Be Honest And Unmerciful: Cameron Crowe Talks ALMOST FAMOUS
Photo by Neal Preston, courtesy of Cameron Crowe and Almost Famous.
There are few films that capture the experience of being a fan better than Almost Famous. There are also few films that capture the experience of being a journalist better than Almost Famous. A chronicle of writer-director Cameron Crowe’s fledgling days as a music lover and reporter disguised as a fictional coming of age story, the 2000 opus rests at a crossroads between personal passion and professional obligation, sympathetic complicity and trenchant objectivity. And particularly in an age when social media allows fans to interact with their favorite artists, and the media examines every aspect of their lives, the film’s underlying message about that tenuous relationship seems more relevant than ever: “Be honest, and unmerciful,” as Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) succinctly puts it.
Crowe, who’s currently working on a romantic comedy about a defense contractor who falls for an Air Force pilot, generously spoke to Birth.Movies.Death. via email to answer a handful of questions about Almost Famous. Having carved out a career for himself as a director to whom soundtracks are at least as important as the movies they accompany, Crowe spoke to the film’s authenticity as a portrait of rock journalism in the 1970s, as well as its unvarnished honesty in documenting his own transition from fan to reporter -- and perhaps most importantly, where the lines between those roles continue to blur.
The film is obviously a loving tribute to your experiences -- one which every journalist wishes he or she could have gone through. When was the moment for you when you went from being a fan to being a journalist? Was there a moment, even in retrospect, where you felt you made that transition?
There are a couple. One was the first cover story assignment on the Allman Brothers Band, which became the basis for much of ALMOST FAMOUS. On the eve of leaving the tour with a ton of interview tapes and research, Gregg Allman asked for my tapes back, believing that I was actually an undercover cop sent to spy on the band. The band had been burned by a ROLLING STONE reporter before, and he had become worried that this too would be a doomed endeavor. I was incredibly disillusioned, and expected to be banned from writing for ROLLING STONE over the incident. Luckily, Gregg returned the tapes a couple days later, and blamed it on exhaustion and personal confusion. I was grateful, but the lesson was learned -- each assignment would be different, with a different mix of personalities and a standing duty to deliver the story. With the help of Ben Fong-Torres, we put the article in shape, developed a clear-eyed perspective on the band, and I've never looked back. Also, at 19, I wrote a story called "How I Learned About Sex," which was hampered by writer's block until I just gave up and wrote it as if I was writing a letter to a friend. That was another breakthrough. It felt like I had found a writing voice that might stretch beyond rock journalism. The tone of that article is the same tone as the movies I've made.
There are so many great conversations between William and Russell where Russell could just as easily be manipulating William as being honest with him. Even if they didn't realize it at the time, was there ever a moment when you were aware they were using maybe an uncharacteristic "honesty" to try to manipulate you into "making them look cool?"
Sure, almost every time. But that is the dance between any reporter and his interview subject.
The "Tiny Dancer" sequence is one of the truly wonderful sequences in cinema of the last few decades. But was there any experience that inspired it? Or even, did you ever experience a moment where a song sort of brought a band together in the way that Elton John's did there?
Many times. Sometimes it was a jam session, sometimes a song on the radio, and sometimes music that a band traveled with -- Led Zeppelin were very enamored of Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley and the Guess Who. Much more than drugs or sex, music was always the baseline passion of the groups I covered. Which is not to say that there weren't wild days and nights of debauchery, there were, some of which I witnessed and some of which I saw the effects of the next day... but in the years of covering and touring with artists for RS and other publications, I never ran across a single musician who wasn't transported while talking about or playing music they loved. It was always my common ground as a reporter. I love music too. It wasn't a job to me. It was a miracle of serendipity.
What to you was perhaps the most painfully honest thing you included in the film about your own experiences? What is the moment where you were the least sure, or maybe now, the most sure, you wanted the world to experience through William Miller's eyes that you went through yourself?
Probably the relationship with Zooey [Deschanel], who plays a character based on my sister. Music was a big common thread in our family, and sometimes our best way of expressing passion and love to each other.
The internet has become a great democratizing force for journalism and writing about art. How do you feel about the divide between journalism and fandom today? Are people closer than ever to the bands that they like? And if so, is that a good thing?
I think Lennon said it best, paraphrasing, that music is a big rushing river and there are many tributaries that lead into that river. But the river is a constant, it never changes... music will always be a single essential language shared by everybody, and it continues to be, regardless of format, price, social networking, sex, nationality, concert tickets or technology. That's pretty much the inner theme of ALMOST FAMOUS. And thanks to the time and the era in which we made it, we had the money to make the movie correctly. I'll always be so proud of it.
What ultimately was, is or would be the threshold for you telling a warts-and-all story about your experience with a band? What value do you see in reporting the peccadilloes of a band "struggling with success," and all of their problems, versus, say, profiling them in a cleaner or perhaps more diplomatic way?
I think you have to step back and look at the big picture. What is the mood, the feeling, the truth about the atmosphere and intention of the people you're profiling? Of course, a twenty minute session at a hotel ballroom junket won't get you far. You are blur to the person you're interviewing, and they are a blur to you. You are not seeing a person, or even having a conversation, you're essentially creating content with a mutual understanding that neither of you will ever remember [from] the encounter later that day. It's a recipe for cynicism, unfortunately. ALMOST FAMOUS was about a time not so long ago, when people depended on each other a little bit more to explain their art and purpose. I always respected JD Salinger for walking away from publicity entirely, but I respected John Lennon more for sitting down with Jann Wenner for that first long ROLLING STONE interview. Together they brought a fuselage of truth, letting the chips fall where they might, and they created the modern confessional interview. I was lucky enough to come along in the aftermath, and ALMOST FAMOUS is about the implied contract between a reporter and his subject in the early seventies -- Lennon had set the standard. So now... how truthful are you going to get? It was always a fascinating negotiation...
This was originally published in the December issue of Birth.Movies.Death., "Extra! Extra! The Alamo Drafthouse Delivers The News" in honor of Anchorman 2. See Almost Famous at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.