Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Song And Vision No. 4: "Tiny Dancer" and Almost Famous

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Why do movies and pop songs work so well together, and how does the union of sound and vision affect how you see the image in the moment and hear the song for years afterward? These are some of the pretentiously worded questions I'll be trying to answer in this new semi-regular column "Song And Vision," where I'll be writing about famous (and maybe not-so famous) movie scenes set to pop songs and all the weird and wonderful things that happen when directors and singers collide.

Previous Song And Vision entries have focused on scenes that aren't widely remembered for their music. The reason for this is obvious: I'm trying to show off the incredible width and depth of my film and music knowledge, in a pathetic attempt to impress strangers on the Internet. Actually, the scenes have come from some of my all-time favorite movies, and I've watched and re-watched them enough times to appreciate the outer edges where great cinematic music moments often take place. Even a movie as iconic as Taxi Driver can feel like it was made just for you if you can latch on to a Jackson Browne song playing in the background of a seemingly insignificant scene. Everybody does this, scouring what we love for bits and pieces we can claim as our own. It's how we find ourselves inside our favorite art, and how our favorite art ends up in our insides.

But now it's time to address an Obvious Movie Music Moment, a classic movie scene even a casual film fan would recognize that's known for calling attention to its brilliant use of a pop song. So, let's send that elitist know-it-all snobbery out the fucking window. Let's talk in a language even your idiot, ex-high school wrestler cousin can understand. This is "Stuck In The Middle With You" in Reservoir Dogs territory. We're talking "Unchained Melody" in Ghost here, people, and "New Slang" in Garden State.

Welcome to Cameron Crowe's domain.

Ex-rock journalist Crowe is famous for packing his movies with wall-to-wall music. Even the fascinating sci-fi misfire/mindfuck Vanilla Sky continually has songs playing in the background, providing a catchy, tuneful accompaniment to lots of entertainingly loopy horseshit. (I particularly love a scene late in the movie where–spoiler alert!—Tom Cruise suffocates Cameron Diaz/Penelope Cruz to The Monkees' wonderfully creepy concession to psychedelia, "The Porpoise Song.") Just as he has a talent for crafting "You complete me!" style catchphrases that inevitably become part of the permanent pop culture lexicon, Crowe is a gifted creator of Obvious Movie Music Moments. The most famous example is the "In Your Eyes" scene from Say Anything…, which has been referenced and parodied so many times it's probably not worth me adding my two cents. So let's raise our boom boxes and watch for the doorway to a thousand churches, shall we?

Crowe is a prodigious mix-tape maker–he even makes monthly mix tapes of his favorite songs as a kind of journal, an idea I ripped off years ago and you should to–and he uses music in his films much like a mix-maker uses music on his tapes. (A habit Crowe took too far in Elizabethtown, obviously.) Any good mixer knows that a playlist must (1) flow well from one song to the next; (2) communicate an important message, such as "I am someone you should want to sleep with."

I'm not saying Crowe wants to fuck his viewers. But it's pretty clear that the fifth track off of Peter Gabriel's So gives an otherwise inconsequential scene from Say Anything… its voice, expressing how the characters are feeling far more effectively than anything Crowe could have written. Some things are both too huge and too delicate to express with mere words. You can listen to "In Your Eyes" and appreciate it as a beautiful pop song, but after you watch Say Anything… you'll never forget that "In Your Eyes" is about how Lloyd Dobler is in love with Diane Court and wants to take her away from her geezer-robbing father.

This is what Obvious Movie Music Moments are all about–encrypting an iconic image with the right song (and vice versa). There are two ways to go about this. The first way is to pick a really obscure, really awesome song your audience has never heard of. This is "Making Time" in Rushmore or any number of songs from Quentin Tarantino movies. I'm not faulting this method, necessarily—I've personally discovered a lot of really cool songs this way—but it's totally the easy way out when it comes to creating an Obvious Movie Music Moment. Hearing a song as great as "Making Time" for the first time is going to be memorable no matter what the filmmaker does—though Wes Anderson does use it quite cleverly, mad little genius that he is–and if you heard it for the first time in Rushmore, you'll automatically associate one with the other forever by default. The second way is the Crowe way, which is taking a song the audience probably already knows and re-contextualizing it. An unapologetic classic rock fanatic, Crowe is a master at making the audience hear familiar songs the way he hears them, and loving them the way he loves them.

My favorite Cameron Crowe Obvious Movie Music Moment is the "Tiny Dancer" scene from Almost Famous. Let's watch:

Even in his best films Cameron Crowe, God bless him, frequently dances on the edge of full-on cringe-inducing cheesiness, and this scene is no exception. It comes right after acid-addled Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond flips out on Crowe stand-in William Miller the morning after an all-night house party. (The famous "I'm a golden God!" scene.) Hammond gets back on the tour bus and faces the cold stares of his pissed off bandmates still fuming from a big T-shirt related blow-up the night before. But then, as the bus pulls away, Elton John comes on and everybody stubbornly starts singing along. The cynic in me should scoff, but the cynic in me is not long for this world during Almost Famous. Without fail I give in to the "Tiny Dancer" scene and get chills at the exact same moment every time I see it, when the camera pans from card-carrying cool motherfucker Mark Kozelek to one of the Band-Aids singing "…in the auditorium!" OK Cameron, you got me: "Hold me clos-uh, tiny dan-suh!"

The communal bonding on the bus over "Tiny Dancer" is a fleeting moment of unity as Stillwater barrels toward lost innocence and probable separation. It's a moving expression of togetherness in the short term, a melancholic respite from an inevitable decline. It's a song that could have been sung by Russell at the end of Almost Famous, as he reflects back on a girl who loved him even though he didn't deserve it. Only now that he's alone does Penny Lane feel so real, as he's lying there with no one near, and she can't hear him. It's an Obvious Movie Music Moment that subtly foreshadows how the movie ends.

I've already outed myself as a sucker for '70s era piano men, so I guess it goes without saying that I was already a fan of "Tiny Dancer" and Elton John when I saw Almost Famous for the first time. But how can you not love this song after watching Almost Famous? There's an old critical cliché about it being easier to express hatred of something than love, but really good critics like Crowe are adept at helping listeners find a way to, if not love a song, at least understand how a song can be loved if you're willing to try. You might hate Elton John, but your heart is made of rats, turds, snails, and asbestos if you don't love hearing "Tiny Dancer" with Cameron Crowe's ears.

The year after Almost Famous came out Elton John made a record that suggested that the "Tiny Dancer" scene also changed the way he thought of Elton John. After years of being known mainly as The Lion King guy, John re-embraced his more thoughtful, early '70s singer-songwriter side in 2001 with Songs From The West Coast, which features a lot of songs that resemble "Tiny Dancer" and the rest of 1971's Madman Across The Water. Incredibly, he was successful at conjuring the old magic some of the time, particularly on the sadly wistful ballad "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore." I saw John play that song in concert in 2002, back when I was reviewing shows for my hometown newspaper. I doubt I would have paid the exorbitant ticket price otherwise, but I'm glad professional duty enabled me to see John, who put on a pretty long, pretty wonderful show. He even played one of my favorite songs of his, "I've Seen That Movie Too," off of 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, released the same year Almost Famous takes place. It was the last time John could claim to be as innocent as Stillwater, before the onslaught of what Craig Finn would call the massive highs and crushing lows of full-fledged rock superstardom almost killed him. In a way that Elton John was killed, at least in the minds of those who associated him with singing fucking meerkats. Perhaps Elton didn't deserve Cameron Crowe's love in 2000, but that love brought him back for a whole new generation of filmgoers who sang along with Kate Hudson to "Tiny Dancer" in Almost Famous.