Becoming immersed in the five-CD version of the Almost Famous 20th Anniversary Expanded Soundtrack is no doubt somewhat akin to attending a high-school reunion. Even as this quasi-autobiographical film of Cameron Crowe’s simultaneously speaks to and reflects the time in which it takes place, the fictional aspect of the narrative becomes increasingly romanticized as the music accentuates the narrative: released coincidentally in recognition of the two-decade milestone, both the technically-enhanced film and this expanded soundtrack represent the (inevitable?) revisionism of its era. Based on the extensive liner notes, those involved in the original work and its updated form, along with the owners of these physical packages, (re) lives their personal rites of passage, fictional and otherwise, in processing the content. The presence of vivid archetypes distinguishes Almost Famous from its counterparts (to which this writer/director also contributed), a nostalgic impression rendered all the more indelible by this collection.
CD 1: Audio snippets from the film regularly echo the musical selections around the dialogue. In quick succession, cuts by Jethro Tull, the Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, and Yes illustrate the burgeoning eclectics of the time. That said, the sole mainstream hit of the Allman Brothers Band, “Ramblin’ Man,” is conspicuous by its absence, replaced instead by “One Way Out” from At Fillmore East: perhaps the group’s roots in the South signified a distance greater than simple geography between California and Georgia. At this point in the Seventies, however, there were actually few steadfast lines of demarcation between musical genres, hence the proto-punk Stooges (“Search and Destroy”) in such close proximity to renaissance man Todd Rundgren (“It Wouldn’t Have Made any Difference”). Any given listener’s programming of the compact disc tracks according to preference will function as a Rorschach test—and also reveal the percentage of what’s truly enduring here.
CD 2: With one-hundred-three tracks in this set compared to the original seventeen, artists as disparate as the Raspberries, Little Feat, and Fleetwood Mac comprise a clear illustration of commercial radio at the time of this movie’s narrative. Carefully-trained hindsight also reveals the maturation of the audience(s) (or lack thereof): Canada’s Guess Who show up via a live take of 1971’s “Albert Flasher,”-(heard in the film but not on the original soundtrack) right next to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” off a debut album preceding their rise to stardom. With so much tacit encouragement to blend influences– raucous on one hand (Deep Purple) and quietly delicate on the other (Cat Stevens)– in retrospect, it’s inevitable Almost Famous would focus on a fictional band as unabashedly derivative as Stillwater: it should come as no surprise either that Led Zeppelin are heroes to some of the filmmakers.
CD 3: Just it took a while for the decade of the Seventies to reveal its distinctions, so does this expanded soundtrack. Only after the sounds of the Chipmunks and Simon & Garfunkel does The Who appear— in the unreleased form of a digital edit from Tommy performed Live at Leeds—and it’s a whole CD and half thereafter before any other rarities come along: Steely Dan’s live “Reeling in the Years” is taken from a 1973 late-night television performance, while this acoustic “Cortez The Killer” by Neil Young is an authorized cull from a 1999 Oakland theater date. That more such hard-to-find content doesn’t show up here is an accurate metaphor for the evolution of Rolling Stone Magazine from a counter-cultural voice to a major mechanism in what Joni Mitchell once termed ‘...the star-maker machinery…’.
CD 4: It’s no small irony that the songs created for the fictional band in Almost Famous were mostly composed by the film’s auteur with Nancy Wilson of Heart; the former composed a scathing review of Page, Plant, and company in one of his early reviews for Rolling Stone Magazine, while the latter is one of the two sisters who found their own voice with the group they led only after aping the aforementioned iconic British band, authors of five cuts here. Yet that very dynamic of familiarity only reinforces how supporters of a fledgling group can coalesce to support and nurture the objects of their admiration: the cloth-covered simulation of a school binder that encloses the contents (including CDs that only twice approach the maximum capacity of the configuration) is an accurate reflection of the emotional quotient in this expanded package.
CD 5: Listening to this pleasant but ultimately unremarkable film score does lend itself to rumination on the movie’s story and, in turn, contemplating its personal resonance. Evoking listeners’ own recollections of following bands both near (in high school and college as part of the posse/entourage) and far (radio, records, and print magazines like Detroit’s Creem), also leads to a perusal of the ephemera included here: replications of Stillwater concert tickets, a poster echoing the famous shot of The Allman Brothers Band as appeared on the cover of their milestone concert album, plus a newsprint replication of an early Rolling Stone cover story. It’s rare the physical property of a set like this has such a direct relation to its musical contents, but, in this case, the lightweight density of the enclosures inside the slipcase correlates to much of what’s inside.