Cameron Crowe: Hollywood’s Most Predictable DJ

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Cameron Crowe makes uplifting movies about men (always men!) who follow their dreams — and fall in love in the process. They’re endearing, sweet films and they’re almost always set to a familiar selection of music that feels more like personal mixtape than proper movie soundtrack.

Crowe has had a long relationship with rock music. He spent his teenage years profiling bands for Rolling Stone — an experience fictionalized in the 2000 film Almost Famous — and worked as a music journalist in Seattle just as grunge started to blow up. Later, as a filmmaker, he co-wrote tunes for his movies with ex-wife Nancy Wilson (of the band Heart). He has even dabbled in music documentaries, including this year’s outstanding Pearl Jam: Twenty.

(MORE: Top 10 Cameron Crowe Moments)

Crowe says that he lured Matt Damon into his new project, We Bought a Zoo, by giving him a CD full of music that conveyed the type of emotions he wanted the film to capture. His mix featured songs by Tom Petty, Ryan Adams and Eddie Vedder, three artists who appear frequently on his soundtracks.

We Bought a Zoo was scored by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, a musician with a penchant for swelling anthems, soaring instrumental arrangements and songs that make you contemplate the bigness of the universe. To that effect, the Icelandic musician is the perfect choice for We Bought a Zoo, which is easily Crowe’s weepiest tale to date. (It features a depressed bear and an elderly tiger, for crying out loud.) Jónsi’s twinkling, glockenspiel-laden music mirrors the wonder that Crowe’s characters feel as they settle into their new home and discover the majestic nobility of the wild animals they are now responsible for.

(MORE: TIME’s review of We Bought a Zoo: Pure Cornography)

Of course, the filmmaker has a history of using rock stars to score his films. Anne Dudley (The Art of Noise) and Richard Gibbs (Oingo Boingo) worked on Say Anything, Paul Westerberg (The Replacements) contributed to Singles and the work of his ex-wife Wilson has been prominent on every film from Jerry Maguire to Elizabethtown.

Given Crowe’s rich musical history, it’s no wonder that he’s responsible for some of cinema’s most memorable musical moments (see: the boombox scene in Say Anything, the bus singalong in Almost Famous). But his multi-decade career has increasingly come to include as many misses as hits. Sometimes the songs are the only things that make those films bearable. (Elizabethtown, anyone?) Crowe re-uses the same musical acts over and over again — the man really loves his Eddie Vedder — in ways that appear much more creative and nuanced than they actually are. Just take a look at his filmography:

1. Say Anything (1989)

Plot: Aimless teen (John Cusack) falls in love with bookish goody-goody (Ione Skye). Heartache and longing ensue.

Music: is a cultural thread that ties together two seemingly separate lives.

Prominent artists/bands: Mother Love Bone (a.k.a., the future Pearl Jam), Peter Gabriel.

Best use of music: The boombox scene, hands down.

Obligatory rocking out in the car scene: The goody-goody’s disapproving father sings an off-key rendition of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” while driving. For Crowe, Steely Dan is apparently the epitome of uncool.

Did Crowe write a song for this movie? No, though Nancy Wilson, his wife at the time, has one on the soundtrack.


2. Singles (1992)

Plot: Depressed Gen X-ers in Seattle look for love amid flannel shirts, coffee shops and grunge.

Music: is how you define yourself.

Prominent artists/bands: R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains

Best use of music: The film’s fictional band Citizen Dick is composed of members from Pearl Jam (plus actor Matt Dillon). Their song “Touch Me, I’m Dick” is a play on Mudhoney’s “Touch Me, I’m Sick.” These are small details but they illustrate Crowe’s knowledge of the Seattle music scene.

Obligatory rocking out in the car scene: Deadbeat semi-boyfriend installs oversized speakers into his semi-girlfriend’s car then plays music so loud that the windows break.

Miscellaneous observation: There are at least five separate Jimi Hendrix references. Also, Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” appears both here and in Say Anything.

Did Crowe write a song for this movie? No.


3. Jerry Maguire (1996)

Plot: Idealistic sports agent (Tom Cruise) loses his job and all of his clients — except for one (Cuba Gooding Jr.). He rebuilds his life and falls in love with his assistant (Renee Zellweger).

Music: is a topic of conversation

Prominent artists/bands: The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen

Best use of music: The repeated use of the Who’s “Magic Bus” to heighten the intensity of scenes that display the chaos of being a sports agent.

Obligatory rocking out in the car scene: Maguire sings along to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” while driving. He’s a middle-aged dude. Of course he sings along to Tom Petty in the car.

Did Crowe write a song for this movie? No.


4. Almost Famous (2000)

Plot: Teenage boy (Patrick Fugit) gets a gig writing about an early ‘70s rock band for Rolling Stone. Poignant coming-of-age story ensues.

Music: is what makes us human; can set us free; is the only thing worth living for; went downhill after the early 1970s.

Prominent artists/bands: Elton John, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Simon & Garfunkel

Best use of music: When everybody sings “Tiny Dancer” on the tour bus. It’s the perfect blend of camaraderie and nostalgia and just might be Crowe’s finest musical moment.

Obligatory rocking out in the car scene: See above.

Did Crowe write a song for this movie? Yes! The fictional band in the film, Stillwater, performs songs written by Peter Frampton, Cameron Crowe and Nancy Wilson.


5. Vanilla Sky (2001)

Plot: A successful publishing magnate (Tom Cruise) meets and falls in love with a woman (Penelope Cruz). The next day he suffers a terrible, disfiguring car accident. He re-enters society only to find that he’s not sure what’s real and what isn’t.

Music: is part of his subconscious. His reality may be shifting, but he still recognizes a tune.

Prominent artists/bands: Paul McCartney, Radiohead, Sigur Rós, R.E.M.

Best use of music: Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” plays in the opening scene, in which Cruise drives, and then runs, through the empty streets of New York City.

Obligatory rocking out in the car scene: See above.

Miscellaneous observation: Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” plays as Cruise and Cruz fall in love. Peter Gabriel is basically Crowe’s rock version of Cupid.

Did Crowe write a song for this movie? Yes. It’s performed by Cameron Diaz.


6. Elizabethtown (2005)

Plot: Business failure (Orlando Bloom) returns to Kentucky to bury his father and falls in love with a chatty stewardess (Kirsten Dunst) who eventnually makes him a giant multi-CD mixtape to listen to while driving across the country.

Music: is able to help even the greatest failure appreciate life; helps us grieve; cry.

Prominent artists/bands: Ryan Adams, Tom Petty, Elton John, the Temptations

Best use of music: Pretty much the entire movie.

Obligatory rocking out in the car scene: He drives across the country while listening to a mixtape. What more do you want?

Worst use of music in any Cameron Crowe movie, ever: When the character played by Susan Sarandon tap dances to “Moon River” at her husband’s funeral. What is she doing? It’s extremely awkward to watch.

Miscellaneous observation: Ryan Adams is all over this movie. He’s on the soundtrack and his album covers show up in several scenes.

Did Crowe write a song for this movie? Yes. And at one point in the film, Heart’s 2004 album Jupiter’s Darling can be clearly seen.


7. We Bought a Zoo, 2011

Plot: Grieving widower (Matt Damon) uh, buys a zoo.

Music: is used whenever it seems like there should be a song playing in the film

Prominent artists/bands: Jónsi, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ryan Adams.

Best use of music: Two teenagers lie on the roof of a house and stare at the sky as Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” plays. (Again with the Eddie Vedder!)

Obligatory rocking out in the car scene: None. The closest the film comes is when a teenage boy listens to music on his headphones. But we can’t hear it because this is the age of the iPod.

Did Crowe write a song for this movie? No.

Conclusions: Cameron Crowe loves classic, alternative and grunge rock — and almost nothing else. He returns again and again to the same musicians the way other directors always cast the same actors. (Tim Burton has Johnny Depp; he has Eddie Vedder). His characters love to swap albums and mixtapes, and they almost always sing along to music in the car. Peter Gabriel tuns them all to mush. If Crowe ever decides to stop making movies, I have a great idea for a second career for him: he can become a programming director at a classic rock radio station. It’ll give him an excuse to play “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” as many times as he wants.

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LIST: The All-TIME 100 Songs