There have been, to my almost certain knowledge, only three world-famous Crowes: Russell the actor, his cousin Martin, New Zealand’s greatest batsman and the shamefully uncredited inspiration for cricket’s Twenty20 revolution, and Cameron the rock hack-turned-bigshot film director. Of these, the last is the least appreciated, so let’s make amends forthwith.
I’ve just watched the wacky but endlessly soulful and criminally-neglected Elizabethtown for the second time. The first time I saw it my teenage daughter was next to me, ensuring a welcome bonding session. This time it offered a touch of serendipity: one of the stars is Susan Sarandon, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a rather wonderful girl I’d met the previous evening. As with all the Cameron Crowe films I’ve seen, it celebrates the upside of humanity: freedom of expression, respect for individuality, resilience, families, friends, forgiveness and love. And the enduring wonder of music.
No modern director, not even Martin Scorsese, celebrates the mood-changing, life-affirming power of song quite like the Rolling Stone alumnus. Marty tips his titfer to acts that forged their legends in the Sixties – Van Morrison, The Stones, Smokey – and cranks up the volume; Cammy (one day we’ll learn to love him enough to excuse such over-familiarity) flies the Seventies flag, rummaging through his tattered review copies and turning the dial down to five. Except, that is, when the band mime the bejesus out of “Free Bird” in Elizabethtown while a stuffed white bird descends from the ceiling and bursts into flames. A rather ham-fisted homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd, granted, but, as with all things Crowe, unflinchingly heartfelt.
Conjoined by time and place (the early Seventies), the guestlist for Almost Famous comes on like a Proustian rush with added quirks to shatter preconceptions: Yes do “Your Move”, their prettiest tune and least proggy turn; the Beach Boys do “Feel Flows”, their one and only dart at psychedelic acid-prog; The Who do “Underture” (yes, yes, I know it was recorded in the Sixties, but it blazed the trail to Who’s Next and Quadrophenia), which means no Rog. Crowe even achieves the not inconsiderable feat of reminding us that Elton John used to be considerably more than a self-mocking variety act, using his and Bernie Taupin’s songs with an aptness and a guileless affection that would be cool if it weren’t so irretrievably unhip.
In Almost Famous, the growing schisms on the tour bus are briefly healed by a slowly-building chorus of “Tiny Dancer” guaranteed to inject a mountain-sized lump into all but the most cynical throats. In Elizabethtown we get “My Father’s Gun”, not once but twice. As the central song in a movie whose plot revolves around a dead father and his suicidal son, this is far from excessive. Yet what makes it resonate is not so much the rousing nature of Taupin’s lyrics, Elt’s gospelly vocal or even the majestic piano lines that drive the whole stirring enchilada along, but the fact that Crowe brazenly, perhaps recklessly, allows the song to compete with both action and dialogue. Eventually, gloriously, the song wins. And no-one loses.
In Jerry Maguire, the canvas runs the generational gamut as the big boys jostle for elbow room – Elvis v His Bobness v Macca v Bruce v Neil v Pete T – and the girls – Aimee Mann, Rickie Lee Jones – compete for airspace. Elizabethtown digs deeper and wider – Tom Petty (with and without Les Heartbreakers), the Flying Burrito Brothers, Henry Mancini, Loudon Wainwright and, best of all, Lindsey Buckingham doing an acoustic “Big Love” that sacrifices the exhilaration of the Big Mac original for something slower, more panoramic and, yes, way more beautiful.
Not that Crowe is wholly resistant to original scores. Whenever something tender or plaintive is required in Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, up pops a shimmering instrumental motif courtesy of his far from ungifted old lady, Nancy Wilson. The impact is only heightened by the knowledge that this was the woman who once pioneered the power ballad with her sister in the widely unlamented Heart.
Only one question remains: given that John Hughes did the Eighties a passable degree of justice, who will fly the flag for the Nineties? My money’s on Danny Boyle. For now, let’s just give thanks for – and some belated due to – the exceedingly honourable Mr Nancy Wilson.