Elizabethtown – The Harvard Crimson

Crowe, Up Close and Personal

For Cameron Crowe, tackling the embarrassingly personal comes naturally. This is the man who lauded the power of the stereo serenade in “Say Anything,” the director who glorified the car sing-along in “Jerry Maguire,” the inspiration behind a 15-year-old’s awkward loss of virginity in “Almost Famous.”

“The personal stuff tends to be the thing people come up to me later and say, ‘Thank you for putting that in a movie. It feels like it is from my life,’” Crowe says in a phone interview. This biographical approach, he clarifies, is “out of wanting to share something that is meaning[ful]…never to self-glorify.”

“Elizabethtown,” Crowe’s latest film, satisfies that craving for the intensely personal that remains relatable (see review on page B6). It’s a hearty helping of Southern intimacy, inspired by Crowe’s own cathartic return to Kentucky after his father’s funeral. According to Crowe, the genesis of the movie was “the elixir of Kentucky, the feeling that’s in the air there.”

To create that authentic bluegrass vibe, Crowe even tapped Paula Deen—the Food Network’s maven of fried hoecakes—to play protagonist Orlando Bloom’s aunt. “She could cook and hug and talk and do everything at the same time,” Crowe says, floored by her presence in the kitchen. It’s these sorts of touches that endow the film with genuine Southern charisma and display Crowe’s penchant for detail.

“Elizabethtown” signifies a return to more familiar territory for Crowe, whose last film, the 2001 science-fiction adaptation “Vanilla Sky,” was a dramatic departure in material and style: Crowe is an autonomous craftsman who has both written and directed most of his oeuvre, all of which—besides “Sky”—can be classified as romance comedies.

For Crowe, tackling “Vanilla Sky” was about trying something radically different, as he says like the way “some people talk about making a punk rock record: no second thoughts, move forward, do not spend too long on anything, and just bash it out.” (Sound like anyone’s last Expos paper?) “Vanilla Sky” certainly stretches the limits of his film repertoire, a short yet powerful six movie list, and, as Crowe explains, “the body of work is the thing to serve.”

While Crowe may not be the most prolific modern director, his early allegiance to music in his films has distinguished him from his counterparts; the style has recently been co-opted by newer auteurs like Wes Anderson in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” A veteran Rolling Stone contributor since age fifteen, and married to one of the rock divas of the ’70s (Nancy Wilson of Heart), Crowe inundates “Elizabethtown” with “little tips of the hats to artists” as he calls it—flashing a Ryan Adams album cover, instructing his protagonist to dance “with one hand waving free.”

Crowe has a clear intuition for synthesizing visual and auditory mediums. “I like to program a movie like a radio station I would want to listen too,” he says. But his techniques for connecting the audience to music extend further into his actual filming. “What is really great is when you are able to play the music that is used in the movie in that scene while they [the actors] are shooting…it is kind of fun to know that that music is actually influencing the performance just as it influences you watching it.”

On that note, many may criticize “Elizabethtown” for too closely resembling “Garden State,” Zach Braff’s 2004 pastiche of mellow sounds and soul-searching young adults.

“I never saw ‘Garden State’ ’til after we were finished filming,” Crowe says. After watching and “loving” the movie, Crowe says he feels that the two are different but part of a “genre we love—musical character studies.”

Crowe continues: “Hallelujah that the world is big enough for two movies about real characters. In a world where there are a zillion heist movies, let there be more movies about coping with loss and longing with great music.”

Can I hear an “Amen” for the gospel of Cameron Crowe?

Courtesy of The Harvard Crimson – Lindsay A. Maizel – October 13. 2005