"Almost Famous" is vintage Cameron Crowe: a sugary, warm-hearted gospel chronicling life's more luminous moments, it is full of whimsical characters and is set to a kickin', nostalgic soundtrack. But in this film, the writer/director's penchant for romantic storytelling benefits from some added heft--the truth. That's because this tale of a rock-worshipping, wide-eyed 15-year-old boy touring with a fictionalized '70s rock band as a Rolling Stone critic is built around the director's own fairy-tale teenage years.
So much of "Almost Famous" is based on Crowe's life that the film has already begun generating its own folklore. Speculating on what's truth and what's fiction has become the latest Sunset Boulevard parlor game; rumors that Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner vetoed Crowe's original casting choice because the actor was too fat rage through Hollywood. Wenner, who enjoyed his "Hitchcockian walk-on" in the movie, says he is pleased with Crowe's ultimate choice. "He seemed good. Very handsome. I thought he looked just like me."
Most of the characters portrayed in the movie, including Wenner, believe Crowe's film closely parallels the truth. Jim DeRogatis, who wrote "Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic," says he liked the film's depiction of Rolling Stone as a "corporate whore palace." And he says Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of the legendarily inflammatory Bangs was dead-on. To prepare for the role, Hoffman spent his time on the set listening to DeRogatis' tapes of his interviews with Bangs on a Walkman, and he nails Bangs' slouch, slur and relentless pacing. "For a lot of bands, it was a rite of passage when Lester trashed you," says fellow Creem writer Jaan Uhelszki.
How much Bangs' friendship had to do with Crowe's success is anybody's guess. The key to Crowe's rapid-fire ascent was probably how much bands liked the chubby-cheeked, earnest 15-year-old. In fact, Crowe got so much access to his subjects that it's hard for anyone to say for sure which iconic '70s group the film's band Stillwater most represents. Crowe toured with everyone from Led Zeppelin to the Allman Brothers to the Eagles, and flashes of all these greats are evident in Stillwater.
Another former staffer at Rolling Stone (who admits she made Crowe cry, much as his character does in the film), remembers that people were envious of the wunderkind because "he got such incredible access." So much access, that rock icons think of Crowe as family. "He was like a little brother" says Glenn Frey of the Eagles. "You wanted to put your arm around him and say, 'Kid, this is rock and roll.' " Most of all, Crowe is remembered for blending in, the best kind of journalist. "Cameron didn't say a lot," recalls Frey.
Maybe not, but he sure did see a lot. Neal Preston, Crowe's oldest friend, remembers a night during the tour when Robert Plant kicked down the door of Preston's hotel room in Cleveland. "We were on tour and there were just a lot of rock-and-roll shenanigans going on and I can't remember what prompted it, but Robert [Plant] kicked my door down and announced he was the prince of peace. It was hysterical." Preston's memory of Plant's midnight rambling closely resembles a scene in the film where hotheaded and handsome Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is hanging out with fans, drops some acid, and climbs a roof announcing he's the "golden god."
Despite the consensus that "Almost Famous" is, for the most part, very real, Crowe's inclination to see the best in people means some psychedelic darkness has been glossed over for the film. "He's just a fan," says Wenner. "He'd go on the road and he'd fall in love with what he was doing, the people he was covering, and he'd bring back a loving portrait of them all."
That's not surprising. One thing everyone who's involved with or portrayed in "Almost Famous" agrees on is that the '70's rock culture the film immortalizes was a special time, a moment in history that won't likely be repeated. "At the end of the day what was really important to all of us was how a silly piece of music made us feel and how it can continually touch us to this day," says Preston. "You know that feeling you get when you hear a song from 30 years ago?"