Almost Famous – 5 CD Super Deluxe Edition

Music From The Motion Picture

Geffen / Universal, 2021


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Like the movie it presents in fully realized soundtrack form, this collection of music is nothing short of a miracle.

Almost Famous is every rock writer’s fantasia come to life, the barely-fictionalized tale of writer/director Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age as a 15-year-old Rolling Stone stringer interviewing rock stars in the ordinary yet epochal year of 1973. It won an Academy Award for Crowe’s warm, witty, wise and powerful screenplay, but it wouldn’t have been half the movie it is without the music he wove through the entire story like a golden thread of memory.

What some readers will recognize and others may be unfamiliar with is that most of the time, the process of acquiring permission to use someone else’s songs—whether in recorded form for a movie soundtrack, or written form for a book—is like wrestling a greased pig that’s just had a habañero enema. There are a hundred different reasons it can fail. Crowe, of course, had one distinct advantage: he’s on a first-name basis with many of the people who wrote the songs that ended up in his film. When the time came to land his biggest fish—his old pals Led Zeppelin—he approached the task with the requisite dramatic flair, flying in a custom cut of the scenes in which the songs would play to personally screen them for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Of course, at the time he was only acquiring the rights to include the songs in his movie. He was able to get permission to compile 17 of them into the soundtrack album issued at the same time in 2000, but that release covered less than half the songs used in the movie, and only one of the original tunes crafted by Crowe’s then-wife Nancy Wilson of Heart for his fictional band Stillwater. A supplementary EP of the six Stillwater tunes created for Almost Famous was released as part of the 10th anniversary director’s cut DVD edition of the film, but that still didn’t come close to covering all the musical bases that made the movie such a brilliant recreation of that distinctive moment in rock and roll.

Through some combination of demands from the movie’s fervent following and Crowe’s own fondness for what is in essence the story of how he became himself, the film’s creator resolved to deliver a very special 20th anniversary package to the fans that would remedy this situation. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of super deluxe sets with price tags over $100; they’re so rarely worth the money and so often end up as trophies on a shelf rather than being actively enjoyed. But anyone who knows me at all knows that I am number one with a bullet on the chart of this release’s target audience: an idealistic middle-aged rock writer with a weakness for nostalgia and a collector’s completist habits, who also ranks Almost Famous as his favorite movie of all time.

So, yeah: just take my money.

They did, and I’m here to tell you I don’t regret a penny.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The packaging on this release, it must be said, is spectacular. From inside a sturdy 10.5”x12.5” slipcase emerges an authentically textured 1973 high school binder with preprinted Crowe doodles and scribbles including “THE WHO,” “BLACK SABBATH,” ‘LESTER BANGS,” and across the upper middle, “LED ZEPPELIN.” Flip it open and inside the front pocket flap is a newsprint recreation of the Rolling Stone cover story that Crowe’s doppelganger William Miller writes in the film, complete with centerfold montage of Stillwater concert photos, a series of cleverly faked, era-appropriate ads, and a pair of 1973 album reviews. Tucked into the same flap is a large, folded poster of Stillwater. Flipping through the binder, you get mocked-up tickets from two of the shows that appear in the film, followed by a superb 40-page concert-program-formatted booklet featuring dozens more photos and deeply affectionate and charming personal reminiscences from Crowe, much of the cast, and many members of the crew.

And then you get to the music: five CDs’ worth.

The first, second and third discs intersperse every song that appears in the film with key snippets of dialogue from it, for a genuinely immersive experience. And what a soundtrack: Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Iggy & The Stooges, Todd Rundgren, Jethro Tull, Yes, The Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell… and that’s just on disc one. Disc two brings on board Rod Stewart, Little Feat, The Raspberries, The Seeds, Allman Brothers Band, The Guess Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Fleetwood Mac (pre-Buckingham and Nicks), and Deep Purple, before finishing with the movie’s epic singalong to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—heard here in a new mix that incorporates the cast’s bus ride singalong. On disc three you get, ho-hum, MC5, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix, more Zeppelin, Free, more Elton, Stevie Wonder and… can I stop now? I think I can. You get the picture.

The gold is in the way the snippets of dialogue (tracks with titles like “Don’t Take Drugs,” ”Incendiary,” “I Am A Golden God” and “What Do You Love About Music?” require no further explanation for anyone who has watched the movie) are interwoven with the music selections Crowe used to populate his cinematic universe. The other bit of magic comes in Crowe’s song choices. The acts may be big ones, but the songs are almost all deep cuts, songs that fans like Penny Lane would have loved as their own special treasures, rather than the familiar radio hits embraced by the masses. The rightfully revered “Tiny Dancer” sequence in fact features one of the few hit singles present on the soundtrack.

The first three discs include a couple of Stillwater tracks that appear in the film; disc four re-presents in full all six of the original Stillwater songs recorded for the movie—all sturdy takes on heartland rock that wouldn’t feel out of place at a Bob Seger or Allman Brothers show—and adds unreleased bonus tracks galore in the form of seven demos and the full renditions of three backstage acoustic jams glimpsed briefly in the movie. Disc five re-presents the original motion picture score composed by Nancy Wilson, previously unreleased in album form, here further augmented with 14 unreleased outtakes from the score.

It’s a pirate’s booty of music and moments and dialogue and sensory impressions from a film that feels imprinted on my soul. So, yeah, let’s cut to the chase: if any album I’ve ever reviewed is an “A,” it’s this one, based not as much on the quality of the music found here—which is terrific—as on the quality of the emotions that the whole experience of reliving this film still gives me.

I wrote the first of the 999 album reviews that preceded this one four years before Almost Famous came out, and yet I can’t help feeling that the former would not and could not exist in a universe in which the latter did not also. I wrote an entire book attempting to explain the reasons why I choose, again and again, to write about music, but the Cliff’s Notes version could be reduced to just four words: Go watch Almost Famous.

Thanks, Cameron.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2021 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Geffen / Universal, and is used for informational purposes only.