Probably Cameron Crowe’s lightest film (during his “on” period at least) in terms of content but the snapshot – or “single” as opposed to “album” – presentation makes it pleasingly episodic and breezy. It’s essentially a collection of vignettes, each marked by their own painted title-cards and headings, concerning the same handful of characters over an unspecified period of time. Consequently, it lacks the heaviness of the Crowe films which precede and follow it; it doesn’t have the existential teenage drama of Say Anything for instance, nor the mid-life apocalypse of Jerry Maguire. Appropriately, it sits in the dead-zone between the two.
Singles is about the aimlessness of being a twenty-something where the only real signposts are where you live, the job you hate, what music you like, who your friends are and who you choose to have relationships with. The sprawling cluster of characters and short dips in and out of their lives is a nice approach. This is not quite a film to get lost in, but it is one you hang out with. Any film that stars a 90s Bridget Fonda, Kyra Sedgwick and Matt Dillon as an airhead grunge rocker is bound to have a certain appeal and they certainly kept me engaged. I like these characters, as I like most Cameron Crowe characters. They are flawed, witty and ultimately sweet-natured people whom some audience members – cynics and realists mostly – often groan at due to the self-reflective, smart-ass way they articulate themselves. Crowe gets criticised for being cute or saccharine but personally I’m always grateful for the way he populates his films with people who feel both real and stylised. His great trick is taking stock characters (the teenage lead, the 20-something singleton, the sports agent) and giving them an unpredictable heartbeat.
Crowe might always go for the “movie” ending, usually happy and definitive, and savour the big emotions and eye-rolling one-liners, but the road to them is always full of heavy emotional beats most rom-com or “fluff” filmmakers avoid or numb down. Let’s not forget, this is the guy who wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High, an 80s teen movie where the heroine gets an abortion. I think he’s one of America’s great “mainstream” writer/directors; a filmmaker who makes films for big studios, starring big names and primed for huge audiences but still smuggles in enough challenging drama to be artistically and emotionally valid. Sure he’s been off his game for a while now, but I would nevertheless include Crowe in the same breath as people like Billy Wilder, John Hughes, James L. Brooks, Nora Ephron and Wes Anderson. He’s coming from the same place as those filmmakers and even Singles, a minor work, has more depth and detail to it than so many other lackluster films of its type.
As a document of a time and place, the film feels quintessential. Maybe its portrayal of early 90s Seattle is glossy to those who actually lived there – after all, I’m a twenty-something Brit watching this in 2016 so my judgement of how “accurate” it is is questionable at best – but the film does have a reputation for being a minor cultural touchstone. I’ve always heard about this film’s soundtrack, and the collection of cuts are a huge part of the tapestry. Crowe is always a dab hand at curating mixtapes for his movies and this is probably his most specific. If you were in any doubt that this is 1992, the presence of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins coming out of your speakers should put all doubts to rest. Singles a cool little time-capsule of a movie that feels like a tattoo of a time and place long gone by. For a film so concerned with the specificities or age and environment, I’d say that’s an apt legacy to leave behind.