Shortly before Christmas, I jumped at the chance to attend a preview screening of the movie We Bought a Zoo. This wasn’t because I dig zebras or want to shag Matt Damon. (I always thought Affleck was cuter.) We Bought a Zoo is the latest film from Cameron Crowe, director of Say Anything, Singles and Almost Famous.
For many years, I considered Cameron Crowe to be just as much of a rock idol as Michael Stipe, Bono or Thom Yorke – all folks that I fear I wouldn’t be able to spit out 5 words in front of before bursting into reverent tears. Cameron Crowe may not be a musician in his own right, but he certainly knows his stuff, having cut his teeth as a writer for Rolling Stone as a teenager.
Crowe always seemed to understand the passion musicians and their fans carry, and excelled at portraying them, whether the band was transcendent like Almost Famous‘s Stillwater – the extended DVD even comes with a disc of their songs – or endured by patient girlfriends like Singles‘s Citizen Dick, who try to make it alongside Soundgarden and Alice in Chains in the 90s Seattle scene. Even in the admittedly hard-to-love Vanilla Sky, Cameron Diaz’s unhinged character is an aspiring singer.
Beyond literally incorporating musicians, Crowe’s movies are filled with people for whom music is part of their natural dialogue. When you first read the name “Cameron Crowe” in this article, your mind likely jumped to one image: John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler, in his Clash t-shirt and trenchcoat, hoisting that boombox over his head, blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”. With that LOOK on his face.
Chuck Klosterman was right: countless women born between 1965 and 1978 love John Cusack, and they love him because they love Lloyd Dobler. And I’d argue they mainly love Lloyd Dobler because he expressed his love in such a purely emotional way, through his and Diane Court’s song. Even though in this instance, the music didn’t work. Diane didn’t run out of the house and take Lloyd back then and there. But damn if the act wasn’t about the most romantic thing ever.
(Fun fact for today: I’ve read that for the first takes of that scene, Crowe and company were attempting to use Billy Idol’s “To Be a Lover” as the big song. Nowhere near the same.)
Music is the great equalizer in Cameron Crowe Land. A song can become a leitmotif, as “Somebody’s Baby” attaches itself to Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or it becomes a way to heal the pain, as evidenced by Corey’s countless yearning songs for Joe in Say Anything. (“That’ll never be me! That’ll never be me!!”) Or it’s an ice-breaker; Singles‘s Linda and Steve bond over Steve’s extensive vinyl collection from his college DJ days. The best part of Elizabethtown was Orlando Bloom’s character’s road trip, sound-tracked with mixes lovingly curated by manic pixie dream girl Kirsten Dunst. That could have been its own movie, and perhaps even a movie I would have liked.
Watching We Bought a Zoo, I could feel the old, music-nut Cameron Crowe straining to break free of the trappings of journeyman director Cameron Crowe. We Bought a Zoo is not rock and roll. There’s no Eddie Vedder cameo or subplot about a struggling band. Pretty much the entire story of We Bought a Zoo is contained in its title. And while it’s a pleasant and capable film, it took me a few days to admit that to myself, as those music-nut moments almost derail We Bought a Zoo. The overly ethereal and intrusive score from Jonsi of Sigur Ros is unnecessary, as are the too-on-the-nose pop cues. To wit: Matt Damon’s son gets expelled from school, and Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” pipes up on the soundtrack. Because the kid can’t come around there no more. Sigh.
Can one realistically wrap their world in music forever? Or does this ultimately become the sonic equal of trying to shove a square peg in a round hole? Cameron Crowe Land is a delightful place to visit, but I know I cannot live there. Even with all the music I take in – this weekend alone involved going to a club just to hear the DJ, three live music performances, and a screening of a documentary about Jobriath – I realize music alone is not enough to hold my emotional center. Though I certainly tried hard to make R.E.M. that center for years. I feel I ultimately learned that it’s not just the music that informs and transforms, it’s the life that I lead around it. None of that stuff this weekend would have been as much fun without any friends to share it with. Yeah, I likely met most of those friends through our mutual admiration of (fill in band/singer/venue here), but then real conversations and connections took hold. Love of music almost can be the everything, as long as it’s not the only thing. After all, it took more than Peter Gabriel to put Lloyd and Diane back together, and Stillwater’s problems weren’t fixed just by singing along to “Tiny Dancer” in the tour bus. As Cameron Crowe’s films turn further away from the musical world, I hope he eventually doesn’t try so hard to keep building bridges back to it.
I ramble, and I keep coming back to a scene in my mind. 2006, Santa Monica. The now-husband and I had been a couple for exactly a year. I’m puttering around in my apartment when, suddenly, outside starts blaring music it takes me a moment to process, so startled as I am to hear it.
Come in from the cold, I’ve got something to say to you, babe…
Where the hell would a Minibar song be coming from, if I’m not the one playing it? I look out the window, and Witney is standing outside, with a boombox hoisted over his head, playing our song. That’s right: he pulled a Lloyd Dobler. And for a brief moment, I lived in Cameron Crowe Land.
Damn if the act wasn’t the most romantic thing ever.
Diane Court must have been made of stone.