It has been 50 years since Cameron Crowe went on the road with the Allman Brothers Band when he was 16 years old, kicking off a nearly mythological career in rock journalism for Rolling Stone. 10 films, 10 Academy Award nominations, and three documentaries later, and Crowe is finally getting a taste of what it’s like to be the rockstar.
Crowe is a frequent sight in the audience of the musical adaptation of his Oscar winning film Almost Famous, for which he wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics. From the moment he enters the auditorium, a groundswell of fans surge towards him, looking to shake his hand and snap a picture. “I’ve been in a room writing for most of my life, and I never meet people who have read my stuff, but for some reason they know what I look like here!” says Crowe, with a laugh. “I just started talking to people at the show, and I can’t stop.”
Almost Famous, which is based on Crowe’s years at Rolling Stone, is admittedly autobiographical, with names changed and timelines twisted to maintain anonymity of involved parties. Cameron becomes William, Dickey Betts becomes Russell, and so on.
Poignantly, Crowe’s beloved mother Alice, who passed away in 2019, becomes Elaine.
“I keep finding notebooks that say AFM on it; that’s what she called Almost Famous the Musical,” says Crowe, with tenderness in his voice. The loss is clearly still fresh for Crowe, likely kept on the surface by watching Tony nominee Anika Larsen bring his mother to life in front of him night after night. “I found [a notebook] today, and it said ‘Don’t give up on the bio,’ which is what she called Almost Famous the movie. It’s like there’s a curtain and she’s right there.” He pinches his fingers before taking a moment to settle himself. “She’s still right there, man.”
His mother’s command is apt. Almost Famous opened to heavily mixed reviews on Broadway, and has since announced a January 8 closing. When it closes, Almost Famous will have played 30 previews and 77 performances. Crowe, a self-professed “bad critic,” pushes the negativity out of his mind. “I didn’t find it devastating, which is interesting, because all writers are super vulnerable, especially when it’s a personal story,” he admits, about the show's reviews. “But I took a beat to realize that the musical is really about the love of fandom, so I have to walk what I talk.”
His voice warms, and for a moment the 16-year-old Crowe is visible in his eyes, compelling you to lean in conspiratorially. “I’ve always been a fan. And nobody’s gonna write something about Joni Mitchell, for example, that is gonna make me turn on Joni or question her beyond my own feelings. Why not turn that faith on myself?” he says with a sweep of his arm, brushing away the noise in favor of his own instincts.
Speaking of the legendary musician, whose song “River” is interpolated into a key moment in the show; “She first came to San Diego, which felt a little bit like an audition for the use of ‘River,’ since it is different from the movie. She loved it, which was a big relief,” he says, smiling softly. Crowe has known Mitchell since the late 1970’s, when his exuberance coaxed the intensely private songwriter into an interview. “She’s just so happy to be alive; for somebody that’s known to many as being a help in a depressed state, she has so much joy. She had that serious episode, with her aneurysm, and she just glows in these bonus years.”
Mitchell’s public support (which she has rarely given over her legendary career) began at that first San Diego show and has continued through her emotional appearance at the Broadway opening night. Crowe considered it a sign to keep going on Almost Famous the Musical. It’s a lesson he’s learned over the years: when to listen to critics, when to listen to trusted collaborators, and when to follow his heart.
Crowe has had a rocky 21st century. Following the explosive success of the Almost Famous film in 2000, he wrote, directed, and produced the critically confused cult classic Vanilla Sky, then the relatively forgotten romantic comedy Elizabethtown, and a series of music documentaries. 2011’s We Bought A Zoo was the final stop before the 2015 storm Aloha.
The romantic comedy was subsumed by the controversy surrounding the choice to cast white actress Emma Stone as the mixed-race lead, who is supposed to be one quarter Chinese, and one quarter Native Hawaiian. While Crowe offered an apology less than a week after the film opened to the public, the misstep continues to haunt him.
“I got really knocked,” he admits. “I mean really. I felt that they were making a really good point, and I just didn’t hear it in time.”
As a teenage wunderkid, Crowe was mentored by music critic Lester Bangs, who is explicitly portrayed within the Almost Famous musical. “I was a bad critic because I only wanted to write about the stuff that inspired me. Lester was a spectacular critic, because he could be critical without being nasty,” Crowe says, before shrugging. “It’s no use paying attention to anyone that enjoys putting somebody's head in the noose. I’d rather admire.”
As the doors open at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for another performance of Almost Famous, he is almost immediately surrounded by fans. A few pull him aside, asking for writing advice, which he dispenses eagerly. One man, fighting back tears, shares how Crowe’s publicly open emotions surrounding his mother’s death have helped him open up about the loss of his own parents. Crowe embraces him like a brother.
The crowd, like Crowe, are all there for the same thing; love. In the face of such adoration, Crowe remains self-effacing; “I love the road we’re on. I can’t say that for everything that I’ve done, but I can say it here.”
Following the sudden announcement of its closure, producers of Almost Famous indicated to the The New York Times that they hope to tour the show following its January 8 closing. The cast recording will be released digitally as well as on CD and a 2-LP vinyl March 17 from Sony Masterworks Broadway.