Early in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 cine-memoir Almost Famous, Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) walks the streets of San Diego with a fictionalized version of the 15-year-old Crowe, played by Patrick Fugit. Then Bangs delivers some bad news. “It’s just a shame you missed out on rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “It’s over. You got here just in time for the death rattle. The last gasp. Last grope.” Fugit’s simulated Crowe shrugs. “At least I’m here for that.”
The films Cameron Crowe has written and/or directed over the past three decades could be summed up by that line: “At least I’m here for that.” The protagonists of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Say Anything…, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Elizabethtown, and We Bought A Zoo aren’t deterred by the suggestion that they were born into the wrong generation, or that the age of idealism is over. Crowe’s characters press ahead. They overcome serious setbacks. They create their own golden ages. They’re present.
Crowe’s Almost Famous is a kind of origin story, with Fugit’s teenage Rolling Stone reporter, William Miller, living out a rough approximation of what Crowe went through in the mid-’70s, when he went straight from high school to traveling around the country with The Allman Brothers Band and Led Zeppelin. Missing from Almost Famous is any hint that William Miller might one day grow up to become a respected Hollywood writer-director. Aside from a few references to the movies the young Crowe loved (To Kill A Mockingbird, most notably), Almost Famous is primarily about one boy’s sometimes-unrequited love affair with rock ’n’ roll. But that’s also true of Crowe’s actual Rolling Stone articles, which don’t really point the way to his future interest in film—but do contain plenty of clues to what his movies are all about.
Crowe started contributing record reviews to the alt-weekly San Diego Door in 1971, at age 13. Within two years, he was writing about rock ’n’ roll for various national magazines, including Creem (edited by Bangs, a San Diego Door alum) and Rolling Stone. At Rolling Stone, Crowe eagerly grabbed assignments that other writers were too hip to take, writing appreciative profiles of platinum-selling artists with little critical credibility, such as Yes, The Eagles, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. In an interview with Brett Anderson for Nieman Reports, rock critic Robert Christgau suggests that Crowe’s rapid rise at a ridiculously young age happened because he was more openly starstruck than his peers. “A nice guy, I’m told,” Christgau says. “I’ve never met him. I believe it. He’s certainly a smart guy and a talented guy. But he saw that there was another way to do this, and it was… Cozy up to the stars and write pieces they’d like.”
In his 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, Robert Draper is more generous about what Crowe brought to the magazine, saying that if not for Crowe’s embrace of what was actually popular in popular music, “Rolling Stone might have trundled through the seventies like a blind man in a wheelchair.” According to Draper, Crowe was well-liked even by the rock writers who didn’t share his enthusiasm for feather-haired country-rock singer-songwriters, because he was such an upbeat fellow. That positive energy won over the musicians he covered, who treated him like their mascot: the embodiment of all those faceless fans screaming for them beyond the footlights. After a while, even artists who otherwise eschewed Rolling Stone—such as Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young—agreed to be interviewed by Crowe.
Draper shows a touch of rock-snob-itis in his Rolling Stone history, saying of Crowe that he “embodied all the traits of mid-seventies American rock—amiable, unoffensive, and enormously successful.” And Draper isn’t entirely wrong. For Crowe’s first few years at Rolling Stone, at least, much of his work is undistinguished, especially by comparison with the publication’s literary stars like Hunter S. Thompson, Joe Eszterhas, and Timothy Crouse. For much of his tenure, Crowe was a frontline grunt, filing short news items and doing straight Q&A interviews and tour reports, with minimal editorializing. Every time one of the acts on Crowe’s beat hit the studio or the road, Crowe had the scoop, serving almost as an adjunct press agent for the musicians he’d befriended.
In an essay for The Guardian in 2000, Crowe said of his warm relationship with so many ’70s rockers, “Part of that is that they wanted to see their life mirrored back to them. It’s therapy in a way. They want to get your perspective on what’s going on. How do I appear to the outside world?” But part of it was that artists like Stephen Stills and Glenn Frey had their own agendas; they wanted to present a version of themselves to that outside world that was different from what either their record labels or their harshest critics preferred. So when Crowe wrote about Yes for Rolling Stone, he started out talking about the band’s hard-working road manager, as a way into making the band members seem more like mild-mannered, blue-collar guys. When he wrote about Led Zeppelin for Circus, he let Robert Plant and Jimmy Page talk at length about how much they’d mellowed, and how they weren’t the wanton libertines they’d been made out to be. Rarely did Crowe openly question his subjects’ self-image.
Not until later in the ’70s did Crowe start writing longer, more mature, artful profiles. In a 2002 interview, Crowe explained the change:
Jann Wenner gave me a copy of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the Joan Didion book. He said, “This is the future of what you’re doing now if you can hook into a more thoughtful, more soulful place.” I read one of her profiles on Jim Morrison and saw that it was about so much more than just Morrison. People always called their articles “pieces,” and I thought that was a little bit pretentious, but then I read Didion, and those were pieces. Her Morrison profile ended up being about a life in California, the weather, and existence. I thought, “I get it!” This is big picture stuff.
The seeds of that new direction are evident in a 1976 Rolling Stone cover story Crowe wrote about John Gardner “Jack” Ford, the hunky grown son of President Gerald Ford, then out on the campaign trail. The younger Ford tries to stay on-message and talk about his dad’s political positions, but Crowe treats him more like a teen idol, describing the hordes of women who swoon at the sight of Jack, and pushing Ford to talk about popular culture, drugs, girls, and what it’s like to live in the White House. Crowe succeeds in making Jack Ford seem like a decent young man, while also making his life seem shallow and preposterous. It’s a subtle study of the intersection between political life and celebrity, and also a deft, very Crowe-like depiction of a man who didn’t ask to be born into privilege, but who nonetheless strives to live a life that matters.
Crowe’s softer touch allowed him to get closer—or at least be fairer—to the female superstars of ’70s pop music. One of Crowe’s first reviews for the San Diego Door is a gushing appreciation of Carole King’s Music, her follow-up to the mega-platinum Tapestry. (Discouraged young writers should be heartened by the last lines of Crowe’s Music review, which reads like it was written by a 14-year-old, not a future Oscar-winning scribe: “Carole King is definitely worthy of all the premature hype placed upon her by the many critics eager to unload their journalistic vocabulary of superlatives.”) Crowe’s affinity for artists like King and Joni Mitchell became even more evident when he later interviewed them, and his last major Rolling Stone piece—a lengthy 1979 profile of Sissy Spacek—shows an unusual sensitivity toward the difficulty actresses had being taken seriously even in the “New Hollywood.” While other rock writers ignored Rita Coolidge so they could focus on her husband, Kris Kristofferson, and mocked Linda Ronstadt as an undeserving hitmaker churning out soulless covers of classic songs, Crowe was right there with the women, lending them an ear—along with a few sympathetic column inches in Rolling Stone.
But Crowe’s relationship with the mercurial Neil Young best defines his career as a rock journalist. The major ’70s rock critics were frequently flummoxed by Young, who from album to album could represent everything they hated (hippified soft-rock made by millionaires) or everything they hoped rock would become (raw personal expression with killer hooks). Even the “good” Young records were greeted by some influential writers—such as Dave Marsh—as flawed aberrations that had the unfortunate side effect of legitimizing the whole corrupt, fatuous SoCal scene.
Crowe, though, “got” Young. He conducted a lengthy, explanatory interview with the prickly rocker around the time Young seemed to be on a career-ending bender with his gloomy, abrasive albums Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight’s The Night. A few years later, Crowe wrote an incisive, career-spanning profile of Young for Rolling Stone, around the time of Young’s hit records Comes A Time and Rust Never Sleeps, and his critically acclaimed anthology Decade. (Crowe reportedly did another epic interview with Young recently, which may become a book, or may become the liner notes to Young’s next Archives box set.) On the commentary track for the “untitled” director’s cut of Almost Famous, Crowe talks about how he loves mistakes and studio chatter on rock records—anything that feels spontaneous and real. As a young writer for the San Diego Door, Crowe joined the chorus of critics trashing Young’s slicked-up multi-platinum 1972 album Harvest, but later explained that his reaction to Harvest was based in part on having heard all the record’s songs performed better on a live bootleg that was released first. (That boot, I’m Happy That Y’all Came Down, shows up in Almost Famous in the stack of albums that William Miller’s rebellious older sister hides for him to find.)
Though often identified with the more polished country-rockers like The Eagles, Crowe clearly understood and respected what Young was trying to do. The rawness and humanity of Young’s ’70s albums moved Crowe, who wasn’t that much unlike Young beneath his soft exterior. In his 1979 Rolling Stone cover story on Young, “The Last American Hero,” Crowe gets especially impassioned while describing how the man who once wrote the scathing anti-Richard Nixon song “Ohio” was so moved by Nixon’s reaction to his wife’s stroke that Young recorded the far sweeter “Campaigner.” It’s very much in character for Crowe to be captivated by a song with the line, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”
Crowe wasn’t always so open-minded. In Rolling Stone’s 10th-anniversary issue, his contribution to the “Top 10 of the past 10 years” lists defiantly stands up for his friends The Eagles, Jackson Browne, and CSNY, and includes the rebuke, “If punk is any indication of the alternative, I’ll stick with the Sixties wimps.” Perhaps this was a case of Crowe internalizing the common misconception that becoming a “serious” critic demands being sour and smugly dismissive. Or perhaps Crowe was just prematurely weary of the whole life of a rock journalist: always having to stay on top of the latest trends, while staking out impregnable, infertile ideological territory.
Wherever Crowe’s head was circa 1977, he did eventually lose some of his illusions about his heroes and mentors—not that it made him love them any less. Talking about Lester Bangs in an interview for his own website, The Uncool, Crowe said, “This is part of the beautiful contradiction of Lester, who said, ‘Never make friends with the rock stars,’ then I go to visit him and he tells me ‘My friends The Tubes are playing in Troy, Michigan. Let’s go.’” Crowe also had a falling-out with Rolling Stone founding editor Jann Wenner over the book Fast Times At Ridgemont High. At the time, Wenner was looking to expand his publishing empire and branch out into film, and apparently considered it a betrayal when Crowe took the book and movie rights for Fast Times outside the family. In the decade that followed—until roughly the time Crowe wrote and directed the rock ’n’ roll-themed Singles in 1992—he wasn’t just out of the magazine as a contributor, he was excluded from anniversary issues and retrospectives.
Even though Crowe didn’t write it for Wenner, Fast Times At Ridgemont High was the culmination of his Rolling Stone era. For research, Crowe spent a year undercover at a San Diego high school, finding out what was really on the minds of the teenagers who’d been his invisible audience throughout the ’70s. As he explains in the intro:
For seven years I wrote articles for a youth culture magazine, and perhaps not a day went by when this term wasn’t used: “the kids.” Editors assigned certain articles for “the kids.” Music and film executives were constantly discussing whether a product appealed “to the kids.” Rock stars spoke of commercial concessions made “for the kids.” Kids were discussed as if they were some huge whale, to be harpooned and brought to shore.
So in Fast Times, Crowe doesn’t exoticize, chasten, or mock teenagers. Again, as was his habit, he just listens, with genuine fascination, as these high-school students share advice about sex, explain the hierarchy of fast-food jobs, and spread rumors that grow into legends. That element of self-mythologizing is missing from Amy Heckerling’s movie version of Fast Times, which is more matter-of-fact, but otherwise, Heckerling, too is on the side of “the kids,” watching with no small amount of empathy at their awkward lurches toward adulthood. The big-screen Fast Times is extraordinarily true to the book, in that it’s largely plotless, relatively well-balanced between its male and female characters, and unafraid to make viewers cringe.
That bruising quality has been an under-recognized hallmark of Crowe’s films. In the commentary track for Almost Famous, Crowe compares the film to Joni Mitchell’s confessional album Blue, saying, “This movie’s gotta ache.” He brings that pain by showing how his own warm, open relationships with the people he was supposed to be covering wound up compromising his objectivity and breaking his heart. In Fast Times, meanwhile, Crowe and Heckerling practically punish their audience by making them sweat through scene after scene of embarrassing conversations and bad sex.
Crowe carried that fraught feel into his debut as a feature director, 1989’s Say Anything…, in which John Cusack plays a low-key teenage kickboxer-in-training who decides to spend the summer wooing class valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye). On the Say Anything… DVD commentary, Crowe talks about how Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler represents “optimism as a revolutionary act,” but what makes that optimism so affecting is that Cusack plays it with a droopy expression, and frequently gets knocked flat on his back while pursuing the life he wants for himself: as the boyfriend of the most remarkable woman in his high school. Lloyd is easy to root for, even though he always seems to be teetering on the brink of failure.
The connection between Crowe’s Rolling Stone years and Say Anything… is bound up in what Lloyd is trying to accomplish. It isn’t even that Lloyd thinks he deserves Diane; it’s more that he sees in her something he wants to be a part of, even after he learns that she’s due to fly off to study abroad at the end of the summer. Even if Lloyd is around Diane for just a few months, well… at least he’s around for that.
This is another common theme in Crowe’s films: the idea of a select group of people who can make other people feel like there’s nowhere else worth being besides next to them. On the Almost Famous commentary, Crowe says he tried to capture that feeling by re-creating what it was like to be around the rock stars of the early ’70s, at the time just before they became millionaires, and before the scene grew colder and more cynical. “It’s about the club of being together, and when you get invited into that club, you never forget it,” Crowe says. He repeats that same idea in Elizabethtown, which stars Orlando Bloom as Drew Baylor, a suicidal shoe-designer whose father dies suddenly. Drew returns to his dad’s Kentucky home, where he finds a whole community of people who knew and loved his dad Mitch better than Drew ever did, which helps Drew understand both what he missed growing up, and what he’s missing now. Sprightly flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) captures the charisma of Drew’s dad well, even though she never met him: “You want to be a part of Mitch’s club. Am I right?”
As a filmmaker, Crowe is better known for his writing than for his visual style, but he has a good eye, and has come up with a few iconic images over the years—most famously the Say Anything… shot of Lloyd Dobler holding a boombox over his head in an effort to win back his girl. One of Crowe’s most persistent visual motifs is of a face covered momentarily by a meaningful reflection in a car window. In Elizabethtown, Drew’s car window fills with an image of an American flag. In Almost Famous, William Miller rolls through the Sunset Strip and is dwarfed by the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. There’s a connection there, in the notion of an individual becoming subsumed into something larger, be it rock ’n’ roll or a whole damn country.
That’s what’s at the heart of the much-maligned final sequence of Elizabethtown: a 20-minute montage of Drew driving across the middle of the U.S. while listening to an epic mix CD and following an elaborate map, both made by Claire. Coming at the end of a movie that inserts a musical montage into nearly every reel, the driving scene struck many critics at the time as self-indulgent and corny—which it most assuredly is. But it’s also the quintessence of Crowe: so open-hearted and open-armed, and scored to an eclectic set of catchy, earnest rock ’n’ roll. Even in Crowe’s fumbly 2001 science-fiction exercise Vanilla Sky—his well-meaning-but-flat “cover version” of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 import Abre Los Ojos—callow hero David Aames, played by Tom Cruise, is humanized by the way he organizes his fractured memories with the help of pop-culture signposts. So it goes with Elizabethtown, which, as with so many of Crowe’s movies, takes the grand gesture, the phony dialogue, the implausible action, and the hit song, and fits it all into the director’s deeply personal cosmology. As Drew Baylor scatters his father’s ashes across America, the movie expresses a sincere faith in brotherhood—one nation under a groove.
There’s a word that pops up again and again in Crowe’s commentary tracks: “hail.” When he talks about his casts and crews, he’ll say, “We’re hailing you,” in the sincere voice of all those Southern California kids who can give words like “righteous” and “radical” a new power. Perhaps the reason other rock journalists in the ’70s didn’t resent Crowe for sucking up to stars is that he seemed so naturally gracious to everybody. In his Rolling Stone profiles, he gave rockers like David Bowie and Todd Rundgren the space to talk about whatever new sound or persona they’d decided to explore, and he gave them the benefit of the doubt that they were really onto something. Throughout the ’70s, Crowe made extra cash writing liner notes and tour programs for the likes of Peter Frampton and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and here, he again comes across a true believer, able to describe lumbering midwestern prog-rock act Kansas as “extraordinarily uncompromised” and “among the great bands of our time” and truly believe it.
That’s the fine line Crowe has trod throughout both his journalism and filmmaking careers: between sincerity and sap, and between being a staunch advocate and a hopeless sucker. There’s always been an aura of desperation around the lead characters of his films, as they’ve tried to convince themselves that they’re in the right place, with the right people, making the right decisions. Crowe’s most popular film, Jerry Maguire, is suffused with this feeling of hope-turned-need, as Tom Cruise’s titular sports agent paints himself into a corner and then tries to pretend that the corner is where he’s always wanted to be.
What makes Crowe’s work so potent, though, is that he’s aware his characters are enthusiastic to a fault, in the same way he knew his rock-crit friends like Lester Bangs could be hypocritical at times, and that his rocker chums Jimmy Page and Dickey Betts probably weren’t always being completely honest with him. He had faith in these people anyway. He hails them now. The Crowe who was an unapologetic booster as a teenage rock journalist is the same Crowe who went on to make a movie about those years and turn himself into its loveable but mistake-prone hero. The key to Crowe’s aesthetic is that he can shake his head sadly while still deeply caring about this dopey kid, who beams at the rock stars he’s been assigned to follow and convinces himself, “It’s all happening.
Next month: Neil Young, filmmaker.