Emotional redemption stories are to Cameron Crowe as splattered paint was to Jackson Pollock: It’s his creative signature, and a very effective one at that. When Crowe hits his sweet spot, there are few filmmakers working today who are more effective at creating iconic cinematic moments that become permanent fixtures in our internal highlight reels of transcendent storytelling. Think: The pool scene from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” where Phoebe Cates’ scalding hotness sends Judge Reinhold into an onanistic frenzy; John Cusack’s “Say Anything” boom box serenade; Jerry Maguire’s ‘you had me at hello’ speech; and the “Almost Famous” tour bus sing-a-long to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” We dare you not to smile while recalling any of those scenes.
Now it appears that Crowe himself is poised for his own redemption moment. Six years ago, Crowe received his first unmitigated critical and commercial beatdown for his semi-autobiographical love-and-death fable “Elizabethtown,” starring the spectacularly miscast Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. Now, after spending some time licking his wounds, Crowe has come roaring back with three new films completed just in time to join this fall’s pack of Oscar contenders. Crowe returned to his rock-n-roll roots to make “The Union,” a documentary about Elton John’s collaboration with Leon Russell, and “Pearl Jam Twenty,” which traces the evolution of the seminal Grunge band. But anticipation levels are highest for “We Bought a Zoo,” Crowe’s homecoming to feature filmmaking. Based on Benjamin Mee’s bestselling memoir, it’s not hard to see how this story of a grieving man (Matt Damon) who buys an animal sanctuary in the wake of his wife’s death offers plenty of meaty material for the kind of stirring redemption tale Crowe does best.
Buzz has been building about Zoo’s potential to become a festival favorite (and possible Oscar contender) due to a steady stream of information and images being pumped out into various media. Recent images from the set offer a tantalizing glimpse at the film’s scruffy intimacy (and Damon’s shaggy mane). But the most exciting news surfaced late last week: Crowe revealed that an artist had been campaigning to define the film’s tone in the way Simon and Garfunkel did with “The Graduate.” Jonsi from the atmospheric techno-pop Icelandic band Sigur Ros has been mentioned as a frontrunner for the gig as has Neil Young and Eddie Vedder. It’s hard to imagine how such a disparate array of artists could possibly be mentioned in contention for the same film. Then again, Crowe’s films are all over the map tonally and his previous soundtracks have been an exercise in eclecticism. Before “Almost Famous,” we’d have scoffed at the suggestion that Lou Reed and Elton John could share space in the same film. And yet, now the method behind Crowe’s madness is perfectly clear.
We’ll admit that Crowe’s movies are sometimes a little to stomach, with their sappy grand romantic gestures and shrewish moralizing women squawking from the sidelines. But he brings an old-fashioned reverence for soul-searching characters committed to doing the right thing even when caught up in the swirl of their own emotions that fills us with warmth. And when he’s inspired, nobody is better at bringing pop culture alive on screen in multimedia splendor. Crowe may not have reached the artistic heights of his idol, Billy Wilder, but there is something about his earnest reverence for making moving pictures, in the most literal sense, that makes us root for him every time.
What’s your favorite moment, movie, or scene from Cameron Crowe’s back catalogue?