As Fast Times at Ridgemont High turns 35, 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 60-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 L.A. 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, 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 won’t be 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 DeNiro 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 expose 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 ripoff of Animal House. Either way, The Wild Life is like the contractually obligated Crowe script that time forgot, his undisciplined id, playing 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.” Voiceovers 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 highpoint 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, 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 in to 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 on-board 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 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, 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, 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 voiceover) still feels very much in line with Wilder’s embracement 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 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 how much you already love them.
06. Singles (1992)
Pitch: A group of twenty-somethings find love amidst the burgeoning Seattle grunge scene.
Cast: Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Matt Dillon
Something Wilder: “Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.” If there’s any tip of Wilder’s that applies to this film, it’s that one. From the second Paul Westerberg’s “Waiting for Somebody” strikes, we’re immediately sent to the hustle and bustle of Seattle, Washington, tossed around through various clips as if we ride in what feels like a dreamy Pacific Northwestern fun house. Linda Powell (Sedwick) speaks directly to us and shares a disastrous love affair, tipping off the film’s organic drama that remains ripe throughout. We’re only let go when Westerberg sings “Dyslexic Heart”, which brings down the end credits.
Crowe’s Circle: Eric Stoltz for the win. He plays an ironically chatty mime who insists early on that love disappears, essentially representing the worst fears of Steve Dunne (Scott). Several other scenes with him were cut. Elsewhere, Crowe capitalizes on another veteran actor with Tom Skerritt, who chews up his two minutes in a brutally unforgiving cameo; has his mother play a plastic surgeon’s assistant; interviews Cliff Poncier himself; and jams in a collection of blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos from the likes of Tim Burton, Paul Giamatti, Jeremy Piven, Victor Garber, sportscaster Wayne Cody, and Seattle Supersonics stud Xavier McDaniel.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Singles is the rare instance where more people have actually heard the soundtrack than seen the film. That’s because Epic dropped the album in June 1992, a good three months before Crowe’s final work hit theaters. So, by the time audiences were introduced to Cliff Poncier and Janet Livermore that September, the album had already become a best seller and gone platinum. This isn’t too mind boggling, though, considering the artists at hand: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and The Smashing Pumpkins were some of the hottest and buzziest acts at the time. Westerberg had also just dismantled The Replacements and The Jimi Hendrix Experience is, well, The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Just look at those names again. Then check the soundtrack’s release date once more. For context, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were less than a year old, The Smashing Pumpkins were still supporting Gish, and Alice in Chains would release Dirt a week after the film would hit theaters. In other words, there wasn’t a better time for Crowe’s film, which is why it’s so strange it didn’t take off big time at the box office. Though, given that the soundtrack was stuffed with unheard b-sides (“Breath”, “State of Love and Trust”, “Drown”) and new material (“Would”, “Birth Ritual”), it’s understandable why the album eclipsed the film. On a more subjective note, they’re also some of the strongest material from the respective acts.
Because of the timing and popularity, some critics credit Singles for cultivating the Seattle grunge scene that swept the nation. It’s an ode to a time period, sure, but it’s also just a stellar collection of rock ‘n’ roll. Somehow, amidst all of the ’90s alternative, two ultra poppy tracks by Westerberg, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” by Ann and Nancy Wilson’s Lovemongers, and Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” coexist together without any pause for concern. Toss in some local fare with Mother Love Bone (“Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns”) and Mudhoney (“Overblown”) and what should been a total mess winds up being the best mixtape that Crowe ever pieced together. It’s just a shame we still don’t have Westerberg’s score yet.
Touch Me I’m Dick: Cliff’s bandmates for Citizen Dick aren’t just any old stand-ins. He’s backed by Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament — you know, Pearl Jam? Their involvement in Singles would tip off a longtime relationship with Crowe that continues to this day. In addition to lensing their 2011 documentary, as Caffrey detailed previously, Crowe also shot a video for their scorching 2009 single, “The Fixer”. To Crowe’s credit, he doesn’t just give them a lame cameo. No, they all are living characters that watch nature documentaries, move equipment, and offer support when the shit hits the fans critically. “A compliment for us is a compliment for you,” Vedder assures Cliff. This writer can’t tell you how many times he’s said that.
While you never actually see Pearl Jam perform — despite “State of Love and Trust” clearly being used for live effect at a bar early on (“We will always go out dancing!”) — that honor does go to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Towards the end, frontman Chris Cornell also ducks out of Cliff’s apartment to observe the new stereo the Citizen Dick frontman installed in Janet’s car. If that weren’t enough, Crowe also tapped another local musician in Tad Doyle (of Tad and Hog Molly), who answers the phone when Janet dials the wrong number and thinks she’s talking dirty to Cliff (“Lady, I’ll be right over”). It should also be noted that Pearl Jam were still being referred to as Mookie Blacklock at the time of filming.
Friends: If you watch the film and you’ve seen NBC’s Friends, odds are you might be scratching your head. A film about ’90s twentysomething neighbors meeting at coffee houses to talk about relationships? That’s essentially the conceit of the iconic show. Well, back in 1992, Warner Bros. Television did ask Crowe if he wanted to turn the film into a TV series. Considering how well that worked out for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (or even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), he declined, only to discover several months later that a show was hitting network television with the same premise and title. When Crowe’s attorneys pursued, the producers, according to an article by Jim DeRogatis, “said it was all a big mistake, and their show was actually Friends.”
The Ghost of Bill Pullman: Years before he played a ghost in Casper, Bill Pullman played one in Singles. (Hardy har har.) Well, not technically, but metaphorically. As Janet’s plastic surgeon, the friendly yet out of touch Dr. Jeffrey Jamison, Pullman was supposed to have a broader role, including some standalone scenes. After convincing Janet not to go ahead with breast augmentation, the two were to have a short affair that eventually falls wayside. Instead, Crowe rightfully excised this storyline, which is something he also did for a number of corollary characters, specifically Jim True-Frost’s David Bailey and Sheila Kelley’s Debbie Hunt. All of their scenes are available on the film’s new Blu-Ray and add some valuable insight even if they ultimately feel superfluous to the film itself.
Analysis: Crowe went bigger and bolder with his followup to 1989’s Say Anything… by focusing on more characters and trying his hand at new things. There’s a very old school, almost European, somewhat theatre-like style of filmmaking to Singles, namely for the orchestrated portraits, the title cards, the audience monologues, and the liberal use of thematic imagery. The film’s many deleted and extended scenes also indicate that Crowe was experimenting with a variety of methods, including lengthy, one-shot takes, which fits the mindset of a sophomore directorial production. Yet what’s most intriguing about Singles is how the film’s unflinching commentary on love and relationships overcomes its time-stamped scenery. This isn’t just a 99-minute capsule of the early ’90s, but an honest romantic comedy that triumphs over the genre with hearty chemistry, smart dialogue, and very little pretension.
05. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Pitch: Cocky publishing magnate David Aames meets the woman of his dreams. The next day, he’s disfigured in a car accident and awakens to an unfamiliar life.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell
Something Wilder: Shooting for Vanilla Sky began just a year after the publication of Conversations with Wilder, but good luck finding a trace of the legendary director’s influence. Self-editing and comedic flair are not among Vanilla Sky’s strong suits, and it’s more of an “idea” film than Billy Wilder—whose chief goal was always entertainment—would have ever made.
Crowe’s Circle: Cruise and Crowe became close friends while working together on Jerry Maguire, but it was the actor and not the director who initially pushed for another collaboration. Cruise had fallen in love with Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), and he suspected Crowe might feel the same way about the Spanish-language film. Having just wrapped the deeply personal Almost Famous, Crowe relished the opportunity to paint in more impressionistic strokes and agreed to remake Abre los ojos with Cruise as the star. He brought along much of his filmmaking team from Almost Famous; for many of them, the work hardly stopped, though its tone and timbre changed considerably.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Speaking of close friends and collaborators, Crowe enlisted his then-wife, Nancy Wilson, to write the musical score for Vanilla Sky. With the occasional assist from Icelandic group Sigur Rós, Wilson created an exhilarating blend of sound collages to guide the film through its dreamlike and nightmarish sequences. Of course, Vanilla Sky is best remembered for a soundtrack that’s outstanding even by Crowe’s high standards. Like an actual dream, it’s all over the place, veering from Radiohead to Red House Painters in what amounts to a brief history of late 20th-century pop music. The film even takes some of its more memorable beats from its soundtrack—see a drugged-up Cruise singing along to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” as a pair of bemused doctors roll him into surgery.
Love It or Hate It: Cameron Crowe can continue to make new films for decades, but odds are that he’ll never make one as divisive as Vanilla Sky. The film’s most forgiving detractors might call it a noble failure, while others will argue that it sticks out from Crowe’s ouvre like a particularly painful cold sore. And then there’s the cultists, whose rabid devotion to the film’s ideas and killer soundtrack will probably ensure that Vanilla Sky has a long life of midnight billings ahead of it. The thing is, the truth doesn’t lie somewhere in the middle. It seems that, with few exceptions, people will either love this one or hate it.
The Height of Narcissism? Tom Cruise is not an easy person to go to bat for, what with the whole Scientology stink and the media’s general perception of him as a pompous asshole. Plenty of critics initially dismissed Vanilla Sky as a vanity project for its narcissistic star, who happens to play—get this—an unabashed narcissist. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s interesting to think of Cruise exploring and perhaps exorcising his own ego through the character of David Aames. His willingness (eagerness, even) to get “personal” onscreen had already led him to partake in Stanley Kubrick’s weirdly metaphysical Eyes Wide Shut, and the two films combine to form a strange and intimate snapshot of Cruise’s psyche.
Analysis: Vanilla Sky is an ambitious, impressionistic film that certainly isn’t for everyone, though its blend of sci-fi, romance, and psychological thrills would seem to promise that. It feels right that it would fall squarely in the middle of our rankings, with lovers and detractors screaming rabidly from either side.
04. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Pitch: Spend a year enjoying sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll with Southern California’s finest high school students.
Cast: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Robert Romanus, Ray Walston
Something Heckerling: Crowe, John Hughes, and Richard Linklater are always commemorated for capturing the lives of the American teenager, but sadly, Amy Heckerling is all too often cruelly misrepresented. While there’s a larger discussion to be had about the way Hollywood has traditionally misrepresented women, there’s no denying that Heckerling has long had a major impact in the industry — specifically, with regards to her sharp eye on confused youth. What started with 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High continued a decade later with 1995’s blockbuster smash Clueless and eventually 2000’s severely underrated Loser. That’s over two decades of American culture self-contained to a collective 285 minutes on celluloid.
The strongest 90 minutes is inarguably her directorial debut on Fast Times. Heckerling glides through a year at Ridgemont High with such ease and with staggering naturalism, retaining all the innocence that MTV would capitalize on and obliterate for years to come. Working from Crowe’s screenplay adaptation of his own true life novel of the same name — more on that below — the film essentially lays the groundwork for the teen comedy genre, both hallmarking and subverting the many tropes that several directors would eventually adopt to myriad results. Much of the film’s success is also owed to Heckerling’s stylish direction, which strings together crisp portraits framed by handpicked cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti (Poltergeist).
There’s also something to be said about the film’s fresh cast being rounded out by close friends and past flings. According to IFC, Reinhold was Heckerling’s Los Angeles neighbor. The band at the school dance was fronted by her ex-husband David Brandt and his real-life band, Reeves Nevo & The Clinch. And her former boyfriend, director Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop, Scent of a Woman), played Dr. Miller for the field trip sequence. Elsewhere, Crowe’s then-girlfriend and current ex-wife Nancy Wilson (of Heart) made a cameo as the woman in the car who laughs at Brad in his dorky pirate costume. With the exception of Reinhold, all of these are admittedly bit parts at best, but they undoubtedly add to the film’s wholesome pastiche.
Crowe’s Circle: It’s strange that for as many careers as this film tipped off, only a single actor stuck with Crowe: Eric Stoltz. The cult star plays one of Spicoli’s stoner surfer pals (literally credited as Stoner Bud), and would later reappear in The Wild Life, Say Anything…, Singles, and Jerry Maguire. Off-screen, producer Art Linson later re-teamed with Crowe on The Wild Life and Singles.
Still, this film is overstuffed with budding talent who have no clue what’s about to happen for them, and it’s fun watching the
lean rookies. Among the regular players are Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola), Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, James Russo, and Taylor Negron. The late comedian plays a pizza delivery man in a bit role that he would later revisit in 1996’s Bio-Dome.
Class Dismissed: The long line of would-be students for this film is even more impressive than those who did wind up enrolling at Ridgemont High. Such class rejects include: Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane, Jodie Foster, Matthew Broderick, Meg Tilly, Michelle Pfeiffer, Melanie Griffith, Tatum O’Neal, Lori Loughlin, Elisabeth Shue, Kelly Preston, Rosanna Arquette, Carrie Fisher, Ally Sheedy, D.B. Sweeney, and Justine Bateman. Director David Lynch even passed on the project.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: It doesn’t hurt having Crowe on board, who was then still freelancing on and off again for Rolling Stone. His insight was instrumental to orchestrating what some consider to be the essential soundtrack of the ’80s. Popular artists such as Jackson Browne (“Somebody’s Baby”), The Cars (“Moving in Stereo”), The Go-Gos (“We Got the Beat”), The Ravyns (“Raised on the Radio”), and Oingo Boingo (“Goodbye Goodbye”) were paired with more traditional classic rock like Tom Petty (“American Girl”), Led Zeppelin (“Kashmir”), Don Henley (“Love Rules”), and Stevie Nicks (“Sleeping Angel”).
Although it’s now considered iconic, this smorgasbord of sound wasn’t a part of Heckerling’s original vision. “I guess a lot of people like that stuff, but being young as I was at the time, I really wanted a new edgy eighties music soundtrack,” she admitted. “I wanted Fear, Oingo Boingo, The Go-Gos, The Talking Heads, and the Dead Kennedys. I was one of those obnoxious teenagers that thought that the music I liked was great and everything else sucked. Getting that Oingo Boingo song in the film was a big fight. But I had to make some compromises and put in some songs that I didn’t like at all.”
That’s why the four separate inclusions by Eagles members Henley, Walsh, Don Felder, and Timothy B. Schmit was no brilliant coincidence. If you take a close look at the credits, you’ll notice Mr. Linson is also joined by the one and only, Mr. Irving Azoff. The longtime Eagles manager only had to make a simple call. Though, it would appear that Glenn Frey was either not a fan of coming-of-age films or was out back doing some soul searchin’. Oddly enough, he would later appear in Crowe’s 1996 dramedy, Jerry Maguire, as the stodgy GM of the Arizona Cardinals, Dennis Wilburn.
Page to Screen: Okay, so the book. In the fall of 1979, Crowe enrolled at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California under a pseudonym and spent a year watching the students interact. “My entire lifestyle changed that year,” he wrote in the preface. “I went to malls, to slumber parties, to beaches, to countless fast-food stands. I can’t remember all the times I left situations to ‘go to the bathroom’ and furiously scribble notes on conversations and facts I’d just heard.” Sounds like the premise to Never Been Kissed, right? Instead, it was the real-life groundwork for his first novel, which Simon and Schuster published in 1981.
Spanning 252 pages, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a breezy yet intimate encapsulation of American teenage life. Crowe writes with the authority of an omniscient best friend, a hidden eye that sees life for what it really is: a curious series of often humorous and seldom tragic moments seemingly strung together by halls, and books, and bewildered instructors. He doesn’t just craft tangible characters but records distinctive voices, who flirt, laugh, and cry like we’ve all done before. Crowe doesn’t write this as a journal, but as a conscious narrative, one that does have an ending, even if it’s really just the beginning.
Crowe adapted the book for the screen, which is why the transition is fairly smooth if not condensed. Brad Hamilton shuffles between jobs, Mark Ratner awkwardly rejects Stacy Hamilton’s post-date advances, Linda Barrett calls Mike Damone a little prick for bailing on the abortion, and Mr. Hand thinks everyone is on dope. As expected, though, much of these proceedings are drawn out and there’s further backstory to the characters. For instance, Jeff Spicoli isn’t exactly the hero that Sean Penn gets to be on-screen; in fact, he’s seen more as an obnoxious failure and almost like an outcast.
Another heartbreaker is football hero Charles Jefferson, who experiences a tragic downward spiral with no promise of an escape. Although he brutally retaliates against Lincoln on the field, following Spicoli and L.C.’s ingenious subversion of his decimated muscle car, he also gets arrested for assault and loses his prized scholarship. Granted, that downer of a story wouldn’t exactly factor well into the more spirited ethos of the film, but it’s one prime example of what happens when non-fiction has to turn into sparkling magic for the silver screen.
By far the most telling difference, however, is the book’s conclusion. While the film emphasizes the finality of prom, which actually reads more as a desperate affair, the book climaxes during Grad Night at Disneyland. Here, the relationship between Damone and Ratner is offered a little more clairvoyance and there’s an agreeable evolution for the two characters that’s only brushed upon in the film. This all leads to one final meditative day at Ridgemont High, in which Damone sits in during a random speech class and watches Spicoli read a surprisingly refreshing mini-essay.
Everything wraps with a letter that Brad has to write to himself 10 years into the future. It’s a neat little reflection, where he observes how it’s weird seeing his yearbook signatures shifting from “Have a nice summer” to “Have a nice life.” He also expresses his desire to marry Linda Barrett and how he would have taken another class with Mr. Hand if he could do the year over again. These little bits are a tad too somber for the Oingo Boingo-driven ending that came to be, but it’s a nice little bit of insight into a character that’s forever written to be a manager of Mi-T-Mart.
Failing the Bechdel Test: In 1985, Alison Bechdel changed the way some critics and filmgoers perceive women in film with a strip titled The Rule, which appeared in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. She argued for three things: 1. The movie has to have at least two women in it, 2. who talk to each other, 3. about something besides a man. Based on these qualifications, Fast Times at Ridgemont High fails the test despite the fact that Heckerling was behind the camera and that both Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates have a healthy amount of screen time together. Yet all they talk about is men.
This seems even more strange given Heckerling’s past comments on the subject. As she explained Indiewire in 2012, “It’s a disgusting industry. I don’t know what else to say. Especially now. I can’t stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night. I don’t want to say the name – but again with the fucking wedding and the only time women say anything is about men.” To her credit, the film wasn’t written by her, it was her directorial debut, and Bechdel wouldn’t publish the test for another three years. Also, one might argue that the two female leads are just as confused and sex-driven as the males.
Analysis: Heckerling summed up Fast Times best when she explained her broader intentions for the film. “If you woke up and found yourself living in the movie, you’d be happy. I wanted that kind of feel.” She got it. It’s a total joy ride, but also an achingly nostalgic experience that flashes by like a fuzzy memory — whether it’s watching a bunch of teens enjoying the simplicity of a backyard pool or being right there with them as they experience sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll firsthand. These are divine snapshots and feelings that outlast any generation and it’s very likely that youths today might see a little bit of themselves in Damone, or Ratner, or Hamilton, or Barrett. Hell, some might even empathize with Mr. Hand. Now, if that’s not a wake up call…
03. Jerry Maguire (1996)
Pitch: A sports agent is fired after finding his moral compass, leaving him with a mercurial football player as his only remaining client.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renée Zellweger, Jay Mohr, Bonnie Hunt
Something Wilder: Crowe has gone on record saying that Jerry Maguire is, in fact, a sort of tribute to the legendary Billy Wilder. In writing the screenplay, he was especially inspired by Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment, which so expertly blends elements of comedy and dramatic pathos in its vision of the modern man. Crowe even tried to get Wilder to play the part of the aging sports agent who scatters wisdom throughout the film, but the director refused. The plus side? Crowe was so persistent in his chase that Wilder eventually welcomed him to come over and talk, and Conversations with Wilder was born.
Crowe’s Circle: Aside from Cruise, who would later star in Vanilla Sky, Crowe doesn’t lean too heavily on his regulars here. He does unleash the celebrity cameos with reckless abandon, however, and it’s somehow fitting for a film so focused on money and prestige. Aside from real-life athletes Troy Aikman and Brent Barry, look out for Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Music plays less of a central role here than in some of Crowe’s other films, but the soundtrack is superb as per usual. It skews heavily toward classic rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with some hidden gems (listen for The Replacements’ “I’ll Be You” in the background of Jerry’s birthday party). The film’s best musical moment? It’s got to be Jerry singing along to “Free Fallin” in the car, not realizing how closely the lyrics match his own free-falling fortunes.
”Show Me the Money!” If you’re looking for a reason to call Jerry Maguire one of the most important films of the 1990s, consider all the well-worn quotations it spawned. Consider that idiot over in Sales who yells “Show me the money!” every time he closes a deal. Consider all those times you’ve heard some variation of “You had me at ‘hello’” or “Help me help you”, and then proceed to smother your face with a pillow.
The Cuba Acting Crisis: Remember when Cuba Gooding Jr. was a young, infectiously charming star fresh off an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor? Yeah, me neither. Someday we’ll write a What the Hell Happened? about this and finally put those Snow Dogs to sleep.
Analysis: If we were appraising Crowe’s films like they were NFL prospects, Jerry Maguire would be the likable, All-American quarterback with a good attitude and solid work ethic. It’s a fairly conventional romantic comedy that holds up well 20 years later, and it’s probably the truest onscreen representation of the director’s unflinching optimism.
02. Say Anything… (1989)
Pitch: Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is the quintessential Generation X-er; while he has hobbies and things he’s passionate about, he has no idea what he wants to do with his life and is basically a slacker. That is until he meets the over-achieving Diane Court (Ione Skye), a beautiful girl who has been so hyper-focused on her education, she’s never really lived life. Can these two star-crossed lovers beat the odds and fall in love?
Cast: John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor, Amy Brooks, Jeremy Piven
Something Wilder: While on the surface, Say Anything appears to lack any of the cynicism bubbling under most Billy Wilder movies and thus, bleeding into Crowe’s oeuvre. However just take into account that the big suspension of disbelief here is that a “loser,” who is a really a big ole sweetie with a caring, compassionate heart of gold, is supposed to fall for a “winner,” a snobby careerist whose role model father is nothing more than a common thief and, well, now who’s cynical? (Hint: it’s us). This is Crowe at his beat form of honesty and non-cynicism … it goes sour later in his career.
Crowe’s Circle: Here, Eric Stoltz is “Vahlere,” the dude behind the epic end-of-school party. He’s also the “Lakeside Rooster” who comes out mid-party and is promptly shredded of his costume. Sadly, the Stoltz/Crowe verbal agreement seems to end after Jerry Maguire. Another cameo in the film is producer and early Crowe supporter Polly Platt and Louis C.K. love interest/arch enemy Pamela Adlon.
The Soundtrack of Your Life: Oh man, easily one of the greatest soundtracks ever featuring some of the more unheralded bands of the time such as The Replacements, Fishbone, Red Hot Chili Peppers (before someone told Anthony Keidis he could really sing), Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, and Steely Dan. Not only is the soundtrack an eclectic blend of great music, it also kind of shows you what it’s like to listen to cool music and, by extension, the kind of cool music Cameron Crowe (and, Lloyd Dobler) would listen to.
The Dobler Effect: As the film has aged (somewhat) gracefully, it’s always surprising to me how “creepy” people nowadays tend to find Lloyd’s post-dumping pursuit of Diane. While I guess it’s not a stretch to say a dude standing in predawn light with a boom box trying to woo back his love and mend his heart could be a bit stalkerish, I think the anonymity of staring at people’s Facebook pages and Instagram these days is far creepier. But what makes that indelible, iconic scene so great is how it touches upon an overcoming of two huge, deep fears most people have: being rejected and being embarrassed. Lloyd Dobler pushes those aside and let’s his love all hang out … and it’s kind of beautiful.
We Get That: I think what made Cameron Crowe such a great writer and filmmaker early on was his uncanny ability to really “get” how people on the “outside” feel. I know I heavily related to Lloyd Dobler’s ethos of not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to “sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” You know, as a career, I didn’t want to do that. His follow-ups also touched on the idea of finding someone who loves you for you (Singles), not being a vapid cog in a machine (Jerry Maguire), and wanting to know artists who inspire you but also be able to create and express yourself freely from within (Almost Famous). Then, shit got weird with the guy. He lost touch with true feelings and opted for overbearing, maudlin hope.
Analysis: Say Anything… is one of the best teen romance comedies ever made, and that’s saying a lot considering all the John Hughes movies of the 1980’s. But what sets Say Anything apart from so many films in that subgenre is its pure heart and soul. It’s a movie about giving yourself up and doing what, to many, would seem insane. And that goes for Diane Court’s father James bilking old people out of their savings and Lloyd’s best friend Corey not falling back into the arms of the man who broke her heart. Everyone in this film feels deeply, loves deeper, and commits deeply in their actions.
–Don R. Lewis
01. Almost Famous (2000)
Pitch: In a world before background checks, where there was comfort in assuming people are older than they might actually be, so 1973, 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), is asked by Rolling Stone magazine to cover an up-and-coming rock band, Stillwater, and the experience changes the prodigious Miller’s life in ways you wouldn’t believe.
Cast: Billy Crudup, Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Zooey Deschanel, Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Something Wilder: According to a 2001 Total Film interview, Crowe screened Almost Famous for the then 94-year-old Wilder. Crowe seemed anxious, looking for Wilder’s feedback, and hopeful support for the project. He even personally handled volume for the private screening (Crowe feared the loud rock music would freak Wilder out). When Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) finds out she’s being sold to Humble Pie for 50 bucks and a case of beer, Wilder laughed at Penny’s bittersweet retort: “What kind of beer?” Seeing as Crowe had just published a 400-page book of dialogues with Wilder in 1999, this laugh came as a huge relief.
Crowe’s Circle: So there are two blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameos from Crowe’s Rolling Stone days. One, Jann Wenner himself shows up as a man in the back of a cab William looks into as he runs by. He’s credited as “Legend in Cab,” which is quite possibly Crowe’s way of bowing to the man that was naïve enough to give him a writing gig in the first place. And then, Peter Frampton appears as a roadie for his own band, Humble Pie. How meta-musical!
The Soundtrack of Your Life: You’re looking at arguably the most epic movie soundtrack ever produced right here. Crowe and his music supervisor assembled roughly over 50 tracks for this baby with a budget of over $3.5 million (out of $60 million for the whole show). By comparison, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused spent approximately $1.15 of its $6 million dollar budget on tunes from the same era. We can only assume most of Almost Famous’s advanced budget went to paying Jason Lee’s Scientology dues… Anyway, that’s a whole lot of clearances, but such is the cost for a movie that has a soundtrack featuring The Who, Elton John, the notoriously movie-shy Led Zeppelin, and a universe of other ‘60s and ‘70s staples. Even though Grammies are (generally) meaningless, this personal mixtape won a best compilation Grammy.
Crowe’s Early Career in Music Journalism: It’s reasonably common knowledge that this film is based on Crowe’s youth and experiences as a teen reporter for the famed rock rag. But since Almost Famous’s Stillwater, the band that almost makes it, isn’t real, the movie’s premise and William’s experiences with musicians is an amalgam of multiple stories from Crowe’s youth. And what a backlog of material! The near-plane crash is based on Crowe’s experience with The Who. The lead singer of Stillwater calling Russell a narc? That was Greg Allman freaking out at a young Cameron Crowe. Billy Crudup’s infamous “I am a Golden God?” Well, it doesn’t seem like that happened to Crowe, but apparently Robert Plant screeched that over Sunset Boulevard and, come on, that line’s too good not to use. And Crowe found a great place for it.
The Pitts: Canadian ingénue Sarah Polley was originally in the running to play Penny Lane, but bowed out to work on a personal project, thus ensuring Kate Hudson’s place in her best and only Oscar-nominated performance as the tragic, darling Miss Lane. Brad Pitt, by the way, worked with Crowe for months on the script until he dropped out, stating: “I just don’t get it enough to do it.” For real? Brad, it’s about nostalgia, commerciality, loss of innocence, and the beauties of music and popular art and … oh whatever, Billy Crudup did wonderfully, for a lot less money, so if he hasn’t thanked you, Brad, don’t hesitate to tell him he should. That guy never made another good movie after this.
Analysis: Not since Some Like It Hot has there been such whip smart lines in a movie. Where’s the wit and clever dialogue in movies these days? In Almost Famous, France McDormand is a concerned mother, trying to keep it together as her son’s on the road as an underaged rock writer. McDormand is teaching a class when she suddenly stops dead in her own tracks, forlorn that her son is away from her, announcing: “Rock stars have kidnapped my son!” Comically, one eager student jots this down, thinking it might be on the final.
There it is: Cameron Crowe at his peak, and that’s not just a compliment for the sake of ranking, Almost Famous is a great film for all time’s sake. To date, Crowe has never been more pure, more sincere, more sentimental, more romantic, comic, manic, and amazing as a writer/director than he was when he directed this film that miraculously exists between popular art and a highly personal passion project.
Oh sure, Almost Famous, like High Fidelity, has been misappropriated and co-opted by a young legion of too cruel and snobby art dweebs (like me), but that’s not Crowe’s fault. It’s a journalist’s bible, and a memoir of total heart, and Almost Famous is a feel-good film that stands the test of time as a period piece in the vein of Wilder and Truffaut and Twain and James L. Brooks, only unique to Crowe’s own pop pastiche sympathies. Above all else, it digs … music.
And it’s on drugs!