Music co-stars in Crowe's films

Spotlight: Cameron Crowe


TORONTO — Toronto-- --Cameron Crowe first came to fame as a rock-music writer for music magazines in the '70s, when he was still in his teens.

When he wrote his first screenplay, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he nagged the producers about which tunes to put in the soundtrack.

The signature moment in his directing debut, Say Anything ..., had John Cusack standing outside a girl's window, playing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" to her on his boombox.

The guy married a musician, Nancy Wilson of the rock group Heart. He even did a whole movie about music and what it means to guys like him - Almost Famous.

So, yeah, music is a big deal to him.

"There's always music on the set, music he's chosen, which makes it such a happy place," says Jessica Biel, who has a small role in Crowe's latest, Elizabethtown, which opens today.

"It's this tool he uses for creating the mood of a scene, or getting across the mood of the film we're shooting," says Orlando Bloom, star of Elizabethtown. "He'll blast it in the middle of a take, or rehearsals, to get you there. ... You do one with him like that, and you have to wonder how you'll ever do a movie without music on the set again."

Crowe makes emotional, romantic films set to a pop-music beat. He uses our collective memories of songs and singers and their tunes to connect the viewer to the characters on screen.

He was friendly but jumpy (the guy can't sit still, lolling about on a hotel sofa, sitting on his knees for stretches) on a Toronto Film Festival break from cutting his latest baby down from 2 hours to something tighter. He fretted as much about the songs he would lose as he did the performances and plot.

"This always felt like a musical," he says of Elizabethtown, which is about Drew, a young man (Bloom) who, in the middle of an epic business failure, has to go home to rural Kentucky to bury his father. "Kentucky is a very musical place to me.

"This movie is built to take a moment to let you hear that Patty Griffin song - `Long Ride Home' - in the bedroom. Not out of an indulgent thing, but as just another part of the storytelling.

"Any of the other things I've been lucky enough to get made, the songs are a character in the film."

He may have built Elizabethtown's romance on the Patty Griffin song, but he hired his star based on a golden oldie, Elton John's "My Father's Gun." He cast the actor who "got" it.

"We tested so many people for that role, including Jake Gyllenhaal, and always with that song," Crowe says. "I just set up a little camera, looking up at him from a casket.

"I told him, `This is your father's body you're looking at in the casket.'

"And then I'd start the song."

Crowe starts to sing, softly:

From this day on

I own my father's gun

We dug his shallow grave beneath the sun

I laid his broken body down below the southern land.

It wouldn't do to bury him where any Yankee stands.

For Crowe, it wouldn't do to have a lead actor who wasn't moved by the song. He was making a movie inspired by his own journey to Kentucky to bury his own father.

But for Bloom, that audition was a moment of "total, wicked panic. `How do I deal with this? Nobody auditions like this. Amazing.' Wasn't familiar with the song at all, pretty obscure one," off Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection album.

He did something right.

"When I went home and looked at the tapes, I had to say, `This is the guy!'" Crowe says. "Orlando was the guy that felt like the lyrical center of the movie."

So lyrical that Crowe gave Bloom "theme music" for whenever he was ready for a scene.

"It was `Mr. Tambourine Man,' this live 1975 Dylan recording," says Bloom, shaking his head in bemused wonder. "How cool is that?"

Elizabethtown is a project close to Crowe's heart, maybe closer than he's letting on. Crowe, like Elizabethtown's hero Drew, grew up on the West Coast. But, like Drew, when he had to go to bury his father, that home was in Kentucky. Crowe says he was inspired to write this story while on a road trip through Kentucky with his wife's band a couple of years ago.

But Crowe's film alter-ego is traveling to Kentucky under the cloud of a spectacular failure. He designed an expensive shoe that flopped, threatening ruin for the company that just fired him.

Crowe has also had the taste of failure. His Almost Famous underperformed in 2000. His next film, Vanilla Sky, made money but earned dreadful reviews.

With the resonant elements from his own life tied up in Elizabethtown, Crowe was understandably touchy when critics at the Venice Film Festival didn't embrace the movie. He doesn't want another failure. That meant he was willing to take the criticism seriously - Variety ripped the pace and length, others jabbed Crowe for turning (in that earlier cut) Drew's failure into not a failure after all.

Tomorrow, he finds out if he has cut Elizabethtown into another Jerry Maguire, a romance that is embraced by the culture, or another Almost Famous, a movie with only the hopes of a healthy afterlife on DVD.

"It's not a movie for cynics," he says. "It really is about how silly you feel with your hourly success quotient when life and death rears its head."

Roger Moore writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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