Innocent and unassuming, a young William Miller peeks beneath his bed after his sister departs to forge a fresh path in life. There, he discovers a note she’s left behind, a poignant message that reads: “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future”.
Miller is the protagonist in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, a film that’s as much a representation of Crowe’s own life and experiences as it is an ode to rock and roll. The 2001 film follows 15-year-old Miller as he begins his career writing for Rolling Stone magazine, joining the fictional rock band Stillwater on the road as they rise to success.
Despite an initial ambivalence, Miller is taken under the band’s wing and becomes particularly befriended by Stillwater’s guitarist Russell Hammond, Penny Lane, and her accompanying group of ‘Band Aids’. As someone who is fundamentally naive when it comes to the hardcore tendencies of the rock world, Miller’s time on the road provides a significant learning curve, much to the dismay of his mother.
All of this is underpinned by a film score that’s so powerful and profound that it could’ve been its own character. The soundtrack is integrated heavily into the film’s narrative, providing poignant moments and turning points with accompanying tunes that vow to render the shallowness of spoken word obsolete. Crowe masterfully blends some of the film’s most significant moments with 1970s rock cues, with each lyric given such calculated purpose that it’s hard to imagine any other feature achieving the same feat.
Miller’s first experience with rock music is at the hands of his older sister, Anita. Anita turns him on to Tommy by The Who, a foray Miller embarks on after Anita says, “It’ll set you free”. After announcing that she’s leaving in a bid to break free from her abusive and controlling family, she plays ‘America’ by Simon & Garfunkel to convey the reasons why she’s leaving to become a stewardess. Through its lyrics, Anita is able to use the track as a conduit for her personal situation, reflected in Simon & Garfunkel’s search for the American Dream.
Under his bed, Miller finds the secret stash of music his sister has left him, including Tommy, along with Joni Mitchell’s romantic Blue. From the outset, the film tells you that music is the driving force of all of rock’s cultural escapades – as Lane puts it, “We are here because of the music. We inspire the music”. Miller then introduces Lane to Stillwater’s Hammond, who pretends that they’ve never met before while Mitchell’s ‘River’ plays over the scene, a stark contrast to the rest of the film’s heavier notes. Still, it’s a tender moment, one that foreshadows the heartbreak that’s inevitably going to happen with a romantic liaison in the rock and roll world.
After using the Allman Brothers Band’s ‘No Way Out’ to signify the excitement attached to embarking on a tour, one of the most pivotal – and memorable – moments of the film comes with the inclusion of Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’. During a moment where tensions are at an all-time high for Stillwater, a heartfelt group rendition of John’s classic shows them the power of unity, effectively breaking the ice and reconciling the band for the remainder of the bus journey.
Later, another of John’s tracks is used to convey the anguish felt by Lane after Hammond goes back to a former girlfriend, with ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ building throughout the scene and the lyrics providing a profound metaphor for the situation: “I thought I knew /But now I know that rose trees never grow /In New York City”.
‘Tiny Dancer’ returns later during a moment of utmost uncertainty and heightened emotional intensity – as their plane flies through an electrical storm, the band experiences a near-death experience, and the twirling piano chords to the John classic dance in the background after Hammond fails to attempt to reconcile with Lane, but ends up at Miller’s house. When he finally gives Miller the interview he’s been waiting for, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Tangerine’ plays, signifying a conclusive resolve with both characters.
The attention to detail that Almost Famous possesses in terms of its musical soundtrack shows the lengths that Crowe went to in order to meticulously craft his dainty and gritty world. The turn-of-the-decade rock music enhanced each scene with specifically selected songs and lyrics, complementing each emotional nuance in ways that only music can do.
During the emotional centrepiece of the film, which incorporates ‘Tiny Dancer’ as its accompanying score, Miller turns to Lane and says, “I have to go home”, to which she replies, “You are home”.
The music in the film shows that no matter where Miller finds himself – even in his darkest moments or at his wit’s end – music will always be there to communicate that which he can’t. The music used gives new, often layered meanings to each scene, reflecting the emotional complexities of real life in a way that perfectly emulates the classic rock surge at the time.