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.
09. We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Pitch: After the untimely loss of his wife, nice guy single dad Benjamin Mee decides the family really needs another massive change of pace. So, he buys a big house in the country that also happens to have a zoo, a real zoo with lions and tigers and bears. There he meets a ragtag group of misfits who love the zoo and the animals therein, and his attempts to get the zoo back in working condition not-so-vaguely shadow Mee’s attempt to pull himself back together as well. Soon a big meanie shows up to try to shut them down … permanently.
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, and Thomas Haden Church
Something Crowe: To me, We Bought a Zoo has always felt similar to a musician who had a hot start and kind of started ripping themselves off a few decades later to gain back some traction. Here we get Crowe using classic Crowe motifs to try to get his groove back. For instance, rock musical cues are abundant, but here they’re incredibly ham-fisted rather than insightful and touching. Whereas Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” was used to fantastic effect in Almost Famous, here Crowe throws in Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” when Mee’s son Dylan is expelled from school. Get it? He can’t come around there no more.
Later, when Dylan first meets the lovely Lily, Crowe digs deep into his musical vault to give us “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens. Get it? Don’t be shy around this girl. I mean, come on. Other instances of self-cannibalism include Benjamin and his daughter toasting forks over a big day ahead (a la spoon toasting in Jerry Maguire), which also ties into Crowe adding another treacly, adorable kid for comic relief (also pinched from Jerry Maguire).
Crowe’s Circle: Patrick Fugit, who never really got famous or cast much following Almost Famous, is aboard here as a dude named Robin who almost always has a monkey on his shoulder. Also lingering around in the film is Crowe’s mom, Alice, who appears in many of his films.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Reuse and poor attempts at manipulation aside, the We Bought a Zoo soundtrack does a nice job mixing in some old classics, like the aforementioned as well as Neil Young, Randy Newman, and Bob Dylan with some newer, hipper fare like Wilco/Billy Bragg, Bon Iver, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Plus Jónsi from the amazing Sigur Rós did the soundtrack.
I’m Hot, Sticky Sweet: There’s a terrific scene in Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise espouses on what a cynical, cynical world we live in. And he’s right. And I try not to be cynical in my life even though it becomes harder day by day. But listen, We Bought a Zoo is so over-the-top sweet and adorable that it’s almost cloying. There are no surprises, and frankly the characters and their desires are so thin they’re almost invisible. Crowe’s early work succeeded so well because there was an honesty and truth to it. Here he’s just made a sappy family film that’s all sugar and no filling.
Eye for Talent: Cameron Crowe, much like his hero Billy Wilder, wasn’t the most creative director in visual terms. But that’s OK because they both manage to pull some great performances from actors, typically wrote well, and smartest of all, chose the best cinematographers in the business. In We Bought a Zoo, Crowe uses the brilliant Rodrigo Prieto (Iñárritu’s guy before Birdman), and he’s previously used some of the best directors of photography ever, including Laszlo Kovacs (Say Anything), Tak Fujimoto (Singles), Janusz Kaminisky (Jerry Maguire), and John Toll, who was there for the trifecta of when things started going south, shooting Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, and Elizabethtown.
Analysis: We Bought a Zoo is just too much sweet without any sour or even slightly less sweet to balance the mix. In previous films, really harsh things would happen to his characters and their attempts to rebound were compelling. Sure, Benjamin Mee losing his wife and being left alone to look after his two kids is rough, but it’s nothing new in film. Think about the car accident and the ensuing miscarriage in Singles or every person who claimed to be a friend and confidant shoving it back in Jerry’s face in Jerry Maguire. Hell, Vanilla Sky is downright brutal on its characters. But We Bought a Zoo is a simple story that has nary a twist and ultimately fails because of its syrupy clinginess that’s a huge turnoff. I’m all for happy endings in a film, but come on, let us earn it a little.
–Don R. Lewis
08. Elizabethtown (2005)
Pitch: Drew Baylor just fucked up royally. His seemingly immaculate design for a new athletic shoe backfires, forcing a major recall that loses the company up to a billion dollars. As expected, he wants to curl up in a ball and die. Not figuratively, but literally. Only, when he goes to do the deed, he finds out his father has beat him to the punch, having passed away in his home of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. At his mother and sister’s request, he must fly out there and settle the matters himself.
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Jessica Biel, and Judy Greer
Something Wilder: Crowe has gone on record stating that the genesis of this film came from dealing with his own father’s death. “I was traveling through Kentucky, and I had not been back there since my own father’s funeral years earlier,” he told The Tech in 2005, “and so the whole kind of elixir of Kentucky and the feeling that is in the air there and remembering my dad in a state that was so much a part of my family’s history.” With that in mind, any connections to Billy Wilder are simply through studying the man’s craft so long — in other words, cognitive thinking.
In Conversations with Wilder, Crowe’s 1999 career retrospective of the late director, Wilder offers a list of writing tips, all of which could apply to Elizabethtown for better or worse. Crowe followed a couple (“Develop a clean line of action for your leading character”; “Know where you’re going”), but certainly glossed over a few (“The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer”; “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act”; “In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing”).
The last two tips — “The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then…”; “…that’s it. Don’t hang around” — would seem to give Elizabethtown’s road trippin’ conclusion the stamp of approval. Though, critics like The Guardian’s John Patterson aren’t so sure, arguing that Wilder “would have worked a total tear-down” on the film and likely “would have avoided the Bland Bloom in the lead and possibly made that character’s dead dad the narrator. No, he probably would have binned the script altogether.” And you wonder why it took the filmmaker, oh, six long years to make another film.
Crowe’s Circle: No, Eric Stoltz did not get lucky in Kentucky. However, Crowe did extend an invitation to a number of musicians, as he’s wont to do, including Loudon Wainwright III and members of Louisville-bred My Morning Jacket, the latter of which make up the fictional band, Ruckus, alongside actor Paul Schneider. Their scorching cover — literally — of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” is a major highlight of the film, a worthy inclusion of Claire’s finger snapshots. Also welcome is Crowe’s consistent use of veteran actors, this time around being the likes of Bruce McGill, Gaillard Sartain, and Ted Manson. A pre-shamed Paula Deen makes a candid appearance as Drew’s Aunt Dora, no doubt cooking with three sticks of butter while Crowe’s mother once again pops up for an understated cameo.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Oh, where to begin. Similar to 2001’s Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown is a rich collage of sound, featuring a varied mix of classic rock, old school folk, alt-country rock, indie pop, and even electronica. As always, Crowe cherry picks two to three songs to highlight the soundtrack, and here that honor goes to Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun”, Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly”, and Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up”. John’s ballad admittedly seems forced given the iconic use of “Tiny Dancer” only five years prior, though Petty and Adams feel like much-needed extensions of the Southern sun. Throughout, Ulrich Schnauss’ “…Passing By” brilliantly adds some glow to an early morning meet up, Lindsey Buckingham’s “Shut Us Down” makes a desperate suicide attempt all the more desperate, and Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” turns an elegant tap dance into an emotional tearjerker. Sadly, Nancy Wilson delivers her final score to Crowe’s work, and it’s awash in local tones and rustic flare. The two would divorce in 2010.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Many stones were heaved at the film, though Nathan Rabin arguably tossed the heaviest. In a 2007 column titled, “My Year of Flops/The Bataan Death March of Whimsy Case File #1: Elizabethtown,” Rabin coined the now-iconic term essentially lambasting Dunst’s Claire Colburn character. He wrote, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not going to propose to Dunst’s psychotically chipper waitress in the sky any time soon … (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example).” He’s not wrong; after all, this writer has since pledged his love for Colburn (and Dunst) multiple times. Oh well.
Miscast or Misunderstood? Somewhere in an alternate universe, Claire and Drew are played by a strange configuration of Jessica Biel or Scarlett Johansson and/or Ashton Kutcher, Seann William Scott, James Franco, Christopher Masterson, Colin Hanks, and Chris Evans. Given that one of the louder complaints lodged at the film was Bloom’s casting, as seen in The Guardian quote above, it’s fun to think what might have happened if another actor made the trip to Kentucky, instead. Out of that eclectic round of auditions, the strongest alternative would have likely been Franco. Not only did he have an established chemistry with Dunst following Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, but as we would later see in Gus Van Sant’s Milk and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, he also had an ability to add subtler nuances to big dramatic roles. Regardless, Crowe was able to cast who he originally intended, and this writer agrees with the decision. After all, Bloom wasn’t the problem, and neither was Dunst.
Analysis: Most of the issues with Elizabethtown lie in the script. It’s almost too Cameron Crowe, if that makes any sense. Everyone speaks in absolutes (“Everybody is less mysterious than they think they are”; “Men see things in a box, and women see them in a round room”; “All forward motion counts”) and everyone’s too self-aware of their own predilections (“We are intrepid. We carry on.”). What should have been a story about a son discovering life through his father’s death becomes a soggy meditation on failure and success and how love conquers all. That’s fine, if you can pull it off, and Crowe almost does to a degree. There is so much heart in the scenery and the moods, but that all crinkles under the endless mantras seemingly cribbed from a college’s worth of AIM statuses. Claire’s right: They did peak on the phone.
07. Pearl Jam Twenty (2011)
Pitch: Cameron Crowe knew Pearl Jam before they were Pearl Jam. In this retrospective documentary — released on the 20th anniversary of the band’s career — the filmmaker charts their unique trajectory, from a hesitant phoenix that rose from the ashes of Mother Love Bone to a global behemoth that manages to be mainstream and true to their DIY ethics at the same time.
Cast: Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Matt Cameron
Something Wilder: Although PJ20 is a full-on rockumentary, the lack of intrusion on Crowe’s part (the film’s composed almost entirely of talking heads, archival footage, and virtually no voice-over) still feels very much in line with Wilder’s embrace of simplicity.
Crowe’s Circle: Nearly everyone interviewed is a key figure in Crowe’s life, both in the social and artistic sense. In addition to being a huge fan and friend of Pearl Jam, Vedder, Gossard, and Ament all had roles in 1992’s Singles as members of Matt Dillon’s fictional band, Citizen Dick.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Being the Pearl Jam completist he is, Crowe not only showcases mega-hits like “Jeremy”, “Daughter”, and — to quote a vocab word from Almost Famous — an “incendiary” concert performance of “Alive” (which ends the film), but deeper cuts such as “Last Exit” and Ten’s hypnotic closer, “Release”. And since PJ has collaborated with so many artists throughout their career, there are also plenty of muscular songs from Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog, Neil Young, and more.
Seattle Revisited: As unfussy as most of the film is, that opening montage of the Seattle skyline is a thing of beauty. As building lights twinkle and the camera swoops across silhouettes of the Space Needle and the Columbia Center, we hear an ever-morphing soundscape that paints an abstract yet incredibly accurate portrait of what the city was like in 1992, covering everything from the overcast weather to the diverse influences of the grunge movement.
Jack Who? Not that the band owes it to them (actually they kind of do), but former drummers Jack Irons, Dave Abbruzzese, Matt Chamberlain, and Dave Krusen barely even get mentioned in the film. While none of them have worked with Pearl Jam in quite some time, their near erasing from the band’s history point to the documentary’s biggest flaw: a lack of totality.
Analysis: Although the show-don’t-tell approach is refreshing when compared to other music documentaries, it also muddles the band’s narrative for anyone who’s not a fan. For example, once Crowe get past PJ’s formation, he prefers to focus on the band’s sharpening ideology rather than the ebbs and flows of their actual music — latter-day triumphs like Backspacer aren’t even talked about, and even Vs. and Vitalogy are more or less glossed over. This isn’t a history of Pearl Jam as much as an examination of what it feels like to be in Pearl Jam. How much that appeals to you will depend on how much you already love them.