This month, we are going to take a slight break from the norm. Rather than focus on an album as such, we are going to take a look at a series of albums with a unifying theme – soundtracks to the films of director Cameron Crowe. Though perhaps not as much of a household name as some auteurs, Crowe's body of work is impressive (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001081/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1). He is a very stylistic director, committed to his vision and fully conversant with how important music is to the film-making process. If you are still unsure how to picture him, here is how I imagine a typical night in the Crowe household in a scene from the only Cameron Crowe movie in which Cameron Crowe had no involvement, High Fidelity:
Cameron Crowe has a knack for creating 'moments' and, in order to do this, his films adopt a dreamlike quality. Though grounded in realism, his movies hypothesise a world in which characters can be brave or vulnerable or naïve or worldy-wise under the spell of a dexterous modern magic. There is a distinct right and wrong path for our hero to follow and using their heart as their guide is lauded above all else. Every sky is a Monet, every kiss transcendent, every character imbued with the capacity for delivering a note perfect line at the exact right moment. It is the escapism that I crave from the cinema and Crowe is a master at delivering it.
Often the moments that are created by Crowe are dialogue-driven. Who can forget 'You had me at hello'? The most powerful moments though are driven by music. I want to focus on the soundtracks to four of his movies and pick out in each the musical moment that Crowe creates that takes the film to another level.
Say Anything is Crowe's first film as director and an excellent full stop to his first two films as writer, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and The Wild Life. While both of those explore the hedonistic misadventures of American youth, Say Anything asks what happens when the party is over and everyone has to go home. The story follows small town do-gooder Diane Court (played to perfection by the now-forgotten Ione Skye) through the end of her high school years and the commencement of her relationship with jobless, prospectless ne'er-do-well Lloyd Dobler (a breakthrough role for the ageless John Cusack).
This particular 'moment' is probably the most iconic on our list. It has been referenced by, amongst others, The Simpsons, Malcolm In The Middle, Easy A and the irritatingly perky Glee. Diane has been warned off Lloyd by her over-protective Father (Frasier's Dad). Lloyd's response to this is to turn up at dawn outside Diane's house holding a boombox aloft. His choice of song is Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes, the song to which Diane and Lloyd first consummated their relationship.
What is incredible about this moment is that it could so easily be used as a cheesy end scene. Diane could run out of the house and embrace Lloyd in a happily ever after moment – everybody file out past the discarded popcorn. Instead, there is no reaction. Lloyd uses music to communicate when all other avenues are taken away from him. He may be deemed not good enough or inferior to Diane but they will always have this song in common. It is a far more powerful moment for it.
A mostly autobiographical film, Almost Famous marks Crowe's first and only Oscar win - for Best Original Screenplay. A highly personal piece, the story channels the time that Crowe spent as a 15 year old working for Rolling Stone magazine, touring with bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Crowe's film alter-ego, William Miller (the splendid Patrick Fugit), experiences a similar journey when he is tasked to accompany Stillwater, a band embarking on a make or break tour. Whilst on tour, he develops a bond with the band and an even stronger bond with their flighty groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). William experiences both highs and lows with Stillwater before being tasked with the ultimate dilemma – maintain his journalistic integrity or protect his newly-formed relationship with the band?
As you might expect, the film's soundtrack is a veritable 'who's who' of seventies music. America, my favourite Simon & Garfunkel track opens the show before handing on to The Who, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and the absolutely superb I've Seen All Good People (Your Move) by Yes. Crowe manages to assemble a soundtrack of bands that he liaised with during his journalistic career without it at any point feeling self-indulgent.
Almost Famous' moment comes after William accompanies Stillwater's lead guitarist Russell to a party. Russell has fallen out with the band, in particular front man Jeff, over T-shirt composition and is looking to let off steam. After partaking in recreational drugs and leaping from the roof of a house, William calls the band's manager to collect them. The tour bus, complete with angry band, turns up and Russell is ushered on board. All is silent until the opening bars of Elton John's Tiny Dancer kick in. One by one, the band begin to sing along until they are united once more. It is a magnificently subtle scene – saying more in two minutes of song than you might in five pages of dialogue.
This is perhaps the only Crowe film where he cannot take all of the credit for its conception and execution. The film is a remake of Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, literally translated as 'Open Your Eyes' and the title alone sums up the themes quite well. The movie follows David Aames (Tom Cruise), a playboy heir to a vast fortune who lives an idyllic lifestyle packed with celebrities, women and not really giving a crap about anything. He meets and falls in love with Sofia (the marvellous Penelope Cruz) only to fall foul of broken promises made to a former lover as she drives him off a bridge. The rest of the film takes place with lines blurred between reality and dreams. David struggles with disfigurement, rejection and murder – all the while betrayed by his own body and mind.
The soundtrack is reflective of the film's dreamlike state. Chemical Brothers and Beth Orton create an ethereal sunrise in Where Do I Begin? Spiritualized's Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space drifts in a cosmic haze. The Monkees defy expectations with their hallucinogenic Porpoise Song. Sigur Rós' Njosnavelin stands out as an exercise in sheer musical perfection. Each song selected for its dynamism, its muddled grace and its reach for a higher plain.
The moment is the very first scene of the film as it sets the tone beautifully for what is to come. David wakes in his fancy apartment and gets into his flash car. He drives through deserted streets until he reaches a deserted Times Square (blocked off and filmed early on a Sunday morning – such is the star power of Mr. Cruise). Mint Royale's From Rusholme With Love begins and David runs through a Times Square sensory overload before waking once more in his fancy apartment. It is a wonderful illustration of the tense relationship between our waking life and our subconscious and it serves as a fabulous overture for what is to come. The scene is also mirrored towards the end of the film, where David is found running through a building screaming 'tech support' to the melodic sounds of Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys. Majestic surreal bookends to a tremendous film.
Of all the film creations of Cameron Crowe, I have to say Elizabethtown is my favourite. It is a love letter to America and the songs feel rooted in the earth of the country. Stellar names Tom Petty and Ryan Adams take top billing but it is in the unearthed gems that the real soul of the USA can be found. What Are They Doing In Heaven Today by early 1900s preacher Washington Phillips is raw, untouched and beautiful. Lindsey Buckingham's rendition of Fleetwood Mac's Big Love is powerful and all-consuming. Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird was an untouchable masterpiece in my eyes – until I saw it accompanied by a fiery papier mâché bird carcass which ages it like a fine wine. True centre stage though is taken by the incidental music composed by Crowe's wife at the time, Heart's Nancy Wilson. It is spectacular. River Road gets me every time.
The story of the film concerns Drew Baylor (a surprising turn from Orlando Bloom), a shoe designer reeling from a personal failure, who is informed that his Father has passed away. He travels to his Father's rarely-visited home town of Elizabethtown, Kentucky to make funeral arrangements and reconnects with a plethora of larger than life family members.
Whilst there, Drew strikes up an amorous entanglement with the quirky and unerringly whimsical Claire (elfin Marmite Kirsten Dunst) and, upon leaving, she presents him with a 'map' – a quixotic road trip set to music designed to help Drew say a proper goodbye to his Father. Quite when Claire found the opportunity in the movie to spend a significant period of time with Pritt Stick and Sharpies, I do not know. Disbelief suspended though, it is a gesture that anyone with an ounce of romance would treasure.
Bearing in mind this is the longest 'moment' that we're looking at, if I had to pick a 'sub-moment' it would have to be the use of Elton John's My Father's Gun as Drew drives along a Kansas highway. It is the moment that Drew finally cries over the loss of his Father and to set it to a song about taking over a Father's place in the Civil War feels choreographed to perfection.
I could talk about Cameron Crowe all day. I won't, but I could. We haven't even touched upon the magnificent Jonsi soundtrack and heart-wrenching use of Tom Petty's Don't Come Around Here No More in, what I consider Elizabethtown's spiritual sister piece, We Bought A Zoo. We haven't dipped a toe into the decadent Hawaii-infused accompaniments to the flawed but underrated Aloha. We've only referenced Jerry Maguire once. Perhaps another day. Listening to the soundtrack to a Cameron Crowe movie is as integral a part of the process to me as watching the film itself and it has been a joy to revisit the work of one of the great Hollywood visionaries.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Week
“Can you draw a picture of the backyard of the house you grew up in?//Can you remember how it smelled?”
Ryan Adams – Words
Crowe uses Elton and more
To take us all there
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