Inside the 'Tiny Dancer' Bus Scene in 'Almost Famous'

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Almost Famous, we recently reunited writer/director Cameron Crowe with stars Kate Hudson (who played “Band Aid” Penny Lane), Billy Crudup (who played Russell Hammond, lead guitarist of the fictional “middle-level band” Stillwater), and Patrick Fugit (who played teen Rolling Stone journalist William Miller).  In the conversation, (co-hosted by James Andrew Miller, whose behind-the-scenes podcast Origins has dedicated its current season to  the making of Almost Famous), Crowe and the actors looked back at the film’s most indelible scene: the sing-along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on Stillwater’s tour bus.

Crowe: We were already running behind a little bit. Sometimes I felt that we were kind of rogue, and we were out there filming and nobody was paying attention to us. But [the studio] kind of woke up to that at one point and they were like, “Rein it in, guys, rein it! This isn’t a lifelong process, rein it in.” Right about that time, we came to the scene that was two lines in the script, which is: “They listen to ‘Tiny Dancer’ on the bus and sing along as Russell realizes the warmth of the community of his band and crew.” And we get there and we start doing it.

It was one of those situations where you just felt it. It was like a physical thing when they started singing along, and you could feel all the relationships all in that one spot. And Billy is there in the front, just kind of way inside of his head, and they’re singing, and you just can’t help but go: “This is the movie! This is everything!”

And I talked to the cinematographer and said, “We gotta cover everybody singing ‘Tiny Dancer.’ And he’s like, “Did you hear what the studio told you recently? This is gonna take two days!” And I’m like, “But you feel it, right? You feel it.” He goes, “I feel it.” And I go, “Is it two days?” He goes, “It’s two days.” I’m going, “We got to do it.” And so we did spend two days chasing that feeling and so much greatness happened out of it. Like Kate, I don’t think “you are home” was in the script, right? Wasn’t that an improv as we were shooting?

Hudson: Yeah. Was that two days? I don’t remember, y’know.

Crowe: Look at Noah Taylor’s face [the actor who played Stillwater’s manager]. The one guy who’s a punk rocker who hates “Tiny Dancer.” You can see two days worth of angst in his eyes as he sang along with that song. He hates Tiny Dancer. But everyone else was just  feeding off the elixir, and we were doing shots traveling from one to the other. And it felt a litle bit like we were on an exotic journey with that short scene. But man, from the first second we started showing that scene to people, it was the beachhead, it was the thing. You know, it’s when you find the point of the whole thing in the corner of the script that you didn’t even realize was quite there.

And the amazing thing was that we committed to that song. And it was the right song. And it wasn’t even that famous of a song. And you got to love Elton Kohn, because as soon as he saw the movie, he was like, “I always loved that song, ‘Tiny Dancer.’  You understand that song ‘Tiny Dancer!” And he started playing it in his show and he’s never stopped playing it. He gives us credit for it. He’s the greatest guy. And everybody came to play in that scene. We did it chronologically, so it was kind of the time in the story that we were also living while making it. So everybody was kind of weary. And I don’t know, my eye always goes to Billy at the front. And then I see [Fugit’s] pain. And then Kate kind of gives him the map for the future. And everybody just felt so grateful that we had the time to do it. We paid the price later.

Crudup: Well, Cameron expressed it perfectly. In this tribe that’s been created with this band where there are rifts and there’s ups and downs and there’s uncertainty about the future, one thing they can all bond over is some  immediate unspoken connection to a piece of music. So there’s a delight in the midst of all that angst.

Now, in the midst of that, they’ve given us all the lyrics for the whole song as I recall, for us to sing. And in addition to not playing guitar, I’m not a singer either. Don’t laugh, Kate! But everybody else on the bus was, and so when we were doing this individual coverage, everyone would sing their beautiful part and then we got to me and I started to sing and I could hear the snickers coming from behind me about my effort. And Cameron just rushes onto the bus bus and he’s like, “I don’t care how it sounds! Just sing with everything you’ve got! I love it. Love that energy. Just give me all of that.”

And so I just let it belt out, and there was an enormous liberation that was mine, maybe even more than Russell’s at that moment. And just being able, for a character who is so guarded in so many of his different relationships to finally have a moment where he could be exuberant in front of them and kind of generous. I remember that being joyful.

Hudson: I just remember being on that bus and having my Polaroid camera and singing. I loved when we were all together. That song, that moment really does sort of personify like what those moments felt like as a whole for me doing the movie.

Fugit: Still, if I go into a bar or a club where there’s a DJ or there’s any kind of a jukebox or anything like that, somebody ends up playing “Tiny Dancer.” And just stares at me. until I notice. [laughs]

Hudson: I actually feel self-conscious every time it comes on.

Crudup: [jokingly] I keep it as my ringtone.

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