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Cameron Crowe on the 20th Anniversary of ‘Almost Famous’: ‘It’s Never Been as Popular as It Is Now’

The writer-director on interviewing rock legends for ‘Rolling Stone,’ screening the movie for Led Zeppelin, and why the film still resonates after two decades

Kate Hudson and Cameron Crowe on the set of 'Almost Famous'

Neal Preston/DreamWorks Pictures

This piece is part of our ongoing coverage of the 20th anniversary of Almost Famous

When Cameron Crowe’s 1996 film Jerry Maguire grossed more than $270 million and was nominated for five Oscars, the writer-director finally had the freedom to make his most personal film yet: a chronicle of his early-Seventies adventures as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, when he interviewed artists like David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, and others. “Jerry Maguire gave me a credit line,” Crowe recalls over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “And I thought, ‘I’m going to use it, because I’ll never be able to make this movie unless it’s right now. This is one that’s achingly personal — and I’ll try not to spend a lot of money.’” 

Almost Famous hit theaters in the fall of 2000, and despite critical acclaim and four Oscar nominations, it fizzled at the box office. “Everybody went to see this rerelease of The Exorcist instead,” Crowe says. “It felt like the long arm of 1973 came back to slap us down.” Twenty years later, though, Almost Famous has transformed into not just a cult classic, but one of the most beloved movies of its era. “We were an underdog that gathered support over the years,” he says. “It’s never been as popular as it is right now.”

Crowe has been working on a Broadway adaptation of the movie. As Almost Famous turns 20, the writer-director looks back with a mix of nostalgia and pride: “It’s not written as anything other than ‘I’m getting a chance to do this, like I got a chance to do journalism, and I want to wave a flag for all the people that helped me and paved a path for a music lover like themselves.’ I think people discovered it and brought their own love of music to it, and that is what I’m proudest of.”

The vast majority of rock movies don’t get it remotely right. I imagine that people were initially skeptical of Almost Famous.
Peter Frampton remembers that we used to sit around and rip on all the people that tried to do a movie about rock from a supposedly authentic point of view. That was like a parlor game, just ripping on all the movies that never got it right. So when I told him, “Come work with us on this movie, it’s about growing up in rock in 1973,” he was like, “What? You’ve become one of them! You’re going to try and capture something that you can never capture!”

That was thundering in my head for a lot of the time we were making the movie, but I just felt everybody’s heart was in the right place. We weren’t doing a movie particularly about drug abuse and the so-called glory of rock-star excess. There’s so many other movies that give you that — or try to give you that. I even thought the Mötley Crüe movie [2019’s The Dirt] was good for that. I thought Machine Gun Kelly really caught some real rock anarchy. But that was never Almost Famous. Almost Famous was falling in love with music at a young age, when you weren’t sure who your friends would be in the world, but these records were your friends. And then you go out into the world and you actually meet people who love those same records, who become your friends. It’s an explosion of feeling like you belong. And that was the rudder on Almost Famous. 

Almost Famous came out at a time of teen movies and big-budget action films. Did you feel like you were going against the grain?
Absolutely. It wasn’t a surprise when the movie didn’t do that well in the theater. But the idea was that this is a freebie, because of Jerry Maguire. [Steven] Spielberg was starting DreamWorks, and he said, “Shoot every word.” And then when we lost Brad Pitt [who was originally cast for the role of Russell Hammond], there was no pressure to find another star. Spielberg said, “The script is the star.”

So yeah, it did feel like an anomaly. It felt like it was only going to happen once, and that’s why I was trying so hard to get every performance as close to what the dream version in my head was, because I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to shoot anymore, and definitely not to make another movie like that. And it’s true. When that movie was done, they were like, “You don’t get to breathe another frame of film, you’re done! You’re so done making this movie.” It’s a really good question, because it still feels like a miracle that we got to make it like that with those people.

Did you ever think while you were conducting those interviews at Rolling Stone back in the day that it would make for a great movie?
Never. Because my dream then was to get a story in Rolling Stone, and then it was in the wildest dreams that I would be able to write a cover story. And then, everything after that was dream-come-true time, but beyond your dreams. I never thought [in scholarly voice] “One day this will become an autobiographical film, which will reflect on this very time.”

I’ve been working on a memoir from those early days in San Diego, so I’ve been going back through all my stuff. I found this Day-Timer from 1973. It’s packed! It’s like, “Jimmy Page phone interview. John Prine, Bonnie Raitt.” Every day, it felt like a kid in a candy store that I could interview these people whose music I loved. 

If I got lucky enough, every day I was able to represent that fan who was also me. And sometimes they would give me shit. Some of the editors of Rolling Stone, kind as they were about it, they would often take me aside and say, “You should write about somebody you don’t like. Test yourself. Go write about somebody whose music you don’t care about, and practice doing a portrait like that.” And I always used to say, “But why waste time with somebody you don’t care about? Somebody somewhere will care about them. So send that person.” That was the dialogue that went on quite a bit. 

But you didn’t just shower them with love. You asked them pretty tough questions.
If you challenge somebody like Joni [Mitchell], the more barbs on a question that respects the music, the better for her. She loves tearing into an answer like that. That’s cool that stood out to you, because I always was proud of the research. There were a bunch of people covering music, especially then — not so much now — that doubted it. A lot of people trashed Led Zeppelin. So they would open up a rock magazine, including Rolling Stone, and there’d be somebody not getting it. So at least that when they saw somebody with a thick notebook with a zillion questions in, like, longhand, they’re like, “OK, well, we’ve got a shot at them knowing our music.”

Was there something that happened in the Seventies that was so insane you couldn’t put it in Almost Famous?
There were a lot of things that didn’t happen in 1973 — I put everything into a composite of things that happened around that time. I didn’t drive until I was 18. I was kind of nervous about driving and had been in an accident when I was a little kid, so I didn’t want to drive yet. So when I covered Bowie for the magazine and for Playboy, he used to drive me around. He would stay up all night recording Station to Station, and then, in a yellow VW that he was using, he would drive me in the morning traffic to [photographer] Neal Preston’s house, where I was staying.

I would look around, and there was red-haired David Bowie in a little yellow VW bug, next to lawyers heading to work. And nobody knew it was Bowie. I would always look around, and be like, “Look! Look! Look! It’s him! It’s actually him!” I know it’s not rock excess, but it’s something you never would expect. Things like that happened a lot, where you just went, “Nobody would believe this, except it’s happening right now.”

I was listening back on some of the tapes from the Bowie interview. He writes a song in the course of this interview to show the Rolling Stone reporter how he writes a song. And there’s a song on this tape that nobody’s ever heard before that he wrote to show me how he did his craft. I will never take those moments for granted.

In an early draft of the script titled Ricky Fedora, you wrote a role for David Bowie to play. The character didn’t end up in the film, but you were still trying to use the character for a different project when Bowie died.
Yes. And I have that script — I just need to find who would play that David Bowie part now. That’s actually coming right up. [Laughs.] What a prescient question. I went back to the character and wrote a script for him. We’ll see. Maybe he’ll help us out from the beyond, send us in the right direction. 

So while you’re doing these interviews and being driven around by rock stars, how did you convince your mom to let you out of the house?
She trusted Neal Preston, and she knew Neal was looking out for me. She knew Neal smoked pot. That troubled her, but she knew that if Neal was around, there was somebody akin to an older brother who’d look after me. And he did. 

He’s the reason I have a career right now, because he went to Hawaii and got my Allman Brothers tapes back. And without that incident, there’s no Almost Famous. There’s no writing career, really. Well, there probably would have been, but not at Rolling Stone. Ben [Fong-Torres] would have fired the hell out of me, losing the tapes to Greg Allman, who takes the tapes and disappears with them. 

The story of the Allman Brothers tapes is featured in the musical, but not in the film. Instead, Alison, the fact checker, calls the band to run the quotes by them. Was that an actual thing at old Rolling Stone?
Yes, my friend. Oh, yes. They didn’t like me too much. Because I would record, like, David Bowie driving me home in the morning. I’m recording and asking him questions, and I’m not wasting time. But these recordings are not great quality in that regard. Usually, they are. But if there’s something, and there’s a lot of noise on it, and they’re like, “I don’t really hear him saying that,” I’d be like, “Trust me! He said it!”

They were just really hard on me. Because it was kind of unorthodox, really. I mean, Ben Fong-Torres would go on the road, and Grover Lewis was a writer from the early days that would go into immersive journalism and stuff. But the fact checkers were never happy at the kind of raw, organic quality of my notes. Also, there was some ageism, I think. Not from the top. Jann was always amazing, and Ben and Tim Cahill and Paul Scanlon and Harriet Fier were amazing. The varsity team. [But] the fact checkers always seemed to gang up on me. 

What are the major differences between you and William Miller, your stand-in in the movie?
I think to make up for the age difference at school, I was sometimes a class clown. Or I would try and say outrageous things to deflect or something. There’s an outtake in the movie, where they’re hassling the little version of William Miller because he doesn’t have pubic hair. They’re saying, “Where are your pubes?” They did that to me. And I remember they were all surrounding me in the gym and the locker room. I was like, “I had ‘em. I shaved ‘em off!” And everybody started laughing, except the one guy who was trying to terrorize me. But the humor diffused the situation of being too young.

I doubt I was as poetic as Patrick [Fugit, who played Miller] in terms of taking in the world and feeling the wonder of it all. I felt like Patrick acted it. It’s just somebody trying to fit in, and you find a place in the world to fit in. That’s the character.

It’s crazy that William Miller’s original name was Scott Stevenson.
That’s fucking funny. Scott Stevenson sounds like a guy that wouldn’t talk to William Miller in school. I don’t think I was ever Scott Stevenson, but I do feel like I’m William Miller. Look at how one wrong decision can cost you everything. You rarely get as lucky as a name like Jeff Bebe. It just comes early. It’s rare.

Patrick Fugit was one of the last people you cast in the film. What was it like to cast yourself?
It was really embarrassing. I mean, Joseph Gordon-Levitt came in and was probably a tiny bit old for the part at the time, but he is really good. You can get very self-conscious reading people to play a character based on you, because they’re studying you as you’re talking to them. So it’s like an untrustworthy mirror you’re looking into. It’s really kind of awkward for everybody. 

You also want somebody that is that age. It’s happened a few times, where there’s something that will never take the place of being that exact age. The little boy in Jerry Maguire was another example, where you find someone at the exact age of the character. They start bringing stuff to it that you forgot, because you’re no longer that age. Patrick was that age. The most golden of his golden gifts was the fact that he was falling in love with Kate [Hudson] while making the movie. And that was the thing: I really wanted a girlfriend. I really wanted somebody to notice me. Watching Patrick play that made me remember all of the yearning. And that’s when you’re by the camera and you’re going, “Oh, my God! Thank goodness we have a guy who’s never been in a movie before, who’s falling in love in real time.” He’s even ad-libbing in the character as himself, but he’s also the character now. I mean, that’s when it gets a little trippy, but so satisfying. 

Frances [McDormand, who plays William’s mother], she short-circuited all of that stuff. She set my mom in the right place, instantly. She was just like, “Hey, this is not three-dimensional chess here. I’m not playing you, I’m not playing me. I’m playing a character named Elaine. Back off.” She’s the only one I’ve ever seen school my mom like that. 

Your mom made a couple cameos in the film, like the deleted scene where Elaine listens to “Stairway to Heaven.” They’re both sitting on the couch together.
For days they did that. Frances was making listening the most entertaining thing I’d ever seen. I was sure that we’d have the full length of the scene and it would just be a hilarious intermission kind of thing in the movie, where now you’re going to listen to “Stairway to Heaven” and watch Frances McDormand rise in the pain of it. I thought we might be able to earn the length of it.

Besides that, I also thought my favorite outtake was the Kyle Gass late-night DJ interview, where he falls asleep with Stillwater in the studio. That was the day that DreamWorks figured out that I’d been shooting that movie for a month and a half and nobody had come to check on us. The brass came up that day, and we’re all in that big DJ room with fake pot smoke filling the room, looking at Kyle Gass asleep while the band says words like “feces.” I’m telling you, it wasn’t long after that that I got the message to film every other word and finish up the movie. We were like a runaway train to them.

The film featured several Led Zeppelin songs. You flew out to London to screen it for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. What was their reaction?
We knew we were going to roll the dice. We had four Led Zeppelin songs in there. [Soundtrack producer] Danny Bramson made sure communication was good. We were coming to them hat in hand. We timed it to the one day of the year Jimmy and Robert got together and went over tapes and talked about Led Zeppelin business. At the end of that day, they came to watch our movie in the basement of a hotel.

It was just Joe [Hutshing] the editor, Danny, and me. We’re in the back row, and Jimmy and Robert are three rows from the front, sitting together. Watching behind, you saw their heads framed by the film, which was iconic in itself. They would lean and say things to each other, and you’d just see this outline of their heads talking privately, and we looked at each other like, “Oh, we’re fucked. They’re trying to figure out how they can leave.”

Then came the “I am a golden god scene, and Plant just laughs. It’s the greatest laugh, and we’re looking at each other like, “Oh, my God! We’re still OK. We’re still OK.” Then came the scene where Jeff Bebe says, “Russell, he has you high on a roof saying, ‘I am a Golden God.’ And Billy [Crudup] says, “I didn’t say that. Or did I?” And Plant goes, “I said it!” [Laughs.] We’re giving quiet high-fives.

The movie ends, and they’re both smiling. Plant walks up the aisle, so he’s in our row. He says [with a perfect Robert Plant impression], “Cameron, was your mom really like that?” I said, “That and more.” He laughed, and he looked at Jimmy, then he said, “I have a bottle of quaaludes that’s been on my shelf since the early Seventies. I think I’m going to go home and crack it open tonight.”

How’d you secure the rights to the music?
They took us across the street to a wine bar. They said, “Well, ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ we gotta say no to, ’cause it’s just too much. We just don’t do anything with ‘Stairway to Heaven.’” We’re like, “Whomp, whomp, whomp.” And Page goes, “But I would like to give you an extra song that’s more of an acoustic busking vibe. We’ll give that to you free.” He replaced “Stairway to Heaven” with “Bron-Yr-Aur.”

He gave that to us for free, just to have that texture in the movie, which was amazing. And we ran through the streets afterward. The rest of that meeting was spent talking about how much we all loved Jeff Buckley. Officially the coolest night ever, or the un-coolest night ever. I don’t know. That was a huge kind of buoy to swim to, because without Led Zeppelin, it’s just not the same movie.

The character Russell Hammond was inspired by Glenn Frey. What did he think of the film?
The last time I saw Glenn Frey, we talked about it. It was probably about eight or nine months before he died [in 2016]. I think he was saying he was thinking about doing a cop show in Hawaii. I said, “You know, thank you for just making us look cool. It’s my favorite line in that movie, and it’s all you, brother.” He got this big smile and said, “That was all of us,” which is really cool.

You credit cinematographer John Toll with the film’s authentic Seventies feel. How did he achieve that?
He had the soul of the era. It was like oxygen for him. It was the milieu that he grew up in. He knew the naturalistic feel. I had a book of images. He would look at the images and know what I meant and what I was looking for. If you say, “Let’s do Kate Hudson dancing on the floor of the trash-strewn arena, remembering the spirit of what had happened in that room,” he would go like, “OK. How about here?” That was a magical time, working with John. He knew enough to not try to know enough. You lose when you’re trying to capture something from the outside looking in. He shot that movie from the inside looking out.

Neil Young originally had a role, right?
Neil was going to come backstage in Cleveland with a young wife. He is Harry Hammond, the estranged father of Russell Hammond. They’re complimenting the show, but the young bride is looking at Crudup, and he’s looking at her; and he realizes that the father is being played and is piggybacking on his [son’s] success. It’s a heartbreaking moment about what success does to an estranged parent. Here’s the scene. It’s right after the T-shirt scene.

[Reads] Russell walks swiftly past a happy silver-haired man who holds court with beer in hand. He dresses too young for his age. Late fifties. He is Dad. 

Russell, dutifully: “Hello, Harry.”
Dad introduces a woman much younger, who eyes Russell hungrily.
“He got all the good genes, huh?” says Neil Young. “Meet Diedre. We’re getting married in July.” 

There you have it. It was a cool little scene. Betsy [Heimann] had outfitted Neil Young, and he had his clothes and everything, and canceled the morning of. But he was first in line to give us the acoustic “Cortez the Killer,” and he went through his archives to find the perfect take and mixed it and gave it to us. So he giveth and he taketh.

Why do you think the “Tiny Dancer” scene connects with so many people?
One, it’s [key grip] Herb Ault and [chief lighting technician] Randy Woodside, and the camera crew outfitted that bus with a rig that allowed you to shoot from the roof. We had the ability to float between the people, which means it wasn’t as cut-y and could be kind of dreamy. 

Also, it’s a movie about loving music, and music is what brings them back together again. Really, it sounds like a technical answer, but it’s not. The freedom of the camera meant there was no one shoving a camera in their faces. It was just an appliance that was moving between them. They were able to be the tour as they were and feel that togetherness, and the camera just caught those moments.

It’s hard to believe the lines “I have to go home” and “You are home” were improvised.
That was just me shouting that out to them, “Try that.” It’s a lesson, really, in getting so comfortable in the world of it so that the movie and the characters are talking. You’re feeling what they would be saying.

Nobody was expecting it to take so long. It grew out of the moment. I got in trouble for spending those extra days. John Toll was like, “If you know what you’re getting into, let’s do it.” So we went full-on into shooting the scene. My favorite part of it, forgive me, is Noah Taylor [who plays manager Dick Roswell]. By the second day of filming, Noah had to confess how much he hated “Tiny Dancer.” He’s a punk-rock guy, and it was so not his thing. But he’s so great that he’s dying. You can see it on his face if you really look. He just hates singing it, which is perfect. Everyone else got with it. 

“Tiny Dancer” wasn’t as popular as it is now.
It wasn’t an established hit, but it really captured the time so well. To his credit, Elton John saw the movie and said, “This is so cool. I’ve always loved ‘Tiny Dancer.’ This means a lot to me.” And he gave us credit for years when he played the song. “This is because of the movie Almost Famous.” Nobody does that. But he does. He really does. He’s so great.

Stillwater’s airplane turbulence was inspired by two different flights you took. Because of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash, were you ever terrified to board?
Always. Every time. I always think about that. It’s scary rock lore, the airplane crash. The Heart plane turbulence was the main inspiration for that scene. There was a long period of time where it was just really, really bad. And it was over Tupelo. There was [also] a really rough plane flight with me and Neal Preston and an early version of merch — one guy with a cardboard box with a bunch of amateur Who T-shirts that were official. And he would fly from show to show in this little plane with his box of Who T-shirts, later to become an industry. 

Your first fictional band was Citizen Dick, the grunge group in Singles. What did you learn from them that helped you create Stillwater?
“You can’t come up with a better name?” [Laughs.] Citizen Dick was more jokey than Stillwater. Stillwater needed to be serious. Citizen Dick was spoofy, and the recording of “Touch Me I’m Dick” was really funny. But I think the lesson was to go utterly un-ironic with Stillwater, or just let the irony exist within the band. It’s such a good question. They were middle school. Stillwater was high school.

Have you ever thought about Stillwater’s future? Did they have a hair-metal period or a Rick Rubin album?
Farrington Road [Stillwater’s third album] was the beginning of them stretching out. An album cover without them on the cover kind of thing. I think from there, they might go to a concept album — their Tales From Topographic Oceans, brought on by the success of “Fever Dog” and “Love Thing.”

So they do a double album that is spearheaded by [Jeff] Bebe, but with a lot of cool instrumentals by Russell. Nobody buys it. The band splinters for many years. Various reunions are tried, maybe one album in the Eighties. Then I think they come together for a roadworthy touring group of House of Blues and other smaller operations, which is [drummer] Silent Ed’s band. Silent Ed becomes Stillwater. And Bebe continues with a solo career. I haven’t figured out Russell yet. Maybe he joins the Eagles. [Laughs.] He becomes Joe Walsh in another band.

Do you think they’re doing a Zoom version of “Fever Dog” in quarantine?
Absolutely. And Bebe sometimes tours with a new version of the Jeff Bebe band, and he has one roadie that’s his son who looks just like him. I’m truly shotgunning here.

Watching it now, do you think there’s this double nostalgia where you’re nostalgic for 2000 and nostalgic for your teenage life?
Yes. And now there’s a third layer because of the play. So you’ve lived that stuff three different times. I think it’s time to stop. [Laughs.] No. Time to grow up. The main reason we are even talking about this right now [was that I had] those experiences that I could write about. As a reporter, I never felt like I had an agenda. I felt like I was being led by loving music and the way music made me feel. 

I’m giving back something with that movie and story. It’s all one big “Thank you.” It’s a pure message to music lovers. And to journalism, because Jann Wenner let me go off with Led Zeppelin. As well as my mom and dad. These people trusted me. I tried to do that for others in the spirit of that, just in life. And the movie is a version of that.

From Rolling Stone US