The Nonlinear Editor - Getting in Tune
Posted Aug 1, 2005

If you've ever doubted that Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous was as much personal family history as paean to the early '70s rock scene, check out the director's commentary on the deluxe edition DVD, in which Crowe and his mother reminisce about the time in their own lives that the movie captures.

Much like the visual family histories that event videographers create when they document a wedding or bar mitzvah or produce a photo montage from new and archival images, a good part of what makes Almost Famous such a rich and compelling re-creation of a bygone era is its soundtrack. Though never over-reliant on music in any of his films, Crowe has a remarkable ability to pick the perfect song (and the perfect part of that song) to accompany a scene. Nearly all of Crowe's films include moments made unforgettable by his exquisite song selection: if you didn't think he could top scoring Tom Cruise's search for conviction with the Who's "Getting in Tune" in Jerry Maguire, check out the moment when Cruise renounces his dilettantism in Vanilla Sky, set against the backdrop of Peter Gabriel's majestic resignation speech, "Solsbury Hill." Almost Famous takes a period awash in overblown, overlong arena-rock statements, and applies snippets of songs so magically that you almost forget how tiresome those songs are when endured in toto. The soundtrack from Almost Famous sounds infinitely better in the movie than it does on CD, which is exactly as it should be—and a great credit to the director.

One thing you discover when you watch Almost Famous with the director's commentary on is that he almost blew that delicate balance entirely. When he was shooting the movie, Crowe recalls, the one scene he said he knew would make the final cut was one he'd titled "Stairway to Heaven." The "Stairway" scene, lifted almost intact from Crowe's own life, recounts how the 15-year-old Crowe convinced his mother to let him go on tour with a rock band as a reporter for Rolling Stone. To persuade her that rock music had intellectual merit, he sat her down in the living room and played her Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Upon hearing it, by her own admission, Crowe's mother relented and let him go on the road—a pivotal moment in the film and in Crowe's own life.

So why didn't this scene make the theatrical (or DVD) release of the film? Apparently, Led Zeppelin (or whoever publishes their songs) charges such steep licensing fees for the use of "Stairway" that it's well-nigh impossible to squeeze it into a production budget. Which is bad news for Crowe, but great news for his audience. One of the bonus features on the DVD is the excised "Stairway" scene, with instructions from Crowe on how to sync up the song from your stereo so you can experience the scene as he intended it—eight interminable minutes of Crowe's and his mother's on-screen alter egos sitting around listening to the song and miming the occasional response. If Almost Famous had foisted that scene upon you in the theater, would you have still been responding to it by the end—or even awake?

It's ironic, given how we generally think about the music we select to accompany titles or photo montages. Videographers don't pay licensing fees for popular songs—not in the U.S., anyway; you either use 'em or you don't, copyright be damned. Thus the typical selection criteria for those who do use them probably start with one of two things: thematic applicability or audience familiarity. If Cameron Crowe had used "Stairway to Heaven" in Almost Famous, it would have been the one song in the film that everyone would have known. But it would have also had the least impact; after 30 years of being bludgeoned with the song's classic rock-radio and high school-prom ubiquity, no audience could possibly be expected to identify it with a particular film, or respond to it as Crowe imagined they would. It's too much a part of too many other things; while it still can achieve a sort of generic, passing resonance, its time for intense identification with one set of visuals passed long ago.

The biggest problem with the song-montage matches I see in event videography these days is the "Stairway"-like overfamiliarity of the music selections. Must every marriage sequence be set to Sinatra's "Love and Marriage," every stroll-through-yesteryear to the Beatles' "In My Life," every ode to Viagra-fueled middle age-cool to James Brown's "I Feel Good," and every gauzy, didn't-life-turn-out-great catch-all to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World?" If you're sick of shooting "Love Train" conga lines at every wedding you book, stop relying on equally tired musical clichés in your own work.

Anyone who's ever had extended medical care or seen a loved one through the same knows that you get much more thoughtful answers from doctors if you ask them what they would do if they were in your shoes. Next time you're about to slap an old standard on a new montage, try asking yourself, "Would I want the same song running behind my life as everyone else's?" No one's life is generic, nor should it be rendered as such. If our job is to find the uniqueness in our clients' events, experiences, and memories, we have no excuse for rendering them all redundant with generic music selections.

Give your clients credit for being able to respond to songs and styles they don't know or may not expect. Nine times out of ten, I use music I suspect most of my intended audience has never heard, but they respond well because I've paid attention to the acuity of the music selections and their applicability to the photo or video material. Music is half the show, and any extra effort or innovation I put into a video is wasted if I've got the same old song dragging it down. Here's another area where your talents as a videographer come into play: if you make the images and songs connect, your clients will connect them, too. For example, next time you're considering cuddling up a romantic montage to the Drifters' "This Magic Moment," consider Lou Reed's edgier 1993 version, with its strikingly elegant guitar figure. Your clients will never forget the first time they saw it—any more than they'll forget the moment it captures.

Of course, the best strategy of all is to let the clients choose the music, but if they don't want that job, you can't force it on them. If they do pick songs that are both meaningful to them and distinctive in their own right, so much the better, and odds are you'll be better-prepared to work with their off-the-beaten-path selections if you've experimented with a broader range of material.

I've heard counter-arguments to veering from that beaten path, and they aren't entirely without merit. Videography can be as competitive a business on the client side as it is on the producer side (and ain't life grand when it is?); there's often one-upmanship among clients who see their friends' videos shown at an event, and come out wanting something as good or better for themselves. The last thing you want is for a client to come back to you and say, "How come my friend got ‘Teach Your Children' for her daughter's bat mitzvah video and I got ‘Achin' to Be' by a bunch of yahoos called the Replacements? Is this some kind of joke?"

Here's another rationale I heard recently from a leading videographer in a very lucrative market: "Of course we'd like to use new songs, but there aren't any good ones. What new songs reflect on people's lives like ‘In My Life?' Today, it's all just rap, with ‘f' this and ‘s' that." I wanted to respond, "Maybe you just can't hear it"—but what good would it have done? The real point, of course, is that many of your clients (e.g., brides) are younger people who can hear it, and if you can't relate to them and what they like, they won't relate to you.

Music selections matter, and we should treat them like they do. If innovative video is worth the risk, so is inventive use of audio. And avoiding the same old default choices isn't the only issue here. Does anyone remember how Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" found its way into the modern vernacular? It was used to stunning effect in Good Morning, Vietnam as an aural counterpoint to aerial bombings of the Vietnamese countryside. With every passing year and every thousand identical photo and video montages, it's used with less counterpoint, and much less power.

What's more, not only are there thousands of other songs available, but if you've got a genuine jones for Satchmo—rather than simply a lack of musical imagination—there are also hundreds of other Louis Armstrong tunes, each one guaranteed to give your work a more distinctive edge than the one that shows up in everyone else's. I started populating my work with bits and pieces from Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens period last fall, and the response has been wonderful. I'll ride the warmth and ebullience of the young Armstrong as far as it will take me—or at least as long as it seems fresh and hasn't become a crutch.

And I never use children's music for video of children, even though there's lots of great children's music out there. Pick a song that fits too comfortably or too predictably, and you'll never spark any interest. You may not offend, but you'll never inspire. As wedding and personal event videographers, you're already working with material that's intensely intimate and familiar. Combining it with music that's even a little unexpected—and free of tried-and-true cliché—will genuinely make it sing.