As Almost Famous turns 20, we revisit the worst and best from Cameron Crowe.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of the filmmaker and writer who showed us the money.
Cameron Crowe has lived in a perpetual state of youth all his life. He was too young to be young, and now he’s too young to be old. That isn’t a slight against the 63-year-old filmmaker, but rather a strange quirk that’s embodied his decades-long career. It’s been quite a comprehensive run, too, given that he’s worked as a director, a screenwriter, a producer, an author, a journalist, and even an actor. His mother, Alice Marie Crowe, should be so proud.
A scholar of Billy Wilder, Crowe has since fashioned his own brand of optimism on celluloid. He lives for rock ‘n’ roll, champions the underdogs, and starves for true romance. Each of his films come fully stocked with vibrant, honest characters who speak in absolutes and are fueled by diamond soundtracks that beg to be heard days, weeks, months, and years later. Once the credits roll, it’s usually like pulling off a warm blanket in a cold room.
“People are going to go where they get characters that they remember,” Crowe once argued. He’s not wrong: Jerry Maguire, Penny Lane, Lloyd Dobbler, Janet Livermore, Jeff Spicoli, David Aames, Claire Colburn … the list could go on forever. Some work, some don’t, but all try very hard to win you over. Cynics might find that pandering, irritating, or even cloying, but Crowe believes a little sentimentality goes a long way if balanced.
Now, check on ahead. It’s all happening…
11. The Wild Life (1984)
Pitch: Three high school buddies get together to have a debauched evening of LA hijinks as they meet colorful characters, go to a strip club, and have a big and crazy party in an apartment. Boy, what a wild life they lead. Or more honestly, what a dirty, ‘80s teen sex comedy trope-laden life they lead.
Cast: Chris Penn, Eric Stoltz, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Jenny Wright, Leah Thompson, Hart Bochner, Rick Moranis, Randy Quaid, Sherilyn Fenn, Kitten Natividad, and Ben Stein
Something Wilder: Um. The closest thing to Wilder here is the fact that the title is The Wild Life. This is more John Landis than Wilder.
Crowe’s Circle: As the story goes, early in his career, Eric Stoltz was promised a role in any film of Cameron Crowe’s. Stoltz was in Fast Times in Ridgemont High, here in The Wild Life, Say Anything, uh, Singles! As a mime! Stoltz was supposedly in Jerry Maguire, if you’ll recall. I can’t. He was almost in Almost Famous as David Bowie, but it didn’t work out. Then again, Stoltz was not in Elizabethtown or We Bought a Zoo, and he isn’t in Aloha. Geez, that promise didn’t last. Oh well.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: The soundtrack was all a little kitsch, and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” serving as the focal tune kind of ensured that this wouldn’t be as well remembered as Fast Times’catchy music. Billy Idol, Little Richard, Bananarama, Huey Lewis, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Jim Hendrix, Ron Wood, Madonna … goodness, that would be a ridiculously expensive soundtrack today. Oh, and Eddie Van Halen worked on the score. That’s a lot of brand names, but so little identity can be found on this soundtrack. It’s like finding someone’s “classic jams” mix after learning about popular music of the ‘60s … within the ‘80s. Which almost makes sense. The script evolved out of Crowe’s fascination for The Doors and his interest with ‘60s culture, thus the awkward blend.
Penn on Penn: Sean Penn’s late brother, Chris (credited as Christopher), was the co-lead of this pseudo-sequel to Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Chris apparently hung out on the set of Fast Times, and Crowe liked both of them so much that when the time came for this feature, Crowe gave a push for Sean’s little brother. The Penn family motto must have been, “Hey bud, let’s party … with Cameron Crowe if the casting works out, which it will.”
Who the Hell Is Art Linson? The guy Robert De Niro played in What Just Happened, that’s who. The IMDB trivia says that super producer Art Linson stepped in to direct, only after the first director walked, and the studio threatened to cancel the film. All Google searches for who the director was have been disappointing, but know that this was the last movie Linson directed.
Analysis: While Fast Times at Ridgemont High was accused of being a tawdry exposé about the lives of California teens, at least that chapter in Crowe’s writing had a distinct ear, not to mention memorability to the proceedings. It was a teen sex flick, but one with something to report, and it wasn’t some dumb idealized vision of youth. The Wild Life is the actual dumb teen sex film that Fast Times worked to avoid becoming, trying to pretend that it’s about adolescence stuck in neutral. Spicoli ordered pizza in class. That’s funny … and memorable. A permed Chris Penn’s Tom Drake scopes out a babe’s boobs from outside her window. It’s not that funny, and feels like a rip-off of Animal House. Either way, The Wild Life is like the contractually obligated Crowe script that time forgot, his undisciplined id laying with cheap thrills before he got a chance to express himself like a human storyteller in 1989.
10. The Union (2011)
Pitch: Crowe gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Elton John and Leon Russell’s collaborative record produced by T Bone Burnett. It’s been 38 years since the two have seen one another. Their careers have taken different paths. Can they make a record?
Cast: A number of musicians weave in and out of the documentary, but the focus is always on Elton John and Leon Russell. T Bone Burnett would get just under-the-title billing if this was that kind of movie.
Something Wilder: Despite not having a screenplay, Crowe’s framing of The Union still adheres to themes from Wilder’s philosophy. The lead of the film is definitively Elton John, whose mission it is to “make people aware of how great this man [Russell] is.” Voice-overs are present, and while at times they discuss the recordings we see happening before our eyes, they prove more effective when we hear about the inner workings of the songs and history behind the two men’s careers. As for that third act, it ends with an “I love you, Leon,” and that’s that.
Crowe’s Circle: No Stoltz, but people who appear on the record have had songs featured on previous Crowe soundtracks: Stevie Nicks (Fast Times), Neil Young (Jerry Maguire, Brian Wilson (whose music influenced the score of Vanilla Sky), and, of course, John himself, whose “Tiny Dancer” is featured in one of Crowe’s most memorable moments in Almost Famous. But you already knew that.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Is the soundtrack for the documentary, or is the documentary for the soundtrack? As I’ve mentioned at least once already, it’s a peek at the recording of their record, The Union. Their wild days long behind them (especially in the case of the broken-down Russell), this isn’t so much a dueling pianos record as it is a side-by-side fight against Father Time. Album highlights include Russell’s ode to John, “In the Hands of Angels”, and the Brian Wilson-assisted “When Love Is Dying”.
Wilson! At what cost genius? Brian Wilson still has an ear for harmony, as is shown in the recording session for the aforementioned “When Love Is Dying”, but his reaction to a compliment is absolutely emotionless, as though he’s completely checked out. Like Russell, the musicians are completely alive when creating, but while Russell’s physical limitations hinder him today, it’s Wilson’s personality that has been irrevocably damaged for too many reasons to recount here. John, however, sums him up best as he calls him “the sweetest man, the sweetest man.” Hard to argue against that.
In the Hands of Elton: The movie’s high point comes as Russell announces he has written a song for John and wishes to play it for him. With split screen, we see Russell play “In the Hands of Angels” as John reacts. At one point, he has to leave to compose himself. The two come together, and Russell tells him “that’s what happens when you save people’s lives.” Pretty powerful stuff.
Analysis: It’s a good documentary. There are some moments that come off as a bit “Hey, look at this great thing I’m doing” on John’s end (and even Crowe’s side of things), but there isn’t any doubt of the true affection he feels toward Russell. The sight of the great, white-bearded Russell somehow going from immobile one moment to playing piano and singing heartfelt songs is a reminder that once the great ones got it, they always got it. Think of it more as a bonus disc for the album it covers, and it’s much more enjoyable.