A Marriage Between Music and Movies: Cameron Crowe’s ‘Greatest Hits’
Part I (50-26)
By Anthony Kuzminski
[Published in conjunction with the antiMUSIC Network]
PLEASE READ ALL THREE PIECES AT THIS LINK
I had not even reached my teen years when my Mom took me to see Cameron Crowe’s debut film as a director, Say Anything…. I sat there and was in awestruck by the absolute sincerity of the characters. Even at the youthful preteen age I was at, I knew there was something about this film that separated it from all of the other so called romantic and teen comedies of that time because these were living breathing beings who loved being in love and who dreaded a life without it. When the film was over at the Norridge Theatre just outside of Chicago, my mother suggested we buy the soundtrack at the Sound Warehouse next door. As I unwrapped the shrink wrap on the cassette on the way home, my mother went into lecture mode as I was discovering my first recordings by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Replacements. These are the moments teens roll their eyes at because their parents are telling them something important, we know it’s significant, yet we don’t want to hear about it. My Mom looked at me, made sure I was paying attention and told me in a soft voice, “I want you to remember this film because it just goes to show that girls do like nice guys”. I waved her off, but her words stuck with me. For an adolescent entering his teens, I thought this was a revelation. I bought what she told me hook, line and sinker. Needless to say, it was the best and the worse advice my mother ever gave me. I personally blamed both my mother and Cameron Crowe for the years of misery I experienced during my teens and early twenties. As I write this more than two decades later, I am wonder why I let John Cusack and Peter Gabriel off so easily but I should have held these two responsible as well. Despite all of this, I found shades of myself in his characters from Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown and this is probably why I never tried to be anyone other than myself. When I was lonely his films gave me comfort. When I was enraged, his films brought me consolation and when I was ecstatic, his films helped intensify that joy ten fold. Cameron Crowe’s films are excerpts from my soul. No other filmmaker has had their art make a more profound impact on my life other than Crowe (with Martin Scorsese being a close second). When I look at the musical artists who have paved the path for me (Bruce Springsteen, U2, Peter Gabriel) I am not even sure if any of them can match what Crowe and his films did for me. He’s the single greatest influence in my life whom I’ve never met.
One of the reasons for this admiration is because his films are drenched in music. Few directors can paint pictures and weave it with music as elegantly as Crowe. He has a way of twisting the emotional tone of a single scene with a song or emphasizing a characters heightened emotions through song. At times, words are not even needed as the music says it all just like it did in Crowe’s most famous music moments; the band sing-a-long of “Tiny Dancer” from Almost Famous, the elegant touch of “Secret Garden” in Jerry Maguire and the infamous Lloyd Dobbler scene of the stereo above his head as the boom box blasts “In Your Eyes”. However, as I went back and re-watched his six films, I found some truly luminous moments that are veiled, understated and often not always instantly recognizable. In many ways, without even being aware of it, the music leads the viewer down the road less traveled. These more nuanced musical memories are the ones that truly capture the soul of his films. A characters sly eye movement, an illuminating smile and the sensation of one’s struggle is made all that more genuine because the character’s journey is punctuated by song. Cameron Crowe (along with Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson) utilizes music not as mere background noise but to give a specific scene a greater depth. All three directors have turned certain songs and artists on their heads and I walked away from their pictures with a better admiration of the music than I ever could have imagined. They find ways to open up worlds to these songs I never could have foreseen.
A few years back Cameron Crowe compiled a list of his favorite movie-music moments for Empire magazine (from the UK). Being the humble person he is, Crowe wouldn’t dare put one of his own scenes on the list even though he has some truly defining musical moments. I decided to resolve this. I figured I’d whip together a quick list of the top-ten moments from Cameron Crowe’s films. Off the top of my head, I scribbled down over thirty. That was too many, so I vowed to go back and re-watch his films and the list swelled to over one-hundred songs. I was shocked at how visceral, authentic and crucial each and every one of these songs was to their respective films. Re-watching his films made me realize the brilliant nature of his quieter moments. As a result, I began to compile these understated moments and the list swelled to fifty songs of which the first twenty-five (50-26) are below.
In compiling the list I kept the list limited to films that Crowe directed, which eliminates some memorable scenes and songs from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Also, since I started compiling this list nearly three years ago, I’m focusing exclusively on his directorial efforts between 1989 and 2005 with one exception from We Bought a Zoo that proved to be far too beautiful to be left off. The emotional core of Crowe’s films comes from the music. As dynamic as his writing is, his meticulous timing of the music takes the scene and the film to new levels. Some are key music moments in modern cinema and others are hidden treasures that you’ll have to go back and watch closely. Some songs make magnificent declarations and others are hushed whispers in the night. Looking over the list now that it’s final, it pains me to leave so many songs off the list; Pearl Jam’s “Breath”, Fishbone’s “Shakin’ to the Beat”, Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (later used definitively by Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia, the Allman Brothers Band’s “One Way Out”, The Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows”, Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, Freheit’s “Keeping the Dream Alive”, the Smashing Pumpkins “Drown” and then there’s “Long Ride Home” by Patty Griffin. This track wasn’t in Elizabethtown but played a prominent part in the trailer, is on the official soundtrack and encapsulates most of the themes in the film. Griffin’s tender acoustic plucking paired with some of the most emotionally gutting lyrics ever committed to paper is among my favorite songs ever and I owe my awareness of the track to Crowe. Alas, it’s not in the film and is regulated to a special mention here.
This list is by no means final or definitive and I encourage you to challenge me. If I were to do it a week from now, I’d probably change up a dozen songs. But it allowed me an occasion to write about Cameron Crowe and more significantly, possibly…just maybe…through reading this list you’ll be impelled to seek out one of these artists, re-examine one of Crowe’s films and in the case of Elizabethtown hopefully it will permit you to look upon it with new eyes. So without further adieu, here are numbers fifty to twenty-six of Cameron Crowe’s Greatest Hits.
50. “Freebird” – Ruckus/My Morning Jacket (Elizabethtown)
At the memorial service in Elizabethtown, the fictional band Ruckus (consisting of members from My Morning Jacket) perform “Freebird” as a tribute to a family member who has passed on with a flaming flying bird and all. What ensues is pure chaos, but once again, the scene is delicately crafted with the music accentuating the looks on each of the characters faces and the pseudo rain at the end even foreshadows a cleansing of the soul. I may be looking too closely but Crowe took such an iconic song and managed to shine a new light on it, a near impossible feat.
49. “Stairway to Heaven” –Led Zeppelin (Untitled)
OK, so I am cheating a bit with this one. This scene didn’t make the final cut of the film and is only available on the “Bootleg Cut” of the film-Untitled, sort of. Led Zeppelin had never licensed their music for anything before Almost Famous and after Crowe screen the film for Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, they gave him four songs for the film, but not “Stairway”. I’m not sure if it’s because it cost too much or of the scene was too long for theatrical release, regardless, Crowe cues up the deleted scene so you can play “Stairway” in the background. It’s a shame it wasn’t able to fit into the film because it’s a pivotal moment for the lead character of William Miller. I this scene he has to convince his mother to let him go on the road with Stillwater for Rolling Stone Magazine. He has back up in friends and teachers but it is Miller who plays “Stairway” trying to demonstrate to his mother that rock n’ roll can be intellectual. This is one of the greatest deleted scenes in the history of cinema. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_ZbiURqoKg&feature=fvwrel
48. “Fever Dog”-Stillwater (Almost Famous)
You and 20,000 other people are in one place at one time and all of a sudden the lights dim into what appears eternal blackness before a beat elicits roars unlike anything you have ever heard before. This is the greatest drug in the world; the opening moments of a concert. Crowe manages to give you goose bumps in Almost Famous even though the band, Stillwater, is fictional and their song, “Fever Dog”, isn’t instantly recognizable. The song is cut from the cloth of 70’s guitar riffs and the scene capturing the crowd, the band and the backstage sequences is exactly what a concert should feel like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vD9D6CoYh1I
47. “Directions” – Josh Rouse (Vanilla Sky)
Cameron Crowe has an indelible quality to capture love at first sight. Whether or not you believe in the phenomenon or not isn’t the point. He captures characters at their most open, free and invigorating. In Vanilla Sky he captures giddy lust as Tom Cruise chases Penelope Cruz around his house during a birthday party. Josh Rouse’s “Directions” has a groove that you want to listen to over and over again. The driving rhythm accompanies the sped up heartbeats of these two characters and the camera work through stairwells is nothing short of magnificent.
46. “Every Picture Tells A Story”- Rod Stewart (Almost Famous)
Racing in the streets to the hotel where Stillwater is staying, William Miller and Penny Lane run through traffic, holding hands, basking in the glow of their drunken love for music with Rod Stewart serenading the scene at his finest. The excitement of connection, music and love in the air can be felt as these two lost souls run towards rock n’ roll hoping to find their redemption.
45. “You Can’t Hurry Love” – The Concretes (Elizabethtown)
Crowe’s films are filled with peek-a-boo looks of love. The same way one may eye someone from across the room, the eyes seem to penetrate the soul. Orlando’s Bloom character from Elizabethtown locks eyes with Jessica Biel in a scene that’s hypnotizing. The Concretes, a Swedish indie pop band, churn out an unrelenting beat fit for a party atmosphere but its lyric is all too true as these two future lovers eyes connect.
44. The Monkees – “Porpoise Song” (Vanilla Sky)
A delusional sex scene with scored by music by the Monkees? If anyone could make this work, it’s Cameron Crowe. I didn’t even know the Monkees got this trippy and when I saw their name on the CD package I thought it was a mistake. The average filmmaker wouldn’t dream of putting anything like this on a soundtrack for fear of being uncool. Not only did Crowe include it, but he made it work in a deranged and downright chilling scene. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdd5xI9l7Ns
43. “State of Love and Trust” – Pearl Jam (Singles)
Never have white people made dancing look so good. Performed early in Singles it captures two girlfriends out dancing and having fun only to discover a betrayal so profound it defines her character throughout the entire film. It may not be obvious, but this guitar scorcher from Pearl Jam is more than back ground noise but a pondering allegory. Plus the scene gave us the quote; “We will always go dancing!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbiWKIATxIc
42. “Waiting for the Man” – David Bowie (Almost Famous)
As Stillwater enters a hotel in Cleveland, fans are abounding with excitement. This David Bowie cover of a Velvet Underground song provides the perfect soundtrack. You see the band dance half naked with guitars, chase girls and are utterly free. Not any version of this song would have worked, but Bowie’s live version from the bootleg record Live in Santa Monica ‘72(which Crowe got permission to use just for this film) fits the scene perfectly. It can be argued that Mick Ronson’s guitar, Trevor Bolder’s bass and Mick Woodmansey’s drums better define the pure unadulterated sound of rock n’roll than any of the other fifty songs included on this soundtrack.
41. “All For Love” – Nancy Wilson (Say Anything…)
This underrated pop-rock gem wasn’t written by Wilson but is has all the charms and weight of her best Heart songs. The song can be heard a few times early on in the film and over the credits, but there’s a scene with Lloyd Dobbler (John Cusack) driving Diane Court (Ione Skye) in the morning and it warms me. The sun is gleaming down on his car, he’s falling for the girl in the passenger seat and she’s endeared by his charms. I’ll say this many times throughout this piece, no one encapsulates the sensation of first love better than Cameron Crowe. Wilson stretches herself in “All for Love” with her voice reaching the upper registers making you believe everything is feasible and there are days where we all require it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXG6l7tVeow
40. “America” – Simon and Garfunkel (Almost Famous)
Zooey Deschanel plays Crowe’s sister in Almost Famous and she’s the one who triggered his love of music. As she leaves home, she chooses to play “America” by Simon and Garfunkel. Right before she leaves, she puts her hands on her not yet teen brother and tells him “One day you’ll be cool”. The hopes and dreams we all experience and as begin our journey of life are serene and dreamlike. There is an uncertainty, hope and a dream that feels as if it’s in reach and as she drives off, we believe in her even though we know the odds are stacked against her.
39. “I Fall Apart” – Julie Giani (Vanilla Sky)
Crowe occasionally writes a song for his films. He co-wrote many of the Stillwater numbers for Almost Famous with his wife Nancy Wilson. This one was written for Vanilla Sky and it’s a doozy. Anguished la-la-la’s leads us to a tormented chorus full of sexual ache, calamity and a craving to not just be with someone under any circumstances. Julie (Cameron Diaz) plays this for Cruise’s playboy character in her right before the film takes an extraordinarily dark turn. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYB1BZYWdGE
38. “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” – The Hollies (Elizabethtown)
The opening of Elizabethtown is like a funeral march where Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is summoned to the corporate headquarters to learn he created something that will cost to company nearly 1-billion in losses. The look of dread can’t be hidden and everyone looks upon him in a silent manner. It sets the tone for death, gloom and last looks. The core of every Cameron Crowe film is about breaking the chains we carry with us. Elizabethtown is a vastly undervalued film with philosophical sentiments brewing at the surface. This song flawlessly sets that journey in motion.
37. “Would?” / “It Ain’t Like That” – Alice in Chains (Singles)
I wish I had more songs from Singles on this list, but Singles is a film where arguably the music is the star. The songs are like tattoos on each and every character. It’s in the coffee in the coffee shop, it’s the graffiti on the walls of buildings, and it’s in every raindrop and is most prevalent inside the clubs where the characters see live music. This makes individual scenes harder to standout (they all standout)The force of Soundgarden’s “Birth Ritual” sticks in my head more with Campbell Scott professing his love in a phone booth to an answering machine, but I had to go with the Alice in Chains performance early in the film. “It Ain’t Like That” features Layne Staley grinding the concert stage like an unleashed creature. “Would?” is more recognizable as the soundtrack’s lead song and ultimately when I watch it now; I feel an overwhelming sense of loss invade me. Staley was one of the era’s great front men and even though I am thrilled Alice in Chains has continued making truly career defining music, I can’t help but feel Layne had more stories to share. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckTQ-ftOK_s&feature=related
36. “Sweetness Follows” –R.E.M. (Vanilla Sky)
Vanilla Sky is the Crowe’s darkest film led not so much by Tom Cruise but by the surreal and nightmarish soundtrack that accompanied the film’s images. “Sweetness Follows” is the centerpiece of Vanilla Sky where the film splits off. You feel Cruise’s pain, his longing and his vulnerability. Tom Cruise is a great actor hidden behind a movie star and Crowe gets the most out of him. Stipe’s lyrics give the scene broad dimensions digging deep into the psyche of David Aames (Cruise). I almost put “Radio Song” by R.E.M. here (from Singles) but “Sweetness Follows” is more evocative. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPZmJ7oAOfc
35. “All the Right Friends” –R.E.M. (Vanilla Sky)
Crowe got R.E.M. to record this song for Vanilla Sky and they went back to the past for one of the first songs they ever wrote and finally did a proper recording. As Tom Cruise and Jason Lee cruise New York traffic recklessly this song penetrates the sense in the background. What appears to be merely a fast rocker to accommodate the scene but the biting lyrics (“I’ve been walking alone now for a long, long time”) parallel the dilemma Cruise is in. As a wealthy bachelor one has to wonder who your true friends are.
34. “Small Time Blues” – Pete Droge (Almost Famous)
In the “Riot House” scene from Almost Famous, William Miller peaks into a hotel room where two figures sit singing along to this song. It’s brief and sudden and you will most likely not remember it, but it speaks volumes. Two people coming together and intertwining their souls through song with an outsider witnessing their connection, their creation and their life. Its faint moments like this that makes Crowe’s films revelations. Such a small and simple scene is really a commentary on his film as a whole. On the commentary track Crowe mentioned how he imagined these two characters being Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The track is a Droge original and is available in two versions including the acoustic one from Almost Famous.
33.-32. “Vanilla Sky” – Paul McCartney / “Where Do I Begin” -Chemical Brothers (Vanilla Sky)
As David Aames (Cruise) wakes up early in Vanilla Sky, you can hear Paul McCartney whistle the title track and it reappears right at the end. The flash-cut to the credits and the song works magically and it’s one of McCartney’s most melancholy tunes. Crowe gave Macca a chance to be subversive and it worked. Upon the song’s conclusion, “Where Do I Begin” begins. I almost didn’t include it here as it’s solely in the ending credits, however, film should be about a journey and the film and accompanying soundtrack album aren’t fully complete until I’ve heard the guitar sample on repeat taking me down another trippy hallway into yet another lucid dream.
31. “Tiny Dancer” – Elton John (Almost Famous)
The integral front man-guitarist chemistry of Stillwater comes to a head when the singer feels the guitarist is overshadowing him. Russell Hammond goes to a fans house and parties the night away before the tour bus rescues him the next morning. When he appears back in the bus, the resentment looms over everything. Nary is a word spoken and he looks are deathly. As the bus takes off, the band one by one and the hangers-on begin to sing before the chorus washes their troubles away. They find solace in the music and it saves the day and in some ways, does something the spoken words can not match. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Qn3tel9FWU
30. "Singalong Junk" –Paul McCartney (Jerry Maguire)
This may be one of the most sensuous tracks Paul McCartney has ever written. The stripped instrumental puts its focus on the piano, drums and an acoustic guitar creating a song that wrangles inside your stomach forcefully and to think it elicits such a strong reaction without any lyrics is a coup. Cameron Crowe used this to beautifully in Jerry Maguire during a moment of affection between Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger. Without ever uttering a word, the lullaby pulls at heart strings. It's moments like these on McCartney that are underrated and amongst McCartney's finest.
29. “Tangerine” – Led Zeppelin (Almost Famous)
Journalist William Miller sits at on his bed, pulls out his tape recorded and places it in front of Russell Hammond. Miller asks “What do you love about music?” Hammond turns his chair around and says “To begin with…everything”. Once again Crowe frames a song breathing new life into it. The montage of scenes that ends Almost Famous is set to “Tangerine” and it’s not something anyone could picture, except for Cameron Crowe. Life on the road has never been more beautiful or pure. The bus rides into the sunset and the screen fades to black as Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar fades out. Rock n’ roll doesn’t get any better or more picturesque than this.
28. “My Father’s Gun” –Elton John (Elizabethtown)
Elton John’s pensive eight-minute long epic is the centerpiece of Elizabethtown where the lead character played by Orlando Bloom comes to grips with the loss of his father. Featured in an extended trailer and at a three different pivotal moments in Elizabethtown where tragedy is met with community, Crowe weaves the song like a communal gospel hymn making you forget any preconceived notions you may have about Elton John.
27. - 26. “Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel / “4th Time Around” – Bob Dylan (Vanilla Sky)
“Solsbury Hill” once again evokes that elated sensation of the moment you realize you are falling in love with someone. Instead of sex, Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz connect over a conversation that lasts until the morning light in Vanilla Sky. Crowe wisely lets the song unfold as their conversation continues. A lesser filmmaker would have had them between the sheets immediately, but he draws the foreplay of language out through Peter Gabriel’s second most iconic song. During another one-on-one session that is more sensual than sexual later in the film, Crowe digs deep to a Blonde on Blonde Dylan cut, “4th Time Around”. However, Crowe opted to use the version found on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert the infamous “Judas” show where he finished it with an electric guitar in tow. However, the early portion of the show found minimal arrangements and Dylan’s voice; guitar and harmonica strip these two characters and the screen they share to their emotional bare bone.
Check back later this week for the Cameron Crowe’s Greatest Hits 25-1.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter