Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with filmmaker Cameron Crowe, director A.J. Eaton, and the irascible, venerated musician David Crosby, to discuss their documentary, Remember My Name. Opening today in select theaters of Los Angeles and New York, the film is a brilliantly honest, self-eviscerating document of Crosby’s iconic, storied life. If you think this is yet another rose-colored, nostalgic look back at the sixties or the Sunset Strip, you’re in for a big surprise.
The film takes a frank view of Crosby’s history and it’s not always pretty. Crosby is taking a long, hard look around him, and with all the introspection, the sense is that he feels he’s not long for this earth. Naturally, the first question on my mind was, “What’s going on? Are you planning on checking out soon?” His response – “I’m fucking old” – baffled me. In the past two weeks, I’ve witnessed Tony Bennett and The Rolling Stones defying their age, still going strong. When I made the point that Keith Richards is old and we don’t expect him to be going away any time soon, Crosby said he was “holding firmly onto life”. His motto is “only the good die young. Keith and I are getting T-shirts printed that say that right here!” (pointing to his chest).
Crosby elaborated further on mortality. “The really important part is not how long you have, because you fucking don’t know, nobody fucking knows. What matters is what you do with it. I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m old and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, I do know how I want to spend it. I said this in the film, there’s one place I can make a contribution, it’s the only thing I can bring here that’ll make your life better. This film might put the light on your life or make you feel intrusive or make you learn something. I’m doing the one thing I can do. … And I’m doing it as rapidly and at the best level I can possibly think it up to do. Aside from that I think I’ll just get stoned and have a ball, that’s my motto!”
As always Crosby tells it as he sees it, candidly and without filter. His recollections are rapid fire and unhesitating, as if describing photographs etched in his mind. He fires off answers in a staccato burst, punctuated with silent pauses. Regarding the jarring style of the film he said, “I want people to feel like when they walk out, they feel like they got to pay for a fairly honest picture of another human being. They didn’t get a shine job, they didn’t get bullshit, and they didn’t get somebody loading them up with crap.”
To be sure, many documentaries gloss over unpalatable aspects of artists’ lives. If any other director were at the helm that may have happened, a candy-coated story about peace and love in the Woodstock generation. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy stories about the halcyon days of rock music. But they are largely fiction and not what you’ll see here, thanks to Crowe’s central role in this film. Having made beloved coming-of-age films Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Almost Famous (which inspired me to start writing), Crowe is not exactly known for a hard-hitting style of filmmaking. He doesn’t pull any punches in this film, however, and asks Crosby very direct questions. While we don’t see him on camera at any time during the film, he is present. There is no better person I could imagine in the opposite chair, having interviewed Crosby often, dating back to his cub reporter days in the 70’s. One gets a sense that there is a deep connection between them.
On working with Crowe and Eaton, Crosby said, “I think they all gave us their absolute best because they knew they weren’t doing another shine job. You know, that’s what documentaries commonly are like, ‘Ain’t he cute?’ They’re bullshit. They don’t tell you anything you don’t know. If I see a documentary, I want know what you care about, who you love, what’s going on, what are you afraid of, why did you do that? I want to know that stuff. I think most people don’t want to do that and most people are not willing to do that. I knew that Cameron and A.J. would. That’s really the only level I’m interested in, that level of it, and it is dodgy and uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable being naked in public! But it’s worthwhile if you’re trying to understand a human being, any human being. They were willing to go at it on that level. That’s why I turned down all the other proposed documentaries and that’s why I loved doing this one. The bold move was that A.J. did not ask for final cut. A couple of times I said ‘That can’t be in there,’ and oh yeah, it’s in there and that’s it. My ass, my naked butt is in there. I said, ‘You can’t have my naked butt in the movie!’, and it’s in the fucking movie.”
About his time in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – “We did make some very good music competing with each other, and we were fully competing with each other all the time. The bands now are cooperative bands, we’re all trying to do the same thing, we have to contribute. It is a collective thing and that’s much closer to my heart. That’s really the way I think I should be making art. Of course, the proof in the pudding. I’ve made four really good records in a row (Croz, Lighthouse, Skytrails, Here If You Listen) and I’m halfway through a fifth one, that’s not an accident. Art didn’t happen by accident. It’s good. And it means that I’m on the right track, because that’s my job. That’s what they put me here to do.”
Although it’s hard to separate Crosby from the wealth of great music he’s made, he is far from finished, and the film drives this home (though not in a self-aggrandizing way). He flatly admits he stays on the road to support himself, and is not shy about the reason. “It’s very difficult for young musicians trying to make it now. If they watch this I hope they’ll think, ‘Well the guy’s given his whole life to it.’ So there is that, you can give your life to it. I hope they take away some understanding of the fact that it’s extremely difficult now to do it as your life’s work. Because of streaming that doesn’t give them a chance. We don’t make any money off our records period! Nothing. That’s made it much harder for young people, but I think they can see that if you want it bad enough you can do it. You can do it and it is a good path. It does help other human beings and there’s very little that you can do that does. It’s a mitzvah. It’s a good act and I’m happy about doing it. I just wish I could do it better.”
Crosby seems almost surprised that the film received rave reviews at Sundance, as though success at this point isn’t supposed to happen. “This film is an aberration. This is not how it normally goes. I’m supposed to be walking off into the distance, waving and saying goodbye. A surge of writing at this point in someone’s career is not only unusual, it doesn’t fucking happen. So it’s an aberration. It’s the thing we want to look at and say, ‘Wow!’ What made this happen in this guy’s life at this point? How did this come about? That’s a valid reason to do a documentary. What happened though, and they have a way of doing this, is it went vastly much deeper than than I planned on or was expecting and it probably went deeper than they had hoped. The fact was, that it was going there and we all knew it. So we were on that tiger, we just grabbed the ears and tried to stay on.”
Crowe and Eaton had their own thoughts on the music industry, licensing, and Crosby’s vast catalog. Crowe recounted his experience licensing songs by Led Zeppelin and Rod Stewart for the Almost Famous soundtrack. “The Kinks will always charge you an arm and a leg, and there is no wiggle room, ever. Rod Stewart, no wiggle room. Led Zeppelin, we had four Led Zeppelin songs and we were terrified that they were going to turn us down. They’d given us a song for Fast Times but they had not given any music to anybody since. We went to England and we showed them Almost Famous with all their Zeppelin songs in it. We went to this little cafe across the street. So we’re like, ‘Okay, here’s where they turn us down,’ and Jimmy Page says, ‘Well, we’ve just been talking and we’re going to say yes, but only if you take one more song that is from our acoustic period, and we’ll give you that one for free (Bron-Y-Aur Stomp).’ They gave it to us and it was beautiful and that was that was the best pleasant surprise ever!”
As Eaton tells it, “Crosby has been so prolific over the last five or ten years with all this new material and yet we have a whole catalog of awesome music. We found that some of these unreleased demos like Guinnevere worked better on the screen. The challenge was that Dave’s music means so much to so many generations of people. As I’ve played this movie, I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘you know that CSN or CSNY album is the one that my dad and I listen to together’. I realized that when we were making the movie how we have to serve those fans and do justice to the music. But we also need to tell a story that people can watch from the beginning, to get an idea of the person. So the movie as I see it is a portrait of an artist, warts and all. You know Dave and Jan (Crosby’s wife) had been approached dozens of times to do a documentary and I’m honored to have been given this trust. But I also had a major responsibility because the music means so much to so many people.”
I wondered whether Crosby pissed Crowe off at any point during production. “No. We actually put other stuff we were working on the back burner because it was so fun to work on this. I’d be working on the script and wondering what was coming next. It was really educational and it made me know that I wanted to edit it at home next time, because they were editing in a place that was not on the studio lot or anything, it was kind of first time where it felt like nobody was looking over our shoulders. The sensibility of it was just great for us, and I thought, ‘I want this for my next movie.’ I think the gift of it being so personal is worth thinking about an audience for a really long time, it was amazing. So everything else kind of stepped back while we did this movie.”
Eaton added, “Crosby and I have a great rapport because we connect over music and we’re great friends. But Cameron and Crosby have been talking and had this trust, this dialogue, this candid rapport for forty years and you know when those two started talking, I said to the camera guys, ‘You have enough film?'”
As it usually happens, Joni Mitchell’s name came up and Crosby had words of high praise. “Joni’s not an easy woman, she’s pretty crazy and she’s turbulent. That’s in a good way. That’s a nice euphemism. That’s a phrase that I used in the movie about it (his relationship with her) being like falling into a cement mixer. I love her. I can’t help loving her, she’s the best singer-songwriter of all. Hands down. Nobody close. Genius. I see that, and that puts her in front of all of us. She’s better than me just better than everybody. She’s better than Paul McCartney, better than Randy Newman. She’s better than any writer that I know of.”
He had praise for me too. “I appreciate you guys actually doing your homework, and you’re coming in with serious shit. It’s a pleasure. I’ve had people ask me so much dumb shit, like “Do you like blondes?” I don’t give a shit about that. I do really like it when you ask me something intelligent. You all did and I’m grateful. I want you to know that I’m not just buttering your toast. It matters to me that you went through the trouble to ask me something intelligent.” After his songs, probably the best words I’ll ever hear coming out of David Crosby’s mouth.
In short, you’ve got to see this film! I’m guessing the lines will be pretty long this weekend, but it’s one of the most poignant rockumentaries I’ve ever seen. Playing at The ArcLight in Hollywood and The Landmark on the West Side, the trailer is here: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5884004/