Sunday, February 3, 2013

January Mixtape


It's a new year, but why not keep up with these mixtapes?  As I mentioned before, I've been obsessed with Almost Famous, a movie that was actually first released on the day of my birthday (9/8/2000).  It tells a story of a high school journalist who gets an assignment with Rolling Stone to cover the up-and-coming (fictional) band Stillwater.  Set in 1973, the film captures the excitement and eclecticism of American rock-n-roll, hosting over 50+ songs from the era (according to IMDB, the film's music budget was $3.5 million, about $2 million more than the average music budget).  As its bloated budget indicates, the soundtrack is absolutely vital to the film.  Here are some of the songs that moved me during the film and retained their charm well after the final credits rolled.

**Extra note: As I had this blog post open, I was watching the making of Almost Famous, where director Cameron Crowe admitted that for years he's been making monthly mixtapes of his favorite songs from each particular month. The coincidence is eerie and awesome and has inspired me to keep this project going for as long as possible.

1. Simon and Garfunkel - "America."  Honey... they're on pot. As she jabs at Simon and Garfunkel's dark, wide-eyes, Elaine Miller warns her rebellious daughter, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), about immoral rock bands like S&G, who write songs about "drugs and promiscuous sex."  The pleas fail to deter Anita, and shortly after we find her in the living room, announcing, "This song explains why I'm leaving home to become a stewardess."  The gorgeous humming from Simon and Garfunkel's "America" then plays from the phonograph, while Elaine asks, "We can't talk? We have to listen to rock music?"  These short scenes reveal the differences between mother and daughter: Elaine strives for white-collar success in herself and her children, reviles drugs and "immoral" art (preferring the high theory of Carl Jung or the literature of Goethe and Harper Lee), and practices radical, anti-commercial beliefs.  Anita, on the other hand, embodies more bohemian, Kerouacian philosophies, believing in the virtues of personal hardship (what she calls "living"), the transcendence of rock-n-roll, and the freedom of the road.  As Simon and Garfunkel sing, Anita is off "to look for America," leaving the tight reins of her mother's home to travel the nation.

These initial scenes already convey the intense emotional and spiritual connections a listener can have with music.  "America" defines Anita, telling her life story and even prophesizing her future.  They also speak for her when words fail; when Elaine asks, "Can't we talk?", neither Elaine nor Anita speak until Anita leaves the confines of their house.  Their relationship has deteriorated to the point where communication is no longer possible: Anita needs the medium of music to express her thoughts and emotions.  "America," thus, first indicates the tremendous impact music had on American culture, acting as a poetic inspiration and motivation as well as a voice to a dissatisfied youth.

"One day...  you'll be cool."
The song itself, too, is beautiful, and is the best track on Simon and Garfunkel's renowned Bookends.  It captures the excitement of hitchhiking through American yet also shows the paranoia ("she said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy / I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera") and despair ("'Cathy, I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping / 'I'm empty and aching and I don't know why'") endemic to the drug-laden 70s.  My favorite part comes near the conclusion, after echoey drums that sound so Beach Boys-y and twangy guitars build to heavy strumming and clattery cymbals.  When the song and vocals climax, the disillusioned speaker sits "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike -- they've all come to look for America."  It's a powerful moment not only of empathy but also of sadness and loneliness; he identifies with others as they whirl down the Turnpike, but this connection is fleeting.  Just as the speaker's heartfelt confessions to his sleeping companion suggest, these lyrics capture his inability to have a substantial empathetic connection with another.  It's a great example of how "America" is the perfect selection for this particular scene, evoking isolation and failed empathy during a mother and daughter's emotional impasse.  

2. Stevie Wonder - "My Cherie Amour."  When Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) nearly overdoses on pills and has her stomach pumped in a hotel bathroom, the la la la's of Stevie Wonder's famous love song "My Cherie Amour" begin to play.  There's a peculiar, if not alarming, contrast between the romantic music and Penny's suffering; most disturbing is the violent image of a tube forced down Penny's throat as her bare foot slides across the bathtub's marble tile.  Yet, in another way, the music is appropriate: William is so enamored with Penny that he can love her at her worst.  Even as she gags and vomits, William still sees his "cherie amour" as "lovely as a summer's day." This allows the song to operate on two levels: an ironic juxtaposition of sound and image and a depiction of William's unconditional love.  It's a strong example of how non-diegetic music enables the characters to act through expressions and let the song color in the details; William's gaze powerfully conveys the mixture of love, anguish, and relief he feels in that very moment, while the song adds to the emotional potency of the scene.  As for the song itself, "My Cherie Amour" is extremely catchy. I found myself singing the first line over and over again then having to stop because I didn't know the rest of the words.  You can imagine how annoying that was to everyone unfortunate enough to be in my presence.  I've never really listened to Stevie Wonder before, but I can see why he's so acclaimed; the dude really can sing.  The strings on this are really impressive, too: they're smooth in the verses, but they sharply careen right before the chorus until Wonder lulls his listener, and seemingly his instruments, with soothing "la la la"s.

3. The Beach Boys - "Feel Flows."  Man, this song.  Written by Carl Wilson, whose vocals are recorded using reverse echo, "Feel Flows" shows the Beach Boys at their most psychedelic.  The song is mostly played during the film's credits, but when I first heard it I loved it right away, and I was surprised it was by the Beach Boys.  Its splashy synths and breezy flow are reminiscent of the group's earlier work, but as the forlorn, impressionistic album cover to the ambivalently-titled "Surf's Up" suggests, this is a totally different band than the one that produced songs like "Little Deuce Coupe" and "I Get Around," or even the more mature and musically sophisticated Pet Sounds tracks.  In fact, this sounds closest to the aquatic soundscapes of Animal Collective's Water Curses.  Lyrically, "Feel Flows" emphasizes sensuality (emphasizing colors, touching, heat) and abstraction, featuring noticeably dense, turgid poetry: "Unfearing all appearance message divine eases the burning".  But despite the many big words, the lyrics flow almost incredibly smoothly: "White hot glistening shadowy flows," Wilson repeats at the song's end, as if the words made complete sense.  Maybe they don't have to, though; as its title suggests, "Feel Flows" is more about feeling than cognition.

4. Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Simple Man."  I never thought I'd care for Skynyrd, but this is a great rock song - plain and simple, har har har.  The guitars start slowly and gradually pick up momentum, then vacillate until the solo's payoff.  It sounds like something the film's fictional band Stillwater would've played; I can easily envision Russell Hammond shredding electric to this.  But the song also has a fitting message in the film: a mother's hopes that her son will be satisfied and live a "simple" life, which, to Elaine, equals a thriving career for William in law.  Everyone grows in Almost Famous, and I think "Simple Man" best epitomizes Elaine's struggles: loving her son enough to let him go.

5. Elton John - "Tiny Dancer."  Every time the scene where "Tiny Dancer" plays, I get goosebumps.  It's one of the most marvelous scenes I've ever witnessed: 

The song itself is phenomenal, but it takes on new meaning in the film.  First, a physically and emotionally exhausted Russell returns to the tour bus after a nasty fight with his bandmates and the ensuing night of acid-tripping and jumping off of roofs.  The tension leaves the bus silent, except for Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" playing on the radio.  The music begins non-diegetically, playing as Russell boards the tour bus and his fans wave goodbye to him.  Then, as the band members look around, you can see the switch to diegetic sound, as they all begin to listen to Elton's heartfelt piano.  I think this is the first instance of diegetic music in the film (besides the concerts), and it beautifully exemplifies the magic of music to recuperate and revive its listeners, as band members one by one begin to sing along, breaking down the resentment and tension that filled the bus just moments ago.  After viewing a band defined by its division, by its incompatible voices, we finally see unity when they all sing as one.  In this extremely moving, even cathartic scene, Elton John reminds the group why they're in a band: to capture the sublimity of music. (They forget this several times in the film, but the film reminds them, and us, why music is so universally powerful).  As the song climaxes, the bus is filled with smiles, and the backup guitarist pats Russell on the shoulder.  "Welcome back," he seems to say.  

Lyrically, "Tiny Dancer" also connects brilliantly to the film.  Just take the first stanza:
Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band.
Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you'll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must have seen her dancing in the sand
And now she's in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand.
The correlations are so strong that the song could've been written about Penny Lane: in one scene she's ironing a bandmember's shirt ("seamstress for the band"); she's actually named "Lady" and is from California ("L.A. Lady"); and she surely fits the other descriptions: pretty eyes and smile and ambitions to be with Russell forever.  Plus, we see Penny dancing in an empty concert hall filled with roses, and, for most of the film, she follows Russell's every step ("always with me, tiny dancer in my hand").  So the lyrical comparisons seem hardly coincidental, but there are complexities to this seemingly one-to-one correspondence: most notably, which character would sing these words?  Besides Russell, couldn't William also share this perspective?  Penny is also "always with" William; even when he loses his virginity, he stares deeply into her eyes, not the three women "deflowering" him.  The placement of William and Penny during this scene adds to the song's depth.  When the chorus belts out, "Hold me closer, tiny dancer," Penny curls next to William, as if following the song's command.  But ultimately, the dancer eludes them both, and it's Russell and William who are brought together at last in the film's final scene.

6. Elton John - "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."  Fittingly, the NYC-influenced "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" plays when the band reaches the City and when Penny's last attempt to claim Russell fails.  Again, it can be interpreted through various valences, especially the second stanza:

Until you've seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through.
And I thank the lord there's people out there like you.
I thank the lord there's people out there like you.

William could very well sing this to Penny, as he watches members of Stillwater and other bands degrade and abuse her ("people run you through"), but his love is immutable ("I thank the lord there's people out there like you").  Penny also witnesses William slowly deteriorate on the road as he fruitlessly tries to interview Russell, and she thanks him for saving her life after she nearly overdoses.  Connecting the two perspectives, the song plays as William rushes to Penny's hotel and ends when Penny opens her door to let William in to save her.

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