If there is one distinctive, auteurist-feature to the directorial work of Cameron Crowe, it’s surely aural rather than visual. He doesn’t necessarily have any visual style, though all of his films seem to have a misty nature to them, a kind of wistful dreaminess in their themes and in the way of their main characters. The only time this fails to happen is with Vanilla Sky, his remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre los Ojos, though even here the soundtrack falls into line with his methods.
The single defining feature of a Cameron Crowe film is surely music. Crowe is interested in music of his characters, music of their time and music they would like. Some would place his squarely as a 60s-70s man, but this era-based categorisation is negated entirely by the first film I’m going to talk about in his column.
Key to Crowe’s musical choices, beyond his own preferences, are the preferences of his characters and the feel of the music. He seems somewhat interested in lyrical content, but much more tries to capture the feel which tends to be dictated by the type of story he tells. In sync with that, the question raises as to whether Crowe writes based on the music or if he finds the music that fits the story. Given that he is noted for playing music on his sets to nurture feeling or atmosphere, you would have to posit that the two come almost in sync. The music he loves will dictate the kind of characters he creates, but only in terms of the type of music his characters love. Otherwise, he is more interested in writing what he considers real people, but placed within his realm of sweetness (some would contend mawkishness).
As a general rule of thumb, Crowe will tend to work with music which displays a wistful, elegiac nature. Music which seems evocative of its time and its subject matter. A film I’ll comment on in a later column, Almost Famous, lives and dies on the strength of the music Crowe chooses. It’s all music which evokes the time and period but, with very few exceptions, transcends its time simultaneously.
His debut behind the camera, Say Anything, stands up as much for its script as anything else. It also, though, captures the kind of soundtrack he would seek to make as time went on. His soundtracks often act as mixtapes for the protagonist, a snapshot of their musical minds. Say Anything’s soundtrack does this through eclecticism, something which the lead, Lloyd Dobler, exudes through his general demeanour. Dobler seems the kind of music fan who would appreciate anything doing what it did well, no matter the genre. The soundtrack then includes the likes of Joe Satriani (‘One Big Rush’) and heavy-funk era Red Hot Chili Peppers (‘Taste the Pain’), sitting alongside Depeche Mode (‘Stripped’) and, on the insistence of star John Cusack, Fishbone (‘Skankin’ to the Beat’).
The two key songs, which would somewhat define Crowe’s approach in later years, are ‘Within Your Reach’ by The Replacements and ‘In Your Eyes’ by Peter Gabriel. The former, a watershed song for the band from their tipping point record, Hootenanny, plays as a kind of paean to the kind of person Dobler is set out as. He is an open, honest and emotional person, yet entirely balanced and devoid of histrionic teenager syndrome. ‘Within Your Reach’ is Paul Westerberg begrudgingly opening up, something he would continue to do to amazing impact throughout the band’s later life.
‘In Your Eyes’, a song about love as a transformative, religious experience, seems more in tune with the movie as a whole. It’s use, played from a boombox held aloft by Dobler beneath the bedroom window of his love, Ione Skye’s Diane Court, is rightly held up in the annals of history as a truly romantic moment. It could have been so different if, as Crowe recounts in an interview with Cinema Confidential, Cusack has his way and played ‘Bonin’ in the Boneyard’ by Fishbone during that scene. But Cusack lost the fight, and not only does it play as a Romeo and Juliet moment for the cassette tape generation, but the song itself speaks volumes of Dobler’s complete, unfettered, uncensored love. It’s romance comes both from the act and from the music, something Crowe’s films would continue to do for the remainder of his career. It’s the moment that caused Chuck Klosterman to pen an essay in his Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs about how Dobler destroyed every relationship he ever had because he, Klosterman that is, is not Dobler.
Whether mawkish or heartwarming, ‘In Your Eyes’ and ‘Within Your Reach’ set the tone for Crowe’s coming career, though he tended to edge towards overuse of music in later works, notably the awful Elizabethtown. The two songs are open and honest, personal in an aching kind of way, a feature that can either turn your on or forever turn you off to Crowe’s work.
Next Week: Quentin Tarantino calls on the gods of blaxploitation in Jackie Brown. Further Cameron Crowe films will be explored as time goes on.