The funny thing about the Almost Famous soundtrack is, I rarely listen to it as a whole. Actually, I don’t listen to whole albums very often anymore, but starting this project has forced me to do so, and I’m glad it has. It’s so easy to buy music tracks now and pop them into playlists to suit our moods, or to type some favorite songs into Pandora or Grooveshark and let it mix things up for us. It’s easy to forget that when a band puts together an album, they often conceive of it as a whole. Few of us as book bloggers can imagine taking quotes from our favorite novels and putting them all together in a list to make up some kind of mega-book to suit our mood, right?
Maybe that all seems a bit off-topic, but not really, because Almost Famous the movie is about music, or more accurately, about people who love music. It’s the semi-autobiographical tale of director Cameron Crowe’s beginning as a music journalist who wrote for Rolling Stone. In the film, the teenage William Miller takes an assignment from (real, but played in the movie by Philip Seymour Hoffman) rock journalism legend Lester Bangs to attend and write about a Black Sabbath concert. At the show, he falls in with a group of girls who refer to themselves as the Band Aids. William takes a shine to their leader, Penny Lane, who introduces him to the band Stillwater, an up-and-coming rock band that’s an amalgam for bands including The Allman Brothers and Bad Company that Crowe toured with and interviewed in the 1970s. Stillwater’s guitarist Russell Hammond takes a liking to William, and when Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres approaches William to do a story for the magazine, William suggests Stillwater as the subject, and then he hits the road with the band.
Almost Famous is a coming-of-age story, but it is also a love story dedicated to music, and more specifically to rock and roll. The soundtrack includes several recognizable hits from the early 1970s—”I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes; “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John (in one of the best movie sing-along scenes ever); “America” by Simon and Garfunkel; “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd—but it also includes some deep cuts, like “Sparks” from The Who’s Tommy and “That’s the Way” by Led Zeppelin. (Led Zeppelin doesn’t often give permission for use of their songs, so I hate to complain, but I want to go on record here: I wish that Crowe would have included “Tangerine,” which is also in the film, on the soundtrack instead of “That’s the Way.” Oh well. I guess he forgot to ask me.) The soundtrack also has some “original” Stillwater recordings, songs written by Crowe’s wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart, and Peter Frampton. You can see the entire song list from the film here. They had many better songs in the film than were on the soundtrack, but it’s a well-enough-rounded representation of what was going on in rock at the time.
If you love rock and roll, you will love this movie. If you ever loved a band, you will love this movie. That’s why I love it. When I was in college, I devoted at least two years to a local band from my college town. I went to every single show that I could, and I stood right in front, to the right of the keyboard, at every show. Generally, I was with a pack of friends, and we were all a bunch of wannabe late-80s hippies in white t-shirts and long skirts and beads. The band called us “the white t-shirt brigade.” People on campus I had never met would call “Hello!” to me as I walked across campus or come up and talk to me about the shows: Where was the band playing next? Would I be at the show in Houston/Austin/Dallas? More often than not, the answer was yes. I befriended the guys in the band (sure, okay, some more closely than others—it was college!). I got on the list for every show that I could. They weren’t the only band I followed in those days (and yes, it wrecked my grade point average), but they were the first band that I ever felt so passionate about (besides, at that time, The Police), and certainly the first one I could actually talk to between sets. For me, as a lifelong music lover, it was one of the best things that ever could have happened.
When I started going to see my favorite band, the crowds were small. My friends and I mostly had the dance floor to ourselves. Over the course of a year the crowds got bigger and bigger. There was talk of a record deal. And there were the—I suppose inevitable—ego clashes and substance abuse issues that have hounded bands forever. Someone got kicked out of the band, someone else left. They were replaced. The music changed. They signed a contract and made an album. I stopped going to their shows, and eventually stopped going to live, local music shows altogether. School became a priority—I wanted to get into graduate school, I wanted to be a professor—and so music once again became something I listened to mostly in the car, driving back and forth from home and work and classes.
When I saw Almost Famous for the first time, I had mostly forgotten about all that. And oh, how I cried. And I still cry, every time I watch it. Besides the fact that music is magic, I believe that most of us long to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. In the movie, the Band Aids have a thing they say to each other: “It’s all happening!” And at that time, back then, that’s how I felt, how my friends felt. It was all happening. We were almost famous. All of us. In my heart, anyway.