Is it a stretch to suggest that, in some way, Cameron Crowe rocks? He might not in the literal sense - he's certainly not known as a musician - but the prodigious writer/director has had an uncanny knack for marrying the joy of rock music to written and visual media. At age 15, he'd graduated high school and secured a job as a contributor to Rolling Stone, the magazine's youngest writer ever. "He was the guy we sent out after some difficult customers," editor Ben Fong-Torres once said of his young charge. "He covered the bands that hated Rolling Stone."
After logging time with everyone from The Allman Brothers Band to Fleetwood Mac, Crowe moved in a different direction in the '80s: writing for film. That's where our story finds him, a talented screenwriter (and later director) whose stories and situations lent themselves to brilliant pairings of images and tunes. Here's seven of our favorites across more than three decades of filmmaking.
Jackson Browne, "Somebody's Baby" (in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982): After bidding farewell to Rolling Stone, the 22-year-old Crowe re-enrolled in high school, chronicling the senior year he never got to have as an undercover reporter. The resulting book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, became a blockbuster film in the summer of 1982 thanks to its heartfelt characters played by a myriad of up-and-comers, including Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates and Sean Penn as the lovable stoner Spicoli.
The film was jam-packed with songs by The Go-Go's, The Cars, Stevie Nicks, solo members of the Eagles and more - only some of which ended up on the accompanying soundtrack album. But the highlight has to be Jackson Browne's yearning pop classic "Somebody's Baby," which perfectly accompanied the adventures of the romantically inexperienced Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The track became Browne's biggest hit ever - and established Crowe's stories as ripe for mining soundtrack gold.
Eddie Van Halen, "Donut City" (in The Wild Life, 1984): Crowe's spiritual sequel to Fast Times, featuring an equally stacked cast that included Lea Thompson, Eric Stoltz and Sean Penn's brother Chris (seen that same year in Footloose), may be one of his most obscure works, thanks in part to the fact that challenges with clearing the film's many songs for home video release has proven nearly impossible. (It's still never been released in its original form on DVD.)
The original soundtrack strategy proved difficult as well: Eddie Van Halen was commissioned to score the entire film, but had to leave for a tour before the project could be mixed. Many instrumental compositions can be heard throughout the picture (with one even ending up in a humorous scene in Back to the Future a year later), but the only one to have made the soundtrack album was the subtle instrumental "Donut City." It's one of the only songs Eddie released outside the context of his band.
Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes" (in Say Anything..., 1989): Anyone who was worried that Crowe's talent wouldn't cross over to directing were surely satisfied by the teenage love story Say Anything..., about a well-to-do girl named Diane Court (Ione Skye) who falls in love with lovable misfit Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack). The scene in which Lloyd wins back Diane by hoisting a boombox over his head playing "In Your Eyes," from Peter Gabriel's 1986 blockbuster So, is one of the most iconic music-in-a-movie moments in any decade.
Bizarrely, it almost didn't happen - twice. Crowe initially cut the scene to "Question of Life," a track by ska/funk/metal band Fishbone. He then changed his mind and had the scene sent to Gabriel to approve. The singer turned it down, unsure if he wanted the track to be heard in a film that ended with the lead dying of an overdose. Ultimately, it was determined that Gabriel had mistakenly received a copy of the John Belushi biopic Wired instead - and was so pleased with what he finally did see that he reissued "In Your Eyes" as a single. (Amazingly, the song - only a Top 30 hit upon initial release - failed to chart a second time.)
READ MORE: May 1986: Peter Gabriel Releases 'So'
Alice in Chains, "Would?" (in Singles, 1992): It's said that Singles - a film about the romantic lives of twentysomethings in Seattle, Washington - initially baffled the studio that distributed it. Completed in the spring of 1991, Hollywood didn't know what to do with it...until some of the local bands that appeared in the film, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, started releasing albums that attracted a whole new crop of listeners, kicking off the grunge movement. Today, the picture stands as one of the ultimate documents of that cultural shift. And "Would?" remains one of Alice in Chains' best-loved songs, a stirring tribute to one of the scene's most talented singers: Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, who died at 24 of a drug overdose before grunge took America by storm.
Bruce Springsteen, "Secret Garden" (in Jerry Maguire, 1996): For one of his most successful movies, Crowe moved from young people entirely, crafting a comedy-drama about a sports agent (Tom Cruise) who learns to appreciate what really matters. With a wave of acclaimed performances (including Renée Zellweger and an Oscar-winning turn by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and multiple quotable lines ("Show me the money," "You complete me," "You had me at hello"), Jerry Maguire's soundtrack is a pleasant gumbo of mostly older deep cuts by The Who, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and others - but "Secret Garden," a pensive romantic tune that found Bruce Springsteen reuniting in the studio with his celebrated E Street Band for the first time in over a decade, became the film's big hit.
Elton John, "Tiny Dancer" (in Almost Famous, 2000): Crowe's most personal project was a semi-autobiographical story about a teen who starts writing for Rolling Stone in the '70s. (Where does he come up with this stuff?) Almost Famous is packed with great original songs written by Crowe's then-wife, Heart's Nancy Wilson, but it's also got some great moments like when the members of fictional band Stillwater share a moment on the tour bus singing along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." Like any of the scenes you see here, it's a mini-testament to the power of one great song and how it can bring people together.
Radiohead, "Everything in Its Right Place" (in Vanilla Sky, 2001): This mindbender of a film - an adaptation of a Spanish-language film called Abre los ojos that featured this film's co-star, Penelope Cruz, in one of her breakthrough roles - might be Crowe's strangest film. That point is driven home once more by its soundtrack, as Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" drifts through the establishing shots of Tom Cruise before viewers realize the song's title is about as far from the truth as it gets.