ALMOST FAMOUS – Blu-ray review

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Eddie provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to Eddie:
When “Almost Famous” arrived in theatres in the autumn of 2000, rumors floated in industry circles that writer/director/producer Cameron Crowe wanted to release a version of the film longer than the two hours, three minutes cut that audiences saw. Generally, critics loved the film, but it failed to find much of an audience. Non-professionals who did see the movie liked “Almost Famous” but not enough to create word-of-mouth buzz to carry it towards the Oscar finish line. Nonetheless, Cameron Crowe won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the film also won Golden Globes for Best Picture-Musical/Comedy and Best Supporting Actress (Kate Hudson).

When DreamWorks announced the DVD release of “Almost Famous” some years ago, it also stated that an upcoming special edition DVD release would feature Cameron Crowe’s director’s cut. As Crowe found himself busy with campaigning for awards as well as prepping his movie, “Vanilla Sky,” he did not have time to re-cut and re-mix “Almost Famous” for a simultaneous release of both the theatrical and the director’s cut.

Crowe had cut his film down to two hours for commercial purposes, but I felt that the theatrical version of “Almost Famous” felt repetitious in some places and a bit uneven in terms of pacing. Imagine my surprise, then, when I first saw Crowe’s “Bootleg Cut.” Now running two hours and forty-three minutes, I finally understand the points that Crowe tried to make because all of the film’s requisite rhythms are there in uncut glory. The theatrical cut failed to gel as a cohesive piece, but “The Bootleg Cut” smoothes the narratives once-rough edges.

“Almost Famous” is Crowe’s quasi-autobiographical ode to the ’70s, rock music, and growing up. In the film, William Miller (newcomer Patrick Fugit) is a fifteen-year-old who’s about to graduate from high school because his college professor mom Elaine (Frances McDormand in a delightful performance) had him start school early and had him skip fifth grade.

The story begins with William’s older sister leaving home to become a stewardess because their mother won’t allow her to listen to rock ‘n’ roll. She bequeaths her collection of rock albums to her brother, and it is that collection of rock music that leads William to write for the school newspaper as well as several “underground” publications. William gets lucky when “Rolling Stone” magazine offers him the job of covering the fictional band Stillwater. The remaining seventy-five percent of the film deals with William’s experiences with the band, the groupies, and the world at large.

For example, we see a number of scenes where Stillwater’s lead singer (Jason Lee) argues with his charismatic lead guitarist (Billy Crudup) over the band’s image and path to success. We see many scenes in which William obviously is in love with chief groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn’s daughter) but is hurt when she slinks off to sleep with Russell. Over and over again, we see that Russell uses Penny only for sex and that every character except for William is, despite their best intentions, only interested in their own petty concerns.

My favorite added scenes deal with William as a kid. Since he’s younger than his peers, he hits puberty later than everyone else (as revealed in a school shower), and pranksters mock him by posting an unflattering message about him on the high school’s entrance sign. You also get the chance to see more of every character, so the movie no longer feels like a piece where members of the ensemble cast randomly flit in and out of the story.

Mr. Crowe has made plenty of movies about self-delusions, personal journeys, and self-discoveries. However, even though “Almost Famous” is a more personal film for him, he was able to explore more truthful and emotional depths in “Jerry Maguire” than here. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this is his life that is on-screen, so Crowe is more interested in putting on a good face rather than really showing everyone what he experienced. (For example, we know from newspaper and magazine articles and interviews that Crowe’s sister and mother really did not enjoy the reunion that’s in the movie.)

As with most biographical films, “Almost Famous” is rather episodic, and it depends on the performances to sustain interest. Indeed, the performances are the best part of the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman has an amusing and informative bit part as William’s mentor, rock critic Lester Bangs. Young Patrick Fugit is quite good. Finally, Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson, both nominated for Oscar’s Best Supporting Actress, provide Fugit great womanly support in the fine ensemble cast.

“Almost Famous–Untitled: The Bootleg Cut” is substantially longer than the theatrical cut. Yet, because the added material greatly helps the film’s overall pacing, “The Bootleg Cut” feels like the shorter work. Every moment feels more detailed and rich than it did in the shorter version, and the film breathes comfortably as an organic whole. The choppiness of the theatrical cut is almost gone. While the ending still feels too pat and too happy after all that has happened to William and his family, “The Bootleg Cut” finally gives viewers a chance to see a full vision of Cameron Crowe’s memories of his fascinating youth. I rated the theatrical cut of “Almost Famous” a “7,” but I’m rating “The Bootleg Cut” an “8.”

Eddie’s film rating: 8/10

The Film According to John:
When Cameron Crowe wrote, produced, and directed “Almost Famous” in 2000, he was riding high, on top of the world. While the movie was far from a hit at the box office, it was the darling of critics, nominated for four Academy Awards, winning an Oscar for the director, and named Best Picture of the Year by the Online Film Critics Society. What’s more, Crowe had made “Jerry Maguire” just a few years before and “Vanilla Sky” a year later, so he was the hot filmmaker in town. Since then, however, things have slowed down for him, his “Elizabethtown” (2005) fizzling and nothing much since. Was he a flash in the pan, a rising star who flamed out early? I doubt it, but only time will tell, and I certainly wish him well. It surely helps that he has Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in his next picture, “We Bought a Zoo” (2011).

Anyway, I enjoyed “Almost Famous” probably more this second time around on Blu-ray than I did when I first saw it. It’s a sweet, joyous picture with that most uncommon of Hollywood traits, genuine heart.

The plot concerns the experiences of a young fifteen-year-old boy, Crowe’s semiautobiographical surrogate William Miller, in 1973 yearning to become a rock journalist, ingratiating himself with a rock band, going on tour, writing up his observations for “Rolling Stone” magazine, and coming to know himself better. William is a naive innocent in a shallow industry, a listener among talkers, making him the perfect observer for the events of the time.

In the process of Miller’s adventures, Crowe treats us to a touching coming-of-age story; an amusing entrance into the rock scene; an insightful glimpse into a transitional period in popular music; a glance at the group dynamics of a rock band; a portrait of people looking for something they can’t define; a slice of American life; and a look at the times that were “a-changin’.”

Like Eddie, I enjoyed the characters and performances in the film as much as anything; indeed, that’s mostly what the film is about–people rather than actions or events. The characters are colorful, and the actors are dead-on in their characterizations, making the people in the film familiar to us no matter how far removed they might be from us.

First, there’s William himself, no ordinary boy. As written and directed by Crowe and portrayed by Patrick Fugit, William is a charming, fresh-faced initiate, filled with boundless optimism. He is both a part of the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll around him yet apart from and largely unaffected by any of it, the band figuratively adopting him and literally protecting him from too many worldly temptations. The boy’s name itself, William Miller, may be a reminder of the “young William” in the traditional folk ballad “Barbara Allen” and perhaps the controversial novelist Henry Miller. In any case, William is the center of attention, rightly so, and Fugit makes the most of it.

Then there are all the folks around William, beginning with his mother, Elaine Miller, played by Frances McDormand and his sister, Anita, played by Zooey Deschanel. His mother is a widowed college professor who wants only the best for her children but doesn’t quite know how to go about it, being overly cautious and conservative with them on the one hand yet encouraging them to express themselves freely on the other. The kids are understandably confused, especially William, whom the mother placed in school two grades levels ahead of his classmates (and explains why he graduated from high school early). McDormand perfectly treads the fine line between loving mother and domineering nag.

Likewise, there is Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the cynical rock critic and editor of “Cream” magazine, who encourages William to pursue his dream and becomes his mentor. And Russell Hammond, played by Billy Crudup, is the handsome lead singer of a mid-level rock band called Stillwater (think a combination of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and Creedence Clearwater), who further encourages William to be himself and write what he feels. (Crowe’s first article for “Rolling Stone” was about the Allman Brothers.)

Other characters include Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), founder of Stillwater; Polexia Aphrodisia, Estrella Starr, and Sapphire (Anna Paquin, Bijou Phillips, and Fairuza Balk), band groupies; Vic Munoz (Jay Barachel), an old friend of William; Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor), the band’s manager; and Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon), a big-time operator who comes in to help make the band more prosperous.

But most of all there’s the free-spirited Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson, who becomes William’s best friend. She’s a seventeen-year-old groupie everyone knows because she’s slept with every rock star in the business; but now she wants no more part of that sordid end of the business and prefers to call herself a “band aide.” Hudson is wonderfully appealing, beautiful, winsome, beguiling, and captivating; and for all intents and purposes she steals the show. Crowe has said he based the character on a real-life friend; whatever, Ms. Hudson lights up the screen.

“Almost Famous” is a remarkably engaging film, filled with love for its characters, whom it treats as family, with all their up and downs. There are few downs with the picture, though; it’s enjoyable from beginning to end.

John’s film rating: 8/10

DreamWorks use an MPEG-4 codec and a dual-layer BD50 to transfer the 1.85:1 ratio film to Blu-ray disc in high definition. Almost everything about it is excellent, making a good movie even better. Object delineation and detailing is sharp and clear; colors are rich, deep, solid, luxuriant; black levels are strong; and edge enhancement is minimal. A thin veneer of natural film grain imparts a realistic texture to the picture, capping a superb visual treat.

Here, too, the disc excels, the audio engineers using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to reproduce the sonics. Much of the soundtrack is made up of music derived from commercially available recordings, so it varies in quality. However, all of it sounds better than I remember it from my younger days, so you’ll find no complaints from me. Dialogue is smooth and quiet, and, best of all, intelligible despite the movie containing so much music. The “live” performances by Stillwater are startlingly vibrant and alive, with excellent dynamics and commendable surround activity. While bass is not particularly deep, it is loud, which is perfectly in keeping with most rock music. However, an electrical storm late in the film may knock you out of your seat, so be aware.

The first thing you’ll want to know is that this Blu-ray edition of “Almost Famous” is a Best Buy exclusive, at least for now, so don’t look for it anywhere else. The downside is that it rather limits one’s comparison shopping. The second thing is that this is, as Eddie mentioned, the longer director’s version, the so-called “Bootleg Cut,” with an additional thirty minutes or so added to the theatrical release.

The extras on the Blu-ray disc are the same ones DreamWorks included in their two-disc DVD edition some years ago and again in standard definition. These extras begin with an audio commentary by director Cameron Crowe (and his mother) as well as an introduction by Crowe. Next, we get a twenty-five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, “The Making of Almost Famous”; a brief interview with the real Lester Bangs; Cameron Crowe’s top album choices of 1973, with his explanations why; a “Fever Dog” video; and a “Love Comes and Goes” video by Crowe’s wife at the time, Nancy Wilson.

After those items, we find a series of articles Crowe wrote for “Rolling Stone” between 1973-1979, articles that inspired the movie; then five minutes of “B-Sides” read-through footage; the complete (fifteen-minute) Stillwater Cleveland concert; the song “Small Time Blues” expanded; the “Stairway to Heaven” scene as it might have been; the entire script of the movie; and a theatrical trailer.

The extras conclude with thirty scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles, English captions for the hearing impaired; and an attractively embossed slipcover for the keep case.

Parting Thoughts:
It’s hard to knock “Almost Famous” on any count. It’s funny, joyous, touching, and moving, with plenty of great characters, great lines, and great music. It’s one of those rare films that manages to comment on both the particular experiences of an individual and the general social changes of a country at the same time, a very personal film and a most-universal one combined.