Crowe’s father, James, who died in 1989, doesn’t figure in Almost Famous. “It’s just more powerful and truthful not to have my dad in the film as just a sidekick to my mom,” says Crowe, who promises to write about his father someday to honor his support in an anti-rock house. Alice Crowe was and is a formidable presence who instilled her love of knowledge in Cameron at an early age. She saw an intellectual kindred spirit and encouraged it with literature and foreign films. “His mother had an important impact on him,” Billy Crudup says about the character and Cameron himself. “Despite the fact that he uses it to seek out rock & roll, he has the mind of an academic, which is to break down a mass into particles to understand the whole thing.”
Alice hoped that Cameron would become a lawyer. He thought he would, too, until he saw his first issue of Creem. “There was this head shop downtown in San Diego where they sold Zap Comix and rock magazines like they were porno,” Crowe says. “You had to be eighteen to look at them, but there was a guy who would let me. I thought it was the greatest thing. The guys that wrote for them tweaked the music – but respected it and lived this rock-filled lifestyle.”
Crowe’s career path took a definite turn after his sister brought him to a meeting of the local underground paper, the San Diego Door. “She was going out with a guy on the staff and brought me to a meeting, under the condition that I not tell Mom,” he says. “There were these great-looking movement women in tank tops smoking weed.” Crowe asked if he could submit record reviews, and he struck gold: “They were like, ‘No. Music is a corporate tool…. Well, we do need the advertising from the record companies.’ Then they tell me about this guy who did reviews and still sends them in. And it’s Lester Bangs. They show me this file, so thick that they hadn’t even been read or printed. First-draft shit, written on the back of bios. What I would give to have that stuff now.”
Crowe sent clips to Bangs, who had worked at Rolling Stone for a while before joining the staff of Creem magazine, led by another former Rolling Stone editor, Dave Marsh. Bangs, played in Almost Famous by Philip Seymour Hoffman, became Crowe’s Yoda, guiding him through the rock & roll circus over the years. “I first met Lester when he came to San Diego – and everything happened as in the movie,” Crowe says. “He would always warn me about keeping the rock stars happy. I’d tell him I had written about Rod Stewart, and he’d say something like, ‘Great, Rod Stewart … fat, sassy, rich, sitting in a nice, big hotel room. Am I right?’ ‘Yeah,’ I’d say. ‘And do you know what your purpose was coming into that room? To keep him in that rich, fucked-up hotel room.'”
Bangs, who died in 1982 of an accidental OD of Darvon and Valium, had a clear-eyed, merciless attitude about the forces – money and fame – that corrupt music, but Crowe needed to capture what people didn’t always see. “Lester had a strain of compassion that he begrudgingly indulged,” Crowe says. “What a hero! A sentimental guy that would puke if you called him sentimental. The one thing he said to me that day in San Diego that’s not in the movie was this: ‘I can’t stand around talking all day. I have to go drive by the house of the girl that broke my heart.’ It wasn’t a violin moment; he just didn’t want to pass up the chance for some good romantic slop. Then he said, ‘I’ll see ya. … Hey, you hungry?'”
If Almost Famous is Crowe’s love letter to music (Frances McDormand responded, “I love your love letter,” by way of accepting her part as the boy reporter’s mother) and to his biggest influences (he calls his mother and Lester Bangs his “Twin Towers”), it is also a film about families – the one you’re born with and the ones you find. Rock writer Jaan Uhelszki, an old friend, told Crowe that he didn’t make the movie for music, he made it to get his mother and sister talking again. She was right. “My sister and I had a falling-out after my dad died, in 1989, and didn’t talk for a long time,” Crowe says. “Just the other day, we had the best talk that we’ve had in a while because of this movie and the things it brought up.” (Near the end of the film, brother, sister and mother achieve a tentative peace over breakfast and, of course, music.)
“After my dad died,” Crowe continues, “the chemistry of my family got fucked up, and in my wildest dreams, I hope the movie helps my mom and sister communicate. They talk through me now, but three and a half weeks ago our family got together.” He looks at a pile of records for a moment, then turns back. “The one fake scene in the movie – the reconciliation at the end – actually happened in its own weird way,” he says. “My mother and sister did get together, and it was amazing.”
Scene from “Almost Famous” – morning on the Stillwater tour bus. Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays on the stereo. A voice or two sing along. Then others … waking up, joining in.
William: I have to go home.
Penny: You are home.