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Soundtracking: "Almost Famous"

Chris Feil's weekly series looks back at Cameron Crowe's rock opus...

Of everything that Almost Famous gets right about our relationship with music, its richest insights come from how it explores the importance of music in adolescence. Cameron Crowe is telling his own story of his teenage music journalism days in the film, but that’s not solely why the film feels so personal. It’s personal because it’s about that time in our life when music is never more personal.

When Crowe stand-in William Miller is gifted a treasure chest of vinyl from his sister Anita she isn’t just handing over the greats, she’s tasking him to find himself. At that age our musical taste is a vessel to both define ourselves and connect to others, to develop some kind of community or shared experience. It’s in the background of every heartbreak and happy memory, even if it just played in our heads. Through music, Crowe makes the intensely personal into something universal. Just like a song.

Just as the group William finds treats The Music as a monolith without the burden of genre taste or favorites, the film’s soundtrack is a wide swath of disparate sounds. We get something that’s indiscriminately devoted to everything on the era’s musical landscape rather than a deep slice of any of its innovations. In that regard, it’s kind of like a pop version of a decade without actual pop music.

One of the surprising things when you rewatch Almost Famous is how subdued its use of music is despite its omnipresence. Most of the song cues are in the background and as much of the tapestry of the time period as the costume design or set decoration. The track listing is filled with lots of b-sides, the kind of songs you linger on in revisiting because of how the hits eclipsed them over time, a pseudo-embodiment of Cameron Crowe’s reflection on his own memories. This gives a few crucial songs some added weight: Stillwater’s performances, William’s immature view of Penny on “My Cherie Amour,” and Anita’s yearning for independence and exploration with “America”.

But there is obviously no more impactful sequence than the midpoint singalong to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”. It’s the first and maybe only moment that the film lets the melody completely take over, allowing itself to just get lost in the feeling - and here is where the music becomes that fabled The Music we have been hearing so much about. And it’s not just the film and its relationship to its music: the band is also putting aside their drama for this uniting moment of revelry.

“Tiny Dancer” is the kind of pop rock track that is lyrically vague enough to allow us to extrapolate meaning onto its emotion. It’s not that we relate to the sentiment it expresses, but that it leaves enough room for us to put our our longing and heartache into its sweeping chorus. Individual interpretations, or the baggage we bring to it, hardly matter when it can unite a crowd - just like how it does here with the bickering band.

If you’re not singing along with Stillwater by now, you are likely still being carried on the scene’s emotion. Rightfully this is the film’s most iconic scene. If the film was a song and William’s longing to fit in was its repeated chorus, then “Tiny Dancer” is the bridge that gives the song some extra flight. But even moreso it feels closer to what Penny whispers to William midsong: “you are home.”

Previous Soundtracking Favorites:
The Big Chill
Stop Making Sense
A Bigger Splash

Big Little Lies
American Honey

...all installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (6)

Lovely post about a lovely film.

I can just remember still living in my mother's home, in my late teens, laying on the floor listening to this soundtrack and daydreaming about my future.

And I absolutely love the ending credits with Beach Boys "Feel Flows".

September 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterremy

Definitely one of the best films of the 21st Century. It's a shame that Crowe peaked pretty much with the film as he would make a couple of excellent documentaries, a good film, 2 not-so-good films, and the horror that is Aloha. Probably one of the worst films I had ever seen in a theater.

September 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I've always been of two minds about the "Tiny Dancer" scene. There's so much to love about it, but I *hate* that the bridge has been removed (1:44. It goes right into "hold me closer tiny dancer," rather than "but oh how it feels so real..."). I know this is nitpicky, but it takes me out of the (lovely) moment EVERY SINGLE TIME, and it therefore diminishes the impact of "you are home."

September 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterWill

"I'm sorry. Rock stars have kidnapped my son."

September 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

"What kind of beer?"

gorgeous line, gorgeous delivery, gorgeous film.

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJB

There is so much to like and admire about this film. Such an insightful and thoughtful article about the central thesis of Almost Famous.

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

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