- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Cameron Crowe, the boy chronicler of rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd, had a surprisingly serene inspiration for his new movie, “Elizabethtown” — radio humorist Garrison Keillor.

“I’ve always loved ‘The News From Lake Wobegon,’ those stories about people who don’t live in L.A. or New York,” the 48-year-old Oscar-nominated filmmaker says in a recent interview.

“I love how he’d weave a group of lives together and then, by the last line of his story, you realize exactly what he was trying to say. I’d always get a chill when that happened, and early on, I thought it would be so great to do a movie that had that structure.”

Though 2000’s “Almost Famous” inescapably ranks as Mr. Crowe’s most personal movie — it thinly fictionalizes his raucous experiences as a teenage correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine — “Elizabethtown,” which opens in area theaters tomorrow, shares intimacies of its own.

The movie stars Orlando Bloom as a suave young Oregonian who is charged with gathering his father’s remains in faraway Louisville, Ky., and bringing them back to Portland. However, he is absorbed quickly by the flyover family he never knew (not to mention a sprightly flight attendant played by Kirsten Dunst).

Mr. Crowe grew up in Southern California and visited his father’s native Kentucky as a child. While on a tour bus three years ago with his rock-singer wife, Nancy Wilson, Mr. Crowe was taken with the state’s “electric blue hillsides” and suffused with memories of his father, who died suddenly as Mr. Crowe’s debut feature, “Say Anything,” was gathering steam in theaters.

A screenplay came fast.

“I just felt this pull,” Mr. Crowe says. “I hadn’t been back there since my dad’s funeral in 1989. I guess it’s a story I always wanted to tell, which is being a stranger in a strange land, and the strange land is the epicenter of your family roots system.”

A plot that plunked a city slicker into the heart of the Bluegrass State was bound to show at least the contours of the country’s cultural divide. Yet Mr. Crowe says the issue never reached the front of his mind as he wrote the script — and it vanished altogether as soon as he began shooting on location.

“What happens when you go there is that ‘red state-blue state’ disappears. It’s just people. Events bring you together and cross those boundaries,” he says.

The movie’s regional actors seemed eager to play to crude type but breathed a sigh of relief when they learned Mr. Crowe wasn’t out to lampoon them.

“We went there and did a casting call, and so many of them would come in and be like (with extreme mountain accent) ‘Well, how are ya?’ We said, ‘No, we’re not going to make that kind of movie. Use your own voice,’” Mr. Crowe recalls.

“People were so grateful. They just said, ‘Thank you for being clear-eyed and not stereotypical about how we are here.’”

As with every Cameron Crowe movie, the soundtrack helps form the emotional core of “Elizabethtown.” The writer-director chose his selections from an eclectic batch of artists, including standbys such as pop veteran Elton John (whose “Tiny Dancer” figured prominently in “Almost Famous”) and classic rocker Tom Petty (Tom Cruise belted out his “Free Fallin’” in “Jerry Maguire”) as well as rootsy newcomers I Nine.

The Louisville natives in My Morning Jacket did more than contribute a tune. They make a cameo appearance in the movie in a pivotal scene in which Lynyrd Skynyrd’s overexposed “Free Bird” is performed live. “It was a bold joke,” Mr. Crowe says with a chuckle.

Viewers will notice something else that’s familiar about “Elizabethtown”: its thematic kinship to “Jerry Maguire.” Mr. Bloom’s Drew Baylor is a thriving shoe-company designer whose latest creation goes belly-up in the marketplace. Like the title character in “Jerry,” Drew must hit rock bottom — or at least sniff rock bottom — before he wakes up to the fundamentals of life and love.

Says Mr. Crowe: “I thought it’d be fun to start it off with a theme we touched on for ‘Jerry Maguire’ and hijack it for an even bigger issue — life and death. I thought that, in the first eight minutes of the movie, we should just take a big hook and pull Orlando Bloom’s character out of the traditional success-and-failure syndrome.

“It’s kind of like different verses to a song that has a distant melody that you remember,” he continues. (“Sorry, I can’t help the music metaphors,” says the unregenerate rock scribe.)

Also, because we’re in flyover country, Mr. Crowe can’t avoid taking Mr. Bloom’s debonair Drew on a heartland road trip.

The message, Mr. Crowe says with a Keilloresque flourish, is: “Look around at your world. It’s all there, right now, just a few stops past where you were going to park and begin your usual day.

“Keep driving.”

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