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COVER STORY

This Time, It's Personal

A '70s rock film co-starring . . . Mom? It's Cameron Crowe's life story, and he's tried to tell it for years.

August 27, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer

For anyone who's ever been a teenager, one of the most exquisitely soul-piercing moments in Cameron Crowe's autobiographical new film, "Almost Famous," comes when the 15-year-old rock writer goes to the San Diego Sports Arena to interview Black Sabbath for Creem magazine--driven there by his mother.

As he gets out of the car, his mother, played by Frances McDormand, tells him that she'll be back at 11 o'clock sharp to pick him up. "If you get lost," she says, "use the family whistle." She watches her baby-faced boy disappear into a crowd of 1973-era stoned concert-goers. Overwhelmed by a powerful maternal instinct, she lets out a piercing whistle, calling out to him, sweetly but loudly enough for everyone to hear: "Don't take drugs!"

Dozens of kids instinctively jerk their heads in her direction, having heard the jarring sound of a mom. Her son cringes as he looks back at her, and from everywhere comes the jeering refrain: "Don't take drugs!!"

Alice Crowe admits that her son didn't use that much dramatic license in writing the scene. A former psychology professor and family therapist, she was clearly the major force in raising Cameron and his older sister, Cindy (Her husband, James, died in 1989, but is not depicted in the film). Alice was fiercely protective and intensely nurturing, a familiar combination for anyone who's seen the parental figures depicted in Crowe's films. If she was a teacher, Cameron was her star pupil, as if she were grooming her son to be her intellectual companion.

So it seems fitting that when she gives a rare interview in the 43-year-old director's Santa Monica condo, reminiscing about her son's boyhood years in San Diego, he sits on the floor at her feet.

Due out Sept. 13 from DreamWorks, "Almost Famous" is Crowe's valentine to the wild-eyed world of '70s rock 'n' roll. But the $60-million film is also a rarity in today's bottom-line-oriented Hollywood: an intensely personal story focusing on Crowe's turbulent family life and his early days as an impossibly young rock journalist. It's almost a contradiction in terms: an intimate big-budget movie.

The picture stars newcomer Patrick Fugit as the 15-year-old Crowe, known in the film as William Miller. His first assignment for Rolling Stone takes him on tour with Stillwater, a fictional band whose lead guitarist and lead singer (Billy Crudup and Jason Lee) are coming to grips with their first success. Aided by a winsome young groupie played by Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn's daughter), Crowe's character becomes a part of the band's inner circle, losing his objectivity as a reporter but gaining an appreciation for the value of friendship and family.

Alice Crowe says she always wanted Cameron to be a lawyer, but his obsession with rock quickly outstripped any academic ambitions. At 15, he wrote pieces for rock magazines such as Zoo World and Creem, home of Lester Bangs, the legendary rock-critic bomb thrower who is played in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman. At 16, Crowe was writing for Rolling Stone, where he interviewed innumerable rock icons before writing "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and later writing and directing such films as "Say Anything" and "Jerry Maguire." Most recently he published "Conversations With Wilder," a series of interviews with legendary film director Billy Wilder.

When Cameron was a boy, Alice brought him to farm worker meetings and peace demonstrations. She also took him to see movies she felt were intellectually provocative: She sneaked her preteen son into "Carnal Knowledge" by claiming he was 17. When Cameron was 12, they went to an Eric Clapton concert together. Everyone was smoking pot, Alice recalls, but if someone passed a joint to her, "I just passed it along, right past Cameron, to the next person."

Soon Cameron was hanging out at the Door, San Diego's underground newspaper, which began publishing his rock reviews. When Crowe, who was too young to drive, went to Los Angeles to do interviews, he would sometimes hitch a ride with the paper's editor, a giant of a man named Bill Maguire (whose name Crowe appropriated for the character of Jerry Maguire).

On one trip, Maguire crashed with Crowe, who was staying at the Continental Hyatt House, the '70s-era Sunset Strip in-spot for touring rock bands. Crowe shot several "Almost Famous" scenes at the hotel, re-creating its garish '70s-era look.

Sitting with his mother, Cameron regales her with a tale that didn't make the movie but exemplifies the spirit of the time. "This story's going to scare you, Mom," Crowe says, explaining how Maguire brought a woman back to their room, believing Cameron was already asleep.

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