A Boy’s Life (in Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll)
It’s one thing for Cameron Crowe to make a movie about his teen years as a rookie rock journalist for this magazine, among others; it’s another to find the kid to play him. For weeks now, the buzz has been strong on Almost Famous, the film memoir written and directed by Crowe, 43, to capture the giddy expectancy and sobering betrayal of getting close to the flame of the Seventies rock scene. Despite the $60 million bankroll it took to make Almost Famous, the film has a low-budget heart. Crowe wanted to keep things personal. Maybe that’s why he had such a hard time finding the actor to take the ride through his formative years as William Miller, Crowe’s alter ego. During the 1999 casting process, audition tapes piled up. Nothing. Then Crowe saw Patrick Fugit. The sixteen-year-old unknown from Salt Lake City had almost no acting experience. Great. Fresh clay. There was only one problem: about twenty-five years worth of rock & roll. “Before this, I had one Chumbawamba CD – that was it,” Fugit says with a sly chuckle. “I actually thought Led Zeppelin was the name of one guy. Same thing with Jethro Tull.” Crowe doused the young actor with music and forever changed him. “Cameron gave me this huge collection of CDs,” Fugit says, “and told me to have them coming out of my pores by the time we started filming. Now I’m almost as obsessed as he is.”
Not likely. The CDs were just a start. Crowe calls Almost Famous his “love letter” to the music and the family he found in rock & roll before he went on to adapt his 1982 novel, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, for the screen – and to write and direct Say Anything… (1989), Singles (1992) and the Oscar-nominated Jerry Maguire (1996). All these films draw on Crowe’s life and his love of music, but Almost Famous digs deep into the time when rock & roll first lays claim to your soul: a time when hormones romp, love hurts the most, and rock stars loom taller than gods.
Try acting that. It was Fugit’s challenge to bring out the many sides of William: the son whose mother, played by Fargo Oscar winner Frances McDormand, bans rock from the house (“Honey, it’s all about drugs and promiscuous sex”); the fifteen-year-old fledgling journalist who lies about his age to snag an assignment from Rolling Stone; the shy, music-loving kid who cuts school to go on the road with Stillwater, a composite of bad-boy bands like Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers Band, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Along the way, William strikes a nerve with Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), the self-proclaimed “golden god” who blurs the line William tries to draw between fandom and his vocation. William also lives out many a teen boy’s fantasy: A trio of groupies deflowers him. Then he falls in love, hard, with Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the groupie queen who is hopelessly devoted to Russell even when he cashes her in for fifty bucks and a case of beer in a poker game.
How does an inexperienced actor prepare for a role like that? “I was so green and exposed to everything so quickly,” says Fugit, now a year older, with his voice two octaves lower and his frame three inches taller than his screen persona. “It was like an express lane to the front line.” So Fugit did what any raw rookie would do in that situation: He enrolled in the school of Cameron Crowe.
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On January 1st, 1973, fifteen-year-old Cameron Crowe, a precocious student from University High School in San Diego, fulfilled a dream: He interviewed Poco for the magazine you now hold in your hands. Poco were led by Richie Furay – best known as a member of Buffalo Springfield, with Neil Young and Stephen Stills. Crowe, decades away from directing Tom Cruise in a film that grossed north of $160 million, was best known – among his pals, at least – for hustling Rolling Stone into paying him $350 for his first story. After a few more pieces, Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner wrote Crowe a letter of encouragement: “Who knows, you may turn out to be the youngest Rolling Stone man ever…”
The words were prophetic. Crowe, who lied about his age to nab his first assignment, remains the youngest correspondent the magazine has had since its 1967 debut. In his years as a rock journalist, Crowe interviewed Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Yes, the Who, David Bowie, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and most of the players in what is now considered the classic-rock canon – and all before his twenty-second birthday. It’s no accident that Almost Famous is filled with songs by those musicians. For Crowe, it’s the soundtrack of his early life.
Cameron Crowe is a Pack Rat. He and his wife of fourteen years, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, have a house in the woods of Seattle, and they are moving from their Los Angeles apartment to the L.A., home they have recently bought to share with their seven-month-old twin sons, William and Curtis, and three dogs. For the past fifteen years, they have lived in their narrow, dark and cool three-floor condo when in L.A., but the real tenants here are inanimate: Their records line an entire room, floor to ceiling, and the living room and second-floor office (don’t even ask about the garage) are crammed with Crowe’s endless boxes of transcripts, photos, films, scripts, bootlegged concert tapes and seemingly every piece of paper he has ever written on. Crowe’s hands are the first thing we see in Almost Famous – fittingly, he scrawls the opening credits on a legal pad.