"One of the major differences between scoring a movie and writing a song for your band is with a film you have to know when to shut up,” laughs Nancy Wilson. “You have to let the scene dictate the mood of the piece and what you play.”
The Heart guitarist had been involved in scoring movies for her then-husband director/writer Cameron Crowe since Say Anything – his directorial debut – in 1989. However, writing songs for Crowe’s most personal movie, 2000's Almost Famous – a thinly-veiled autobiographical piece which chronicles a young music journalist on the road with this favourite band in the 70s – proved a different challenge.
“The problem with many rock movies that feature a fictional band is that the fake songs are almost always unconvincing,” Wilson says. “So we tried to be as authentic as possible. And Cameron helped write the songs too. We took the idea – and this was reflected in the film – that Stillwater was a band in the early 70s that was just on the cusp of breaking through really big; we were thinking of bands like Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Cream, and wanted to create a blend of all those.”
Wilson was also thinking of all the bands that had crossed her path touring with Heart in the early days. “There was such a different sound back then, and even a different way of singing. We decided that all of their songs would be about hitting the road with the band or dealing with a father complex.”
Stillwater’s songs came together remarkably fast. “Writing for a fictitious character gives you an enormous sense of freedom,” Wilson admits. “I’m not thinking about whether the lyric is one that’s bearing my soul or whether it’s really just too personal. And whether it’s one I’m going to have to live with if I was writing for myself or for Heart. With Stillwater we could just have a lot of fun – lots of ‘Father, father…’ phrases, and ones that just begged to be screamed in a really earthy bluesy rock voice.”
Once the songs were written, there was the small matter of making Stillwater look authentic on stage.
“We made the guys go to rock camp,” chuckles the composer. Teaming up with Peter Frampton – who served as technical advisor on the film – Wilson schooled actors Jason Lee and Billy Crudup into becoming rock stars.
“We made them watch a lot of old film of bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin, taught them how to do the rock slouch – they had to learn to be tight but loose, and to wear their guitars low. We held a concert where the guys were getting to experience being on stage in front of many people, but early on it was still my demo vocal on the songs. It was really funny to see Jason Lee [who played Stillwater’s frontman] open his mouth and my voice come out.”
It’s not only Wilson’s songs that play an integral part in Almost Famous. One of the film’s pivotal scenes sees Stillwater on the tour bus – the band are in the process of meltdown, but then suddenly Elton John’s Tiny Dancer floats over the radio. And before you know it the whole band are singing along, and you get the impression that wounds are healed and the band will go on to rock another day.
“It’s funny how one song in one scene will go on to become synonymous with a movie,” says Nancy. “In fact Elton John has thanked Cameron for bringing that song back to people’s attention. I guess that’s something that Cameron is good at – he thinks in a really musical way. The same thing happened in Say Anything, except this time the song was Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes [when John Cusack holds a boombox above his head in an attempt to win back his girlfriend].
“But back to Tiny Dancer, I really just loved how that scene, and the whole of Almost Famous, was a love letter to music, and how the right song at the right time can transcend everything else going on in your life."
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 111, in September 2007. The Almost Famous 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is available now.