Dark side emerges in 'Elizabethtown'


October 12, 2005


Chief among the many rich subtleties that reward repeated viewings of Cameron Crowe's movies -- and which make him one of the most popular cult directors today -- is that despite his reputation for relentless optimism, there is often a very dark core.

Because of the upbeat endings, it's easy to overlook the fact that Crowe's last three movies -- "Almost Famous" (2000), "Vanilla Sky" (2001) and "Elizabethtown," which opens Friday -- feature key scenes involving suicide.

"I've known several people who have been very close to me who've taken their own lives," the writer and director said in an uncharacteristically somber tone when asked about the recurring theme during a visit last week, when "Elizabethtown" opened the Chicago Film Festival. That list includes a sister who died of a drug overdose in the '70s.


As befits a former rock critic who is still a major music fan, Cameron Crowe makes movies that are full of unforgettable moments revolving around great songs.

Many fans would cite Robert Romanus as Mike Damone lecturing about Led Zeppelin as make-out music while "Kashmir" plays on the soundtrack for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," John Cusack playing a boom-box concerto with Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" during "Say Anything," or the tour bus sing-along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" in "Almost Famous," but my choices are a little deeper. Here are a few of them:

"Say Anything" (1989): You've gotta love Lili Taylor as the tortured folkie crooning one of 63 songs she's written about Joe, the heartless cad who done her wrong. The songwriters aren't credited, but I suspect Crowe and his wife, Nancy Wilson.

"Singles" (1992): In a movie full of classic grunge-era tunes, it was an inspired touch to rewrite Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick" as "Touch Me I'm Dick" for Matt Dillon's fictional band Citizen Dick.

"Jerry Maguire" (1996): After his mission statement is rejected and the titular hero melts down in front of his peers and an evil boss portrayed by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Tom Cruise finds catharsis while driving, singing and drumming along with Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'."

"Almost Famous" (2000): Philip Seymour Hoffman does a brilliant job portraying legendary rock critic Lester Bangs as he dances around a radio studio to the sound of "Search & Destroy" by the Stooges.

"Vanilla Sky" (2001): Throughout this dark fantasy, Crowe heightens the creepiness by scoring sinister scenes to sunny pop music, as when the hero (Cruise again) murders his girlfriend as the Monkees' psychedelic nugget "The Porpoise Song" floats from the soundtrack.

"Elizabethtown" (2005): For many, the "quintessential Crowe moment" will involve Lynyrd Skynyrd's immortal "Freebird," but for me, the star of the soundtrack is his wife, Wilson, who wrote and performed the beautiful guitar-based instrumental score. "We always loved the Mark Knopfler score in 'Local Hero,' and this is her version," Crowe said. "It's the finger that takes you down the path to this other world of Elizabethtown, and her score was as much of a reason to make the film as any other."

Jim DeRogatis

Crowe now has made several poignant films about his family: "Elizabethtown" chronicles his reaction to the death of his father in 1989; his surviving sister Cindy and his mother are portrayed by Zooey Deschanel and Frances McDormand, respectively, in "Almost Famous" and by Judy Greer and Susan Sarandon in "Elizabethtown." Alice Marie Crowe herself has appeared in cameo roles in all of his movies, just as Martin Scorsese's mom appeared in several of his films. But Crowe never talks about his late sister Kathy -- and he said that is one tale he will never share on screen.

"That's not coming, out of respect to her, and that fact that it's just too personal," he said. "I pay tribute to her in other ways: There are little tributes to her in all of my movies."

In addition to his brilliant use of music and a pop-culture consciousness that has few rivals in Hollywood, Crowe's movies connect with so many viewers because of their emotional honesty: Like the best musicians, he mines his own life for material, making sprawling double albums in an era of CD singles, and digging deep, which is why his films ring true. The one exception was his last effort "Vanilla Sky," an adaptation of the Spanish film "Abre Los Ojos" and an ill-fated vehicle for Tom Cruise, who starred in "Jerry Maguire" in 1996 and acted as a producer of "Elizabethtown."

Crowe laughed when I asked if he made "Vanilla Sky" because his mentor, director Billy Wilder, told him he should make more movies and not necessarily write them all ("You did your research, brother!"), and he readily agreed when I said it wasn't really a Cameron Crowe film: "It wasn't." Not surprisingly, given that movie's mixed reception, Crowe decided to return to what he does best with "Elizabethtown."

Frustrated by his lack of progress on a complicated, Robert Altman-style screenplay featuring eight lead characters, Crowe took time off in 2002 to accompany his wife, guitarist Nancy Wilson, on tour with her band Heart. "One morning I woke up on the tour bus to see those electric-blue landscapes of Kentucky, my father's home state, and felt a wanderlust," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. He set out alone, rented a car, cranked up a mix CD heavy on Ryan Adams and Patty Griffin (who has a small role in the new movie) and returned a few days later with a new screenplay.


Built in a day

"The entire story of 'Elizabethtown' arrived quickly," Crowe wrote, "a tale of love and loss and the discovery of family roots in the aftermath of a very black turn of events in the life of a young shoe designer, Orlando Bloom. It was a story that would start with an ending and end with a beginning and, I hoped, give a sense of what it was to be truly alive."

In my opinion, the director succeeded -- though there are rough spots, "Elizabethtown" has several moving scenes that rank with the best from his canon -- but other critics have disagreed, and many brutalized the movie after its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Crowe had screened a rough cut, and he subsequently trimmed 20 minutes, including his revelation about the fate of Spasmotica, the revolutionary sneaker designed by Drew Baylor (Bloom).

"Mostly it was about the success of the shoe: Does the shoe come back? I had to look at it without that scene," Crowe said.

"Someone said that while watching the longer version, the road trip was a movie on its own, and so was the guy trying to make it with his shoe. But I don't know that I make so many movies that I can't keep myself from trying to let it be that double album. The stuff that I've done is built for multiple viewings, and not necessarily in the theater: Wait a while. Watch it at home. Watch it on TV. Don't even pay for it. 'Cause there's stuff there, particularly in 'Vanilla Sky' and this movie."


Failures and fiascos

If Crowe sounds defensive, it's understandable: The first question he's getting in every interview these days is whether he's worried "Elizabethtown" will flop. Given that it opens with Baylor/Bloom musing on the distinction between a run-of-the-mill failure and a full-blown fiasco, he may have invited this. It's especially ironic because, for many of his 48 years, he has been hailed as a wunderkind.

As depicted in "Almost Famous," the San Diego native began his career as a rock writer at age 15, inspired by the late Lester Bangs, and quickly rose to become a star at Rolling Stone through the '70s. At 22, he returned to high school to write a timeless piece of new journalism, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and in 1982, his screenplay for the book provided his entree to Hollywood.

Of the five films he directed before "Elizabethtown," only one, "Jerry Maguire," was a box- office smash. But he has never experienced an all-out fiasco, since all of his movies have proven incredibly popular in the afterlife of cable, VHS and DVD.

"Not that I took it as a fiasco at the time, but no one saw 'Almost Famous' in the theaters," Crowe said. "There's nothing worse than getting that call after 'Saturday Night Live' saying, 'No one saw your movie.' If your whole world is wrapped up in that, if you are shallow enough to think that is everything, that is a fiasco.

"They've all had rough births -- even 'Jerry Maguire.' It hurts, but then you realize you can learn from both sides. The first time I showed ['Elizabethtown'] was really fascinating: Some people were moved beyond the ability to get out of their seat for a while, which I really wasn't anticipating, and some people thought it was a long movie with a great movie inside.

"I agreed with them, so I just started whacking away. It was difficult to get the rhythm of that up until the last minute, but what I didn't want to do is cut it down to just one of those movies. I wanted to protect the double album, and I wanted to see that this reaches people as best as it can."