Friday 22 June 2007

The Music Of Almost Famous

My contribution to the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon over at Windmills Of My Mind.

I have to admit to not being a big film score fan. It's not that I don't appreciate film music and its role. Indeed my emotions can be twisted, turned and toyed with by great music as evidenced by these off the top of my head examples:

- The Fountain's recurring themes.

- The opening music from Miller's Crossing with the hat being blown away in the wind is an image/music combination I can't split apart.

- The slow pace and music of a seduction scene from Barry Lyndon (on a balcony). I still haven't seen the entire film yet, but this one clip had me glued.

- Tony Gatlif's films Swing, Vengo and Transylvania all have music at the root of the lives of their characters. They live and breathe it.

- The orchestral composition running through Juliette Binoche's head throughout Three Colours - Blue.

- Halloween, The Sting, The Jungle Book, Black Orpheus, Singin' In The Rain...

Great moments all...But I'm usually sucked even deeper into a moment when it's attached to a song or piece of music I already know. I often imagine my own scenes and how I would film them as I listen to music with some styles and genres giving me "more to work with" than others. This happens even more often these days as I've been doing a lot of walking with the iPod. Soundtracks, as opposed to film scores, usually connect with me quicker and, in the end, deeper.

And it's hard to beat a soundtrack like the one from Almost Famous. Especially if you felt your early formative years followed a somewhat similar path to that of the film's protagonist (except for that whole becoming a rock critic at fifteen, writing for Rolling Stone, flying in private jets and marrying one of the sisters from Heart). I discovered FM radio and what we now term "classic rock" around the time I was twelve and dammit if Cameron Crowe didn't capture those moments of discovery brillantly. When the young William Miller spins his older sister's records for the first time and the needle drops on The Who's "Sparks" from Tommy, I immediately get the goosebumps - the same ones I probably got the first time I heard the song and the same ones William seems to be getting as we watch his reaction. And then there's the terrific cut to an older William in high school just as Townsend's guitar crashes into the song.

Of course, only a pedantic bore would point out that "Sparks" doesn't actually begin any of the sides of that double album (sides? yes, vinyl records had sides), so let's just keep moving...

Another great and by now famous use of music in the film is Elton John's "Tiny Dancer":

Crowe borders on cheesy here, but I find his mixing of the scenic views outside the bus with the initial head bobbing of the passengers leads perfectly into the final communal singing of the chorus. Puts a smile on my face every single time.

And another short bit from the extended cut with Cat Stevens' "The Wind":

He nails the time period as well as the mood and thoughts of the character. And he doesn't resort to an overly familiar or obvious choice of songs. There's a plethora (I love that word) of moments like these in the film that capture not only the "era", but more importantly the feeling of the scene.

But the film also contains music written especially for it. Not a score per se, but the music of the fictional band Stillwater. What's especially great about this music is that it fits the band to a "T". The music comes across as a poor man's Bad Company - blues rock from a "mid-level band". A couple of the songs are actually quite good and could have been minor radio hits back in the day:

Very much in keeping with what an opening band in the 70s might have played. I also love the sound of the drums at the beginning of "Fever Dog" in the clip above - it's exactly like they sound when watching a band in a big cavernous hockey arena, especially when they are the opening band who obviously had less time for soundcheck.

Their other songs are a bit more forgettable and sound like those filler tracks you might hear deep into side 2. A pretty good example is "Love Comes And Goes":

I'm not sure if Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe intended to make some of those other tracks "less good", but what they've achieved with the music in this movie is a seamless whole. The Stillwater songs, the hits from the 70s, the lesser known tracks, the incidental tunes heard walking past a hotel room...They all just blend into the film and you can't pull them apart.

That's good film music in my mind.


Chet Mellema said...

While exceptions do exist, I have moved farther and farther away from music in film...especially as an emotional cue. For me it only really works as a comment on or part of what's on screen (mise-en-scene). That said, your examples are great and while slightly campy (see also the "Wise Up" scene in Magnolia), the Tiny Dancer scene and music heard throughout Almost Famous is assuredly the work of painstaking personal investment. And it pays off.

Some of my favorite examples of music in recent film include the theme used throughout In the Mood for Love and especially as Tony Leung and Maggie Chung ascend and descend the stairs to the noodle cafe, the Rebekkah Del Rio scene in Mulholland Drive, and the choreographed and animated numbers from Zhangke Jia's The World.

The absence of music can be almost more powerful than its inclusion (see the films of Michael Hanake and Yasujiro Ozu), but, if done correctly, music can certainly add to the artistic merit of a movie and the amount of depth and enjoyment the audience can take with it.

I've enjoyed your blog. Keep posting!

Chet Mellema said...

Oh...and what are you waiting for...queue up Barry Lyndon!!

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks for the comments Chet...

I agree about the absence of music being an effective tool. Haneke is a great example and I expect Ozu is too (though I've only seen Tokyo Story at this point). The worst thing you can do is to add too much music - a constant stream of "hey, this is how you're supposed to be feeling now!" type of backing music just ruins things for me. A good example of this was some of John Williams music in the first two Harry Potter films. I like the films enough, but I could close my eyeys at any point and pretty much know exactly what was going on by listening to the music...

Agreed on Mulholland Drive as well. It's kinda perfect the way it is. In The Mood For Love is certainly one of those films where I find it difficult to divorce the music and visuals. It's all just one entity at this point. I don't have as strong a remembrance of The World and the music in it.

But, when done well, music can work wonders in heightening the emotional response of a scene. Hopefully the director has already worked for the emotion via character, story and visuals, but the right music can just seal it all up nicely. I'm still a sucker for it.

As for Barry Lyndon, yeah...A friend at work has been bugging me fairly frequently to see it as well. I really want to, but just seem to keep putting it off for other genres, box sets, rentals, etc. Catching that seduction scene clip again recently while going through Scorsese's Personal Journey Through American Movies has put the priority back up towards the top...