Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Tiny Dancer

Elton John w/ Stillwater: Tiny Dancer


By conceit and definition, Cameron Crowe's 2000 semi-autobiographical timepiece Almost Famous uses a quite specific, carefully curated set of older songs as soundtrack fodder, the better to establish and maintain both the innate historicism of the cinematic summer of '73 it depicts, and the tonal tension of just-out-of-reach coolness that the film explores as it meanders through the intimate and often hilariously naive tour bus chronicles of reputation-on-the-verge and be-true-to-thyself challenges through the perspective of a 15 year old budding music journalist who misrepresents himself to Rolling Stone to garner an all-expenses-paid journey through America alongside fictional band-on-the-rise Stillwater. Indeed, the music used is so inherently integral to the film, it's no surprise to find that the official soundtrack was awarded the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album; though the published product includes less than a third of the songs heard throughout the movie, the 17-track result offers stunning capture of time, tone, and topic in ways that befit the movie majestically.

But unlike most of the other songs in the film, Elton John's Tiny Dancer - at over six minutes, the longest song on the soundtrack, and arguably the one with the longest screen time and significance as well - also serves the narrative explicitly, in multiple ways. Lyrically, it's a perfect match: the song is directly about a groupie, a seamstress for the band who loves the music man, and sings along to the words from the crowd in performance as if they were poetry for her alone. And in many ways, the song provides the emotional climax of the film itself, serving to prompt a slow-build highway sing-along that doesn't so much resolve the building tensions of the groupies and musicians that storm around our narrator as it releases those tensions to the wind, trading them for the unifying factor that transcends and bonds the group - which is to say, the shared love of song and subject, which must be experienced in the heart and in the moment always.

I'm sure there's a word for soundtrack songs which the characters can hear, and react to - as distinct from songs which merely accompany the story, and lend their layers of meaning from overhead. But even if there isn't, this moment, which Rolling Stone Magazine lists as #11 on its list of the The 30 Greatest Rock & Roll Movie Moments (and, I suspect, only rates so low because it would seem smug and self-centered for RS to place a cinematic milestone about its own magazine at the top of the list), provides the prototype, the idealized incidence of how to do it right. And so today we share the song with context: the scene itself, with a tip of the hat to Crowe for making sure the music matters, and still does...and a bonus coversong, for those who want to hear every note, done live and lovely by tender geekpop sentimentalist Ben Folds, recorded just a year or two after the film was released, and thus perhaps at least partially in homage to the movie itself.

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