details, while the names of most of the film’s characters have been changed to protect the innocent, or the guilty, which in the film’s early ’70s universe was often a relative question.

Crowe sat down with The Hollywood Reporter features editor Noë Gold, who crossed paths with Crowe years ago: When Crowe’s infamous Rolling Stone cover story on the Allman Brothers Band appeared, Gold was the music reviews editor of another rock rag, Crawdaddy.


THR: How does it feel to be a cultural hero?

Cameron Crowe: You know, all I wanted to do with the movie is not make one of those self-glorification, golden haze kind of fiction pieces. I thought, you know, non-fiction is the way to and if you can’t do a documentary which is usually gonna be the best way to see rock on a screen, but be true to the way the music makes you feel, and that’s more important than the glory of me— [postures] “Well you know when I was on the road with Lee Michaels” — you know you don’t want something unseemly about it all but if you can catch what it is the be a fan and celebrate it.

Like, I’m always so proud — even though I know the movie traditionally I think the structure of the movie… you wouldn’t have that scene with Fairuza Balk talking about what it is to be a fan? If you cut that scene, you have no movie.

THR: To me the transitions are the first of the hallmarks of your style that I recognize and really enjoy. For instance, when the band ditches the tour bus to switch over to travelling by airplane. There’s a cut right there and on the soundtrack we hear Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’ — cranked up guitar that really makes a comment about the sequence.

Crowe: Yeah, yeah.

THR: Speaking of Hendrix, you use a visual reference when we enter [kid character’s] room, we see a big poster of the Jim Marshall photograph of Jimi staring at us. What struck me was the artefacts, the visual details you have so painstakingly created. That’s the second hallmark that so impressed me. Your use of detail as iconography. The first time I watched the movie, I let it wash over me. The second time, at last night’s screening, I just got off on the details. And what strikes me is the rights and permissions work you must have to go through.

Crowe: Yeah, we fought hard for that [permission to use ‘Voodoo Child’]. That was the toughest one to get. We had to beg quite a bit. They [the rights holders] did not want to give it to us because these days anything with perceived sex and drugs they don’t want associated with Jimi Hendrix.

It’s amazing. I mean, some of those car ads are more pornographic than movies that glorify decadence in rock. But still, whatever man, if they are able to keep Hendrix’s legacy alive however they do it is just fine. But [laughs don’t draw the line at me!

THR: Now, the planned companion DVD that you were talking about at the press conference today, could you tell me how that would look in terms of ancillary music that might be put on there, as opposed to ancillary video that would be put on there. And are you going to shy away from it because of rights and permissions issues, or would that be a crux move for you in terms of positioning this DVD?

Crowe: We had a lot of material that didn’t make it into the movie — the version that is going out into the world. The longer version is indulgent — hopefully gloriously so — and there’s a lot of stuff that deserves to be seen, but . … Whenever I see a collection of deleted scenes, it begs you to watch that and go … “I don’t know why they used that. I would never use that. What is that?”

THR: It’s not just some “Easter Eggs” you’re talking about here? Sounds like a special version of the movie on a DVD.

Crowe: This [the special DVD Crowe is planning to release] is a whole cut of the movie, a different, fatter cut. It’s about two hours and 45 minutes, something like that and it has the full Stillwater [the fictional band that Patrick Fugit’s character follows around in the movie] concert stuff. It has Frances McDormand listening on the phone as her son plays [Led Zeppelin’s] ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in its entirety, and you at home have to put on ‘Stairway to Heaven’. It freeze-frames. It’s not interactive material.

But the DVD version of that scene will just have the longer version and because Led Zeppelin will never sell the rights to ‘Stairway to Heaven’, you at home get to supply it.

THR: Early in the movie, Frances is walking with her two kids and there’s a movie marquee in the background that shows two movie titles — Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses and the D.A. Pennebaker Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back. Was there a thematic reason for those two movie titles?

Crowe: Yeah, in fact. Both of those movies probably had an equal effect on Almost FamousStolen Kisses just for the beautiful light touch that masks the deeper pain and anxiety and lost love. And Dont Look Back because it’s just corrosive and real. And they would have snippets of live shows that were just great. You could barely get a hand on them and they were gone.

As far as a rock movie that isn’t a documentary, I would go with QuadropheniaQuadrophenia is probably still the best rock movie that isn’t a documentary.

THR: There’s another scene in the movie that shows your attention to detail. There’s a flash cut to a marquee of Max’s Kansas City, the legendary New York club where so much decadent rock history unfolded in the ’70s — and doesn’t exist today. You recreated the club for a party scene, but the lighting was not like I remembered it. It wasn’t dark and cavernous, with red booths and Dan Flavin fluorescent-light sculptures. It was a daytime party. A record industry party with beer bottles and messiness. And that art direction was intentional.

Crowe: Exactly. The scene was “Let’s get to Max’s.” Plus we wanted Kate Hudson’s character, Penny Lane, to run across town to the Plaza hotel with a little bit of light in the sky.

THR: Where something more dramatic will happen.

Crowe: It just seems sadder that she would do that with some light still in the sky. It’s so cool that you see the details like that.

THR: Once again, god is in the details. I saw the movie two weeks ago and it took me on a time trip. I let it wash over me. Last night, I noticed the film’s rhythm, which takes you into the world of these strange-looking rock and rollers. Gradually, as you keep watching, you go back to the ragtag days of 1974. And all the visual cues are right.

Crowe: I love what [cinematographer] John Toll did so much. There’s a lot of beautiful work there.

The movie is about music. It really is from the heart. I always love the albums and this was attempting to be part of the tradition. But it’s a musical tradition that was fun. Fun is good. And it is about music that is “ultimately righteously dumb,” as [the late rock critic] Lester Bangs said.

THR: Tell me about the time when Gregg Allman freaked out on you.

Crowe: We were on the road for a couple of weeks with the Allman brothers and the night before I went home he had a vision that I might be a cop, and called me up to his room and asked for all the tapes. And this was my first cover story for Rolling Stone. And I was scared. And I gave him all the tapes. I never told Ben Fong-Torres [Crowe’s editor at Rolling Stone, who is depicted in the movie].

I got them back in the mail later and [legendary Allmans manager] Phil Walden called me up and said, “Hey, Cameron Greg woke up in Hawaii with your tapes and, uh, you know the brothers sure did like you on the road. Hope everything’s fine and Gregg sends you his love and … “

I was just happy to get my tapes back and to just do my story. And I knew if I told Ben about that… I just kept it under my hat and wrote the story.

Years later Neal Preston was shooting Gregg for People magazine and Gregg said, “Hey whatever happened to that kid that came on the road with you and the band?”

Neal says, “Well the guy’s making movies now. He’s doing this movie about rock right now. He made Jerry Maguire. Gregg says, “Great. Boy, we really put that kid through the ringer.” That’s what he remembered. And it’s funny how so much of that informed what ther movie was. Cause they put me through the wringer. But I was happy to be in the wringer, Wrenched out.

THR: We could go on reminiscing about those rock and roll days of the ’70s, but people can see the movie for that. Would you answer one question we have about the future? You have a [Tom] Cruise/[Penelope] Cruz project coming up next, don’t you? What can you tell us about that?

Crowe: Not much, but it is called Vanilla Sky — which is kind of a musical title, and I’m happy about that — and it’s a contemporary love story set in New York. It’s Cruise, Cruz and Cameron Diaz.

THR: And when do you start work on it?

Crowe: We start at the end of next month. Yeah, I’ll be full of energy by then [laughs]. I’ll be anxious to get out there and do it again.

© Noe GoldThe Hollywood Reporter, 12 September 2000

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