For a few years, Cameron Crowe was on top of the world. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Say Anything" were respectable teen comedies. Then "Singles," "Jerry Maguire," and "Almost Famous."
A particular skill Crowe had was in finding the right song for the right moment. Before the Eltonnaissance, in "Almost Famouse" Crowe pulled a great song for a quiet scene on a bus of touring rock musicians. This Led Zeppelin-like hard rock band had just crashed a suburban party. For all the hedonistic excitement, they also just seemed like a-holes. I didn't want to hang out with them any more. Did they even really like music? This scene on the tour bus wins back the audience and established that the relationships between the characters are all founded on a mutual love of music.
Similarly, there's a scene in "Jerry Maguire" where Tom Cruise's eponymous character finally scores his first victory, signing a high school football phenom. And then he's looking for a song on the radio. The lyrics don't really matter, what he needs is an anthem, something he can feel good belting out. He finds Tom Petty.
Who cares what the song is about? It's got that relaxed beat, the phrase that ends in a long ee sound and it's the perfect range for a tenor to belt. When I hear the chorus to "Free Fallin'" I think of this scene.
In this scene, Crowe is saying a lot about the character Jerry Maguire and his circumstances, but I feel like he also captures something about Tom Petty's songwriting. It's power is in a particular kind of accessibility. You don't need a crazy sense of rhythm, or an opera star's range. He's writing for an ordinary voice, but giving it an extraordinary place to go. At the risk of plagiarism and/or sounding overly lofty, Tom Petty's greatest hits could be called Fanfare for the Common Man.