' ' Cinema Romantico: Elegy for Free Bird

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Elegy for Free Bird

Last week Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and Stephen Thompson convened on NPR’s All Songs Considered to deliberate what familiar songs need to be retired. “They are often beloved classics, or works of pure genius,” Boilen wrote in the accompanying post. “And you never, ever need to hear them again.” You might be able to guess which ones made the cut of needing to be cut. Among them was Alabama poet laureate emeritus Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, the 1973 power ballad which, regrettably, as Thompson pointed out, is perhaps the most mockingly requested tune at concerts, a joke anymore as bad as telling someone “See you next year” on New Year’s Eve. The argument as presented by All Things Considered was not, mind you, that “Free Bird” itself was bad. No, like Boilen wrote, it is a classic, perhaps pure genius. The song, as Thompson noted, means a lot to a lot of people. The case for retiring “Free Bird” added up to the song becoming, as Hilton said, “A parody of itself. It’s been so used that nobody takes it seriously anymore.”

“Elizabethtown” (2005) is not a movie most people took/take seriously, except for this blog as so many loyal frustrated followers can loyally frustratingly attest. And much like Usain Bolt should have retired after Rio, and much like Muhammad Ali should have retired after beating Leon Spinks, “Free Bird” should have been retired after “Elizabethtown.” As Hilton said on All Songs Considered, “Any time there’s some big goodbye on TV, or films, I don’t what it is, ‘Free Bird’ is what they call up.” Indeed, he referenced (and played a snippet of) Will Ferrell channeling Ronnie Van Zant on the final episode of Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show in early 2010. That moment seemed a winking acknowledgement of the choice’s banality, and Hilton suggested as much too, saying “They’re making a joke out of it because they know it’s become this cliché.” It was – and this was classic Conan – a serious moment not taking itself seriously. In “Elizabethtown”, however, “Free Bird” is called up with rightful earnestness.

During the film’s pivotal sequence at the funeral of Mitch Baylor, father to Drew (Orlando Bloom), protagonist, Cousin Jessie (Paul Schneider) re-unites his coulda-been band Ruckus for a one-night-only performance, a scenario which tinges death with something like a tease of rebirth, or just one more moment to live. Naturally Ruckus plays perhaps Skynyrd’s greatest Innyrd.

When they do, the scene briefly cuts outside the room where Drew and and Claire (Kirsten Dunst) – The [redacted] – hear the time-honored intro. As they do, Claire smirks, not so much skeptically as wearily, and remarks “‘Free Bird’, huh?”, a sly concession to the power ballad’s inevitability in the chosen context. But Crowe is not placing “Free Bird” here to make fun of it. No, the people in the audience are the people Thompson was talking about, the ones for whom the song truly means something; young and old alike, they all rise to their feet and put their hands together when that riff gets played.

True, the sequence eventually devolves into comical mishap when the giant papier-mâché bird that Cousin Jessie has crafted to go sailing over the crowd on a wire as the song reaches its pinnacle goes awry, the ersatz phoenix not rising from the ashes but inadvertently catching on fire, crash landing, setting off the sprinklers, unleashing mayhem. It is, I have written before, Crowe seeming to dream up an elaborate sequence as a shrewd means to have an Indoor Goodbye in the Rain. But now I wonder if an Indoor Goodbye in the Rain was merely a byproduct.

Even as the faux rain falls, Ruckus keeps right on playing, right through its homage to the real thing’s guitar solo, seeing the song to its dramatic end. It might be Ruckus’s last stand, but it just as easily could have been the song’s last stand too. In sending that bird up in flames, Crowe visually encapsulated exactly what the All Songs Considered crew was lobbying for, putting “Free Bird” out to pasture by burning it down.


Wretched Genius said...

I'm pretty sure that "Free Bird" had already been killed in a hail of bullets by Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects 3 months prior to Elizabethtown. So if anything, Crowe was simply performing the cremation.

Nick Prigge said...

It goes without saying, at least where you and I are concerned, that I have not seen The Devil's Rejects, but I believe you. And I say, touché.