The ‘Terrifying’ Day Joni Mitchell Saw ‘Almost Famous: The Musical’ — and More Backstage Tales from Cameron Crowe
“It didn’t feel like a modern movie, but it didn’t feel like a nostalgia trip, either,” says writer-director Cameron Crowe, reflecting on his classic autobiographical film Almost Famous. “I wanted the musical to have a similar elixir to it.” After five years of work with some pandemic-induced delays, rapturously received previews, and a well-reviewed first run in San Diego, Almost Famous: The Musical opens on Broadway November 3 – with original songs co-written by Crowe and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, Jagged Little Pill, American Idiot), and directed by Jeremy Herrin, with Crowe writing the book and overseeing every step of the process.
Like the movie, the musical traces the story of how a teenager named William Miller (played onstage by Casey Likes) ends up writing a cover story for Rolling Stone on Stillwater, a “mid-level” midwestern band with a charismatic guitarist, Russell Hammond (Chris Wood). Along the way, we meet William’s rigid but loving mom, Elaine (Anika Larsen), an incandescent but troubled “Band Aid” named Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer), genius critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti), and a whole universe of characters from the hazy, long-vanished rock milieu of 1973.
Crowe spoke for the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast about the making of the musical and much more earlier this week, just before locking the show. To hear the full interview, plus a conversation with Tom Kitt on the creation of the show’s songs, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or press play above. Some highlights follow.
The show mixes original songs with some classics — including, of course, “Tiny Dancer.” But the original pitch you heard was to do an Almost Famous jukebox musical. What led you to reject that?
I spent a couple months a while ago just exploring what that would be. Just kind of putting the smallest amount of a toe in the water – and it just didn’t feel like the movie. It felt a little bit like your face was pressed against a window, trying to look into classic rock, and it just was kind of bombastic.
[Something like] Jersey Boys had a real story, and the writing was so strong that you kind of loved the mix. But I easily could see that that was never gonna work for Almost Famous. And then Tom Kitt came along, and he has such a skill in accessing that feeling of 1973 and those songs. He comes from Billy Joel and Elton John, and I come from Elton John and Led Zeppelin. So together, we would always kind of be talking about how much rock and how much kind of romantic stuff and keyboard-based things. And then towards the end of the San Diego run, he came up to me and said, “OK, I got some rock for you. We do a curtain bow to [Stillwater’s fictional hit] ‘Fever Dog’ one more time, and everybody rocks out.” And I was like, “Thank you, Tom.” From the moment we did that, the play kind of found a context and the rock fans felt heard and the people that are musical theater fans felt heard, I think for a lot of people it’s their favorite part of the show.
There’s a moment when the original song “Lost in New York” sort of melds with Joni Mitchell’s “River.” I assume Joni herself had to approve that.
She came to see the musical in San Diego, and she liked it too, which was a big relief, but also pretty exciting.
Obviously you have a long-standing relationship with her, but that must have been terrifying.
Terrifying is the word. You know, it’s the word. What’s worse than terrifying? I don’t know, maybe paralyzing. It was really scary. She was recovering from her aneurysm and she came out of the theater and said she liked it better than the movie, which was really a relief.
You never can doubt that she’s telling you her truth, because I’ve seen her in situations where somebody was expecting a treat of some kind about a cover version they might have done in her presence. And they got a sphinx-like look rather than a comment. So I was really happy that she liked it.
To what degree are you comfortable with nostalgia as a driving force in people’s enjoyment of this show?
It’s a great question, and that’s why I did like coming up with new music, so that you could play the game with it of what’s new and what’s from the era. And also there’s a little bit of looking forward with references to how things are gonna be in the future. That’s why the jukebox thing felt like an unnecessary deep-dive into nostalgia.
I do have a sentimental feeling about 1973. I feel like that’s the year where things definitely started to change. I remember these young managers that managed some of these early prog bands, I started to see them get replaced by lawyers. I would overhear conversations sometimes like, “They don’t know how much money is on the table, and if I don’t take it someone else will.” And I remember thinking, even as a little guy, “This is gonna not be good. This is gonna punish these guys for being idealistic young musicians. And as rock gets bigger, they’re gonna get screwed more and be replaced by people who are more commercially minded.” I saw it even as a young rock fan, and it started happening in 1973. So I like that we have the last glowing embers of what was briefly an idealistic venture – even Rolling Stone at the time.
That’s present in the play, along with a fond tip of the hat to all the things that can never last. But a great song from that era does last. So if the play can give you that feeling, it’s not muzak. It’s something that’s still alive, and that was probably one of the main reasons to keep going with the project, ’cause I’m super happy to move on. I’ve never done a sequel or any of that stuff, but I do feel strongly that we had a chance to tell a story about a time and place, and that’s why I’m there every night.
Lester Bangs, who was played with a lot of gravitas by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie, is much more overtly funny here.
Yeah. Well, I tried to put in some of Lester’s written rants, knowing that he was funny and was super-fun to be around for me. Some of the rants are straight from Lester. I just remember when he told me this story [about Iggy Pop] — he did Iggy’s rooster dance, putting his hand behind his head and flapping his open hand.
I remember the first day that Philip Seymour Hoffman was filming, and he was doing that speech. I said, “Well, Lester himself had, like, a hand where he was flapping here, and doing a rooster thing…” And Philip Seymour Hoffman was like, “Yeah, I don’t do that.” But Rob does it! Either way, that’s pure, pure Lester. But yeah, I mean he’s more overtly funny in the play. It’s true.
There’s a number of things you do to update this movie for the times. What was most important for you there?
The biggest joke in the theater when the movie came out was the silent drummer who comes out as gay on the plane flight that’s so turbulent. They all think they’re gonna die, and they’re saying the last things that they need to say. I mean, I remember interviewing Tom Petty and he said that was the greatest joke in the movie. People really felt that way.
I think we did one performance in San Diego where that happened, and Brian, is there an angry silence? Yes, there’s such a thing as an angry silence. It was enormously powerful, and [that joke] never came back, and bravo for that. Hallelujah. So we changed it a little bit. Now the drummer comes out as having joined another band.
Also, I just really thought Penny Lane, in the day, was really astute and memorable for the way that she could see through the artifice and go straight to the music. I wanted to bring a little bit more of that to the character onstage that Solea Pfeiffer plays. She’s generally the smartest person in the room.
You’ve responded to the idea that Penny Lane is a manic pixie dream girl by pointing out that she’s based on a real person who was exactly like that.
Almost Famous has been called a rose-colored view. But to me, it’s a 15-year-old’s view of what that felt like. And the movie definitely captures what it felt like for me. I mean, I felt like I was in a magic kingdom, until Gregg Allman took all my tapes and said, “You’re a cop,” and left me in an airport wondering how I was gonna tell Ben Fong-Torres that not only don’t I have the story, but he took my tapes. … And I know what Ben would’ve said. Any great editor would’ve said it. He would’ve said, “You gotta write the story of Gregg Allman stealing your tapes.”
So here I was, writing about one of my very favorite bands, the Allman Brothers Band. Yesterday I was, like, the world’s happiest Allman Brothers fan, also a reporter, but watching the shows every night, blah, blah, blah. That’s all gone. That dream is gone. And then my sister came along who had become a flight attendant and found me in the airport. That’s one of the scenes that people have said to me, like, “Yeah, that was the part of Almost Famous I thought was fake.” I’m like, “It was so fake that I thought, ‘This is fake’ when it happened — but it happened!” And similarly, the whole manic pixie dream girl thing is like, I don’t know. I mean, that’s how that person made me feel.
Just as the world of rock & roll it depicts is gone, the age of Hollywood when a movie like Almost Famous could be made at this scale also seems to have vanished. What are your thoughts on movies in the age of spectacle?
It’s definitely changing. I don’t think you could make Almost Famous, certainly at the level that we made it at, today, for sure.
I mean, you might get it as a series or something. It would be the high end of how you could tell a story like that. I think it’s just a matter of the John Lennon thing. You know, it’s a raging river and you gotta just go with the flow. And the flow is that people watch movies differently and have different expectations of what they see in the theater. My dream is you can do both. You could tell a story that has a big emotional canvas and you’re happy to go to the theater to see it and share it with other people. That’s kind of a specialty that I’d like to develop a little bit more, where your story blends with the visuals to the point where it’s really helpful. I’m working on something now where I have that on my mind a lot. That’s the dream, and people still do go to the theater for a movie like that. I mean, it’s a privilege to be able to tell stories as well as be a journalist. So I love that I’ve been able to do it and I want to keep doing it.
But sometimes spectacle rules the day. It’s true. And sometimes, you know, you just wanna do different things. I’ve told smaller stories. It’s funny, my son’s a screenwriter now, and I was pitching him a story the other day, just kidding around, that was a little bit of a romantic comedy.
And he’s like, “Dad, that’s such a Cameron Crowe idea.” He said, “I would put it in, like, futuristic Japan, where people are flying around on saucers and all the music is Eighties.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s a Billy Crowe idea.” So maybe there’s a middle ground somewhere. It’s always changing, and bravo for that.
You know, just speaking of pitches, there is a Marvel character named Dazzler who is a pop star. So one thing in that MCU area that I think would be good for you…
Throw me a Dazzler movie! Let’s do it.
Are you familiar with the character?
No, but I will be today! Who should play Dazzler? I can see you have an idea for this.
People are constantly fan-casting this. Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Dua Lipa…
I’m feeling Dua Lipa for this. Tomorrow I’ll be like, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about Dua for Dazzler, you know, I’ve been thinking about this for a while.” And giving you no credit [laughs]. No, no, I think it’s cool. Doing a movie like that could be a blast. You can have character development and all that deep stuff and also have spectacle. You can do it. And it’s heading there, clearly.
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