Cameron Crowe swears that his new film ”Almost Famous” (opening Sept. 15) will be free of the kitsch found in most retro rock movies. The 42 year old writer director says he’s chosen to portray his experiences as a teenager working for rock mags Rolling Stone and Creem in the early 1970s ”not in an ‘Oh, look at our funny hairdos’ kind of way. But to capture the feeling that was around rock before it was the global mission to sell 12 or 15 million copies [of an album].”
At the center of the movie is a fast-living rock band called Stillwater, a fictional amalgam of the groups Crowe traveled with beginning at age 15. Billy Crudup (last seen in the critically lauded ”Jesus’ Son”) plays the group’s lead guitarist, who represents a combination of six-string luminaries: ”A little Jimmy Page, a little Duane Allman, a little Bruce Springsteen,” explains the 32 year old actor. The character based on the teenage Crowe is played by 17 year old newcomer Patrick Fugit, whom Crowe chose partly because of his chemistry with Philip Seymour Hoffman (costarring as Crowe’s surly rock critic mentor Lester Bangs).
In the film, the naive teenager’s assignment to write about Stillwater for Rolling Stone drops him into the heart of the wild ’70s music scene, taking him to places like the notorious Continental Hyatt House in Hollywood, which Crowe wrote about in a Rolling Stone story on Led Zeppelin in the early ’70s: ”So many groupies waited hopefully in the lobby that an entirely different group appeared to pick THEM up. Locals took to calling the hotel the Riot House.”
One memorable night, wrote Crowe, Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, got into a fight with a reporter named Andy McConnell, who ”shined a flashlight in his eyes and cracked, ‘You’re an ugly f—er, aren’t you?”’ Bonzo responded by knocking McConnell across the room. ”You don’t do things like that to Bonzo,” a Zeppelin roadie told Crowe, ”especially when he’s had a few drinks. After a certain point the Beast goes on the prowl and the only thing that amuses him is pillage.”
Crudup, who landed the lead after Brad Pitt dropped out, says he reveled in the chance to play a pillaging ”rock god,” but first he had to work on his guitar skills. ”I can play,” says Crudup, ”but this guy is supposed to be a prodigy.” Not to worry. He got some lessons from his longtime hero Peter Frampton, 50, whose smash ”Baby I Love Your Way” was released when Crudup was just 8 years old. (Frampton — who composed original songs for the film’s soundtrack along with Crowe’s wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson — plays a roadie.) But this wasn’t the pair’s first meeting. Crudup explains that when he was in high school working as a valet in a Fort Lauderdale fish restaurant, Frampton ”came to dinner one time and I parked his car. Now, 15 years later, I’m like, ‘Here, change this E string, man. Chop, chop!”’
Whether the on-set presence of a true ’70s rock vet helped deflect the cheesy ”’Wonder Years’ style”’ reminiscence Crowe says he hoped to avoid is for audiences to decide. But at least one early screening got the right reaction from guys who know a lot about the music scene’s more sordid elements. When he showed the film to Zeppelin members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Crowe says Plant’s first comment after the lights came up was, ”How does your mother feel about this movie?” Guess Crowe never wrote home about the Riot House.