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For up-and-coming Hollywood directors, it's a regular stop on the pay-your-respects express: a visit with Billy Wilder, the man generally considered to be the greatest living American film maker, the sardonic impresario who gave the world Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment. Cameron Crowe made the pilgrimage in 1995. He was there to touch Wilder's hem, of course, and to ask the scrappy 89-year-old, who hadn't directed a film in 14 years, to take a small part in the movie Crowe was about to shoot.

Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr., were committed to the cast. The film was Jerry Maguire. And in no uncertain terms, Wilder said no.

Later, after the movie had opened to critical wows and a big box office, and was speeding to multiple Oscar nominations, Crowe published an account of this bittersweet meeting in Rolling Stone. The choice was no accident since Rolling Stone is where Crowe made his name. In 1973, when he was only 16 years old, Crowe joined the magazine's staff, soon moving up to become an editor. He nimbly leapt into film at 22, adapting his own book into the screenplay that became Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He went on to write and direct his next two films, Say Anything and Singles. A redemption story about a cynical sports agent, Jerry Maguire, his first movie for and about grown-ups, placed him in select company as one of the few contemporary writer-directors whose work was both sophisticated and popular.

Crowe walked away wounded from his brush with Billy Wilder. But a friend of Wilder's called after the Rolling Stone piece appeared, asking Crowe whether he'd be interested in seeing the veteran director again. This time, they'd meet for formal interviews, which would be collected in book form, like Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut. As it turned out, Wilder had liked Jerry discovering in Crowe a fellow traveler--a gifted writer of comedy who was fair even to his most narrow-minded creations. But Crowe wasn't sure they spoke the same language. "I did not want to push the issue," he wrote later. "Heroes usually belong at arm's length--on a bookshelf, in a record collection. At a heroic distance. I did not wish to continue the flogging."

Thankfully, Crowe was willing to take his licks, for the resulting book, Conversations with Wilder, is outstanding. Crowe knows his way around a movie set, certainly, but he's also a superb interviewer--generous, perceptive, almost inhumanly thorough. (Who knew Rolling Stone trained 'em so well?) I can't think of a topic he doesn't cover, a key sequence he doesn't deconstruct, an obscure failure he doesn't get Wilder to defend or kiss off. While learning about the veteran's storied career, you also get a full-bodied sense of the acolyte at his knee--arriving promptly (or else), flattering and cajoling, sipping one martini after another to get the spicier anecdote, the more telling tale. Every time Crowe finished a session, he was afraid the interview would be his last. The notoriously irascible Wilder put the eager young pup through his paces; Crowe came through with flying colors.

Every now and then in Conversations, Crowe shares with Wilder a detail about the screenplay he's writing at the time, which he describes as his most personal work. And it is: Almost Famous recounts the first time Cameron Crowe got close enough to touch a hero. As a teenage journalist in the early '70s, Crowe followed Led Zeppelin and other rock bands on tour and wrote up his reports for Rolling Stone. The endearing new film, which continues the director's winning streak, thinly fictionalizes his own most famous odyssey. Here, moonfaced William Miller (Patrick Fugit), 15 and pretending, joins a band called Stillwater (think the Eagles) on a raucous cross-country bus tour. Leaving behind a stern but sensible mother (Frances McDormand) who seems to know the phone number of every motel in America, William meets the strutting band members, the grungy tour managers, and the girl gang of band-aids--don't dare call them groupies--who flit from boy to boy. William becomes infatuated with the dreamiest of the lot, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). But Penny has a thing for Stillwater's self-satisfied lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), who is slowly drawing away from his bandmates as he realizes his own star power.

Almost Famous delivers a handful of succulent set pieces that will quickly become as well-remembered as Cuba Gooding's "show me the money" spectacle in Jerry Maguire. The kid's first backstage visit, thanks to a well-placed word about the band's "incendiary" playing, is priceless. They may call him the "enemy," but once William is inside, he's really inside. So begins an extended minuet to get interviews with the band members, especially the taciturn Russell. Bouncing from city to city, William learns to narrow his oh-so-wide eyes, to see behind the hype and the trumped-up talk about rock's ability to save the world.

The young writer has been warned. McDormand, who virtually steals the movie with her tart telephone harangues, has banned pop music at home (not to mention Christmas and flour) because it's become too commercialized. And William's other guardian angel, the gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), cautions against the inevitable seductions that come with access. Rock and roll is becoming an "industry of cool," Bangs tells the kid. The good times, when rock represented a real challenge to authority, are over. The marketers and merchandisers have already won. All that's left to chronicle is the "death rattle" of a cultural explosion.

Indie directors younger than Crowe and without his mainstream ambitions have become fascinated by the '70s, producing some of the '90s' most adventurous cinema. But they approach the era with a semiotician's critical distance, and use the decade's embrace of pleasure and artifice as a crowbar to expose the emptiness of succeeding years. In the brilliant Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson writes his version of Almost Famous: Innocent boy finds wisdom and extended family, until a once-humane business goes corporate, shattering his bliss. Of course, the porn industry is where Anderson's innocent plies his trade, and he's hardly an observer with a tiny ballpoint pen. Todd Haynes's unfairly maligned Velvet Goldmine leaves aside Crowe's world--a world of rangy guitar dudes with their easy American grace--and details the short but vital moment of gender-bending flamboyance known as glam rock.

For every sweetly nostalgic moment in Almost Famous, and they're plentiful, Velvet Goldmine delivers a cold-eyed account of decadence sliding into decline. At heart Crowe wants to capture both moods, and who can blame him? We all cling to the popular culture that shaped us. We all want to freeze our icons in time, so as to keep ourselves young, too, singing along to their albums or acting foolishly at their concerts. Crowe captures that giddy vibe, the physical sensation of caressing a big new LP and believing there's truth inside. A softie at heart, he can't convey the loss of innocence that follows, the emotional equivalent of a digital CD, all faceless chill. Nor does he really own up to Rolling Stone's own decline.

Still, the director is enough of a music wonk to know that glam's heroes--Bowie, Bolan, and the like--have had far more influence on music and style than conventional rock bands like Three Dog Night or the Eagles. During one hotel stop, the Stillwater tour crosses paths with Bowie, and his glittery groupies eye the fresh-faced band-aids with disdain, and vice versa. Get ready, the film says; something else is coming, and it's a lot more challenging than "Fever Dog," a Stillwater "hit" played in the film. It's one of only a few, in fact; Crowe seems to recognize that straight-ahead rock of the early '70s doesn't hold up very well. He dots the soundtrack instead with early Elton John and Cat Stevens, a mirror of the wistful tone for which Almost Famous settles.

David Bowie is The Man Who Sold the World, the title of his 1970 album, but the sad truth is that Cameron Crowe is The Man Who Arrived Too ate. Rolling Stone and magazines like it had not yet sold their souls to the crushing weight of the mass market. A kid with a dream had a chance. But the music that kid could write about, especially in the early '70s, when Crowe came aboard, was pretty mediocre.

Just as Crowe missed the moment as a rock journalist, so has he missed the glory days for writer-directors in Hollywood, as his chats with Billy Wilder make so clear. Could a mainstream film maker today sell a studio on a hero as snaky as Jack Lemmon in The Apartment? Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire was as close as we've come lately, and as well-turned as the character was, he still got gooey at the edges. When Hollywood pokes at sensation-mongering journalists, it's the pointless Mad City, not Wilder's scathing Ace in the Hole. As charming as Almost Famous is--wonderfully acted from top to bottom, beautifully costumed and designed--it could be a little more hard-headed about times gone by. Sex and drugs are largely relegated to the background. Despite the bickering and betrayals and eventual compromises, the Stillwater tour makes for a pretty good party.

In spending more than a year interviewing Billy Wilder, Crowe wrote a book for the ages. But as a director, he's not Wilder. He's more sentimental; he's less tough-minded; he's American all the way. He can make you cry and laugh and fall in love with the lovers on screen, and that's no mean feat in a movie today. But in quizzing Wilder for guidance on how to make a personal film that doesn't go soft, Crowe didn't get the answers he needed.

The book's most poignant moments occur when Crowe tries to steer the conversation to his terrain. In little bursts, he tries to convey his own passion for rock and roll, the passion fondly detailed in Almost Famous. Wilder comes up blank.

"What is rock music?" the old man asks in the middle of one conversation.

Crowe proceeds to lay out a brief history, beginning with the blues, moving to Elvis, the British Invasion, English hard rock, American pop, and punk. With a great flourish, he's even able to tie in Eric Clapton's "Layla," which is playing in the next room.

Wilder listens carefully, weighing the details. "I can live without it" he concludes, and shrugs.

SCOTT HELLER writes about books, film, and culture for various publications.
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Publication:The American Prospect
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 25, 2000
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