An uncomfortable scene in Almost Famous.
WM: So Russell … what do you love about music?
RH: To begin with … everything.
I recently sat down to watch Cameron Crowe’s opus with the wife and (some of the) kids. It was still ‘incendiary’, to steal a beat from William Miller. And we had to fast-forward past a really racy scene that was missing from my brain. But the impact it had was just as real and HONEST as the first time I’d watched it.
And I found myself asking why.
How do you break down a story like this? I’d rank this at the very top of rock and roll biopics, but Mr. Crowe has failed to sustain his brilliant rep.
Was it a fluke in the editing room? Or something else? I mean, I like his other movies well enough, but there’s something missing.
I do a gut-check on the big set pieces. I remember a remarkable shot with a sterile Zooey Deschanel espousing how music can change everything, all white and blue. I remember just how scary on-screen drug use can be. And I remember Tiny Dancer.
Tiny Dancer. That’s right, that the scene I remember. The band is all down and out, trashed, about to breakup, at the movie’s emotional low. One voice starts singing. Then another. Before we know it, we’re all blasting through an emotional high that tells a story without a single, original word. It’s truth … but it’s stolen.
Did Mr. Crowe have the right to do that to me … to us? It’s like he stole from my own memories, my own experience, plastered over it, and used it to drive his plot forward.
This movie works, friends, because the music isn’t a backdrop. It isn’t a side-note, it isn’t included in a paint-by-number, signed stamped and delivered, envelop. The music is used as a story-beat in and of itself. It resolves a conflict without any effort on the movie-maker’s part.
How mind-blowing is that concept? We don’t have to resolve a scene with an event. We don’t have to resolve it with dialogue, character development, or any of that other garbage. Mr. Crowe succeeded by realizing that ANYTHING can drive a plot, as long as it’s integral to the story.
It’s a theme, it’s a story beat, it’s a question that words can never ask or answer. Ineffable.
So … who cares, right? Why does this matter? It’s a good flick, maybe a great one, but that doesn’t change the pile of crap manuscript that’s rotting in my hand, eating up my brain. I’ve got themes and plots and dialogue, and it can’t help me a bit.
As we drive to resolution – or evolution – of our stories, maybe plot doesn’t really matter? How do we connect with our readers to leverage THEIR OWN EMOTION?
There’s only two things in a story that’s real– the storyteller and the audience. Mr. Crowe uses music to bridge the gap, to jump directly into the viewer’s brain and implant a REAL emotion.
But if you’re not making a movie, how do you add “music”?
Stephen King uses archetypical images. What are you afraid of? What’s EVERYBODY afraid of? What experiences do we all have in common, that we’ll associate with genuine emotion? The dentist? People not being who we think they are? The dark?
That’s why characters need to be relatable, guys. William Miller is cool because he’s uncool. He’s us. We’re living through him in some bizarre state of wish fulfillment. When he gets approached by Rolling Stone, there’s a part of each and every one of us that’s internally high-fiving.
It’s me, man. Rolling Stone …can you believe it?
If your story isn’t working, Mr. Crowe has two things to teach you.
One – make sure you’re connecting. Your character needs to be relatable; we have to see ourselves in that mirror.
Two – make sure it’s big enough. Is it wish-fulfillment? Do we want to be there? Will your average Joe see their hopes or dreams or fears realized in the first handful of pages? Some visceral? Something real?
Yeah, it can be scary. What if I’ve never heard Tiny Dancer before? Will I have the same experience with Almost Famous?
But there’s a sincerity that only exists when a story has truth to common experience, when people have a NEED to exist in the world, to feel truth, only for a moment. And it’s a truth the burns and begs to be an intrinsic part of your soul.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a master class in adding story-beats through a thematic element, in this case music. Just make sure, if you’re watching it with kids, to skip a scene when they start discussing “deflowering Opie”.