When "Almost Famous" arrived in theatres more than a year ago (in autumn 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," 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 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 together 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 15-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 75 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, Russell (Billy Crudup), over the band's image and paths 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 onscreen, 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 can have a long, great career ahead of him if he wants it. Finally, Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson, both nominated for Oscar's Best Supporting Actress, provide Fugit great womanly support in the fine ensemble cast.
As with the previous DVD release of "Almost Famous," the "Untitled" two-disc set features video transfers (1.85:1, anamorphic) of near-reference quality. Colors are bright and strong (befitting the colorful apparel of the era), and the clean print has nary a scratch or signs of dirt. There is a bit of grain here and there, and the film looks unexpectedly soft in some places. These are probably stylistic choices, though, so I'm not going to quibble much with the good folks at DreamWorks.
Steven Spielberg is one of the co-founders of DreamWorks, and he is also one of the investors in DTS, the company that invented digital theatrical sound before Dolby Digital came along. Therefore, per DreamWorks's practices, the "The Bootleg Cut" DVD set comes with both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks. However, not all DVDs are created equally. Disc One, "The Bootleg Cut," contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 English mix as well as a DD 2.0 surround English track. Disc Two, the theatrical cut, contains a DD 5.1 English track, a DD 5.1 French track, a DD 2.0 surround English track, and the DTS 5.1 English mix.
The rich sound mix immerses the viewer in an audio field filled with great music and clearly reproduced dialogue. The concert scenes are really rocking, man! Despite the fact that most of the movie plays like a quiet comedy-drama, there are moments when the audio tracks come through big time. Still, while music emanates from the rear channels constantly, other ambient sounds seem to be lacking.
On both DVDs, English, Spanish, and French subtitles as well as English closed captions support the audio.
(The first DVD release of "Almost Famous" offers the same audio tracks as Disc Two minus the DD 5.1 French track and minus Spanish and French subtitles.)
"The Bootleg Cut," being a two-disc set, offers more extras than the first, one-disc release of "Almost Famous." In the DVDs' menus, you'll find a tiny microphone icon. Clicking on these icons will lead to audio snippets in which Cameron Crowe explains why the bonus material(s) was (were) included on this director's cut DVD release.
Oh, just to let you know, there are some Easter Eggs scattered about the DVDs, too. I found two on Disc One, one having to do with Kate Hudson saying the word "Leslie" over and over and over again and another clip dealing with the cast and crew thinking that Lester Bangs's spirit was watching over the filming.
First things first, we have an audio Commentary by Cameron Crowe, Crowe's mother, other filmmakers. Everyone loves this movie, and it's quite apparent that Mrs. Crowe has finally accepted the fact that her son will never be a lawyer like she wanted him to be. There's nothing like winning an Oscar to prove to your parents that you've done good for yourself in the film industry!!!
Crowe's wife also appears on the DVD. Nancy Wilson, lead singer of Heart, contributes a demo version of the song "Love Comes and Goes." She belts a fine tune, and the music plays while behind-the-scenes video plays.
There is a video interview with Lester Bangs, more behind-the-scenes footage shot by Cameron Crowe, a collection of the articles that Crowe wrote for "Rolling Stone," and a video gallery/audio commentary of Crowe's picks for the top 10 albums of 1973.
Cameron Crowe took the concert footage filmed for the movie and compiled them into a "mini-documentary" of Stillwater's Cleveland Concert. I think that this is Crowe's way of blurring the distinction between fact and fiction.
Believe it or not, there are some deleted scenes that did not make their way into the new director's cut. Music rights issues arose, so some footage was not re-inserted into the film itself. Well, two hours and forty-three minutes is long enough...I don't think that even Crowe himself wanted a three-hour movie!!! (Or maybe he did?)
You get to read Crowe's Oscar-winning screenplay, too. Sadly, it is NOT available as a printable DVD-ROM extra.
Finally, there are the usual bonus items that DVD-philes have come to expect with every release: a theatrical trailer, production notes (text pages), and cast and crew biographies/filmographies.
In keeping with the "bootleg" nature of this enterprise, this DVD set also contains a Stillwater CD with six songs. Happy happy, joy joy, this is more than a two-disc set, this is a "2+1" deal! Crowe and his wife wrote these songs.
A mini-booklet insert provides an edited version of the DVD's production notes text pages and chapter listings for both versions of the film. When you compare the chapters, you'll see that "The Bootleg Cut" has six more entries. However, the new footage was included everywhere in the movie, so you can't exactly access all the new scenes directly.
(The extras on the first DVD release of "Almost Famous" all made it to the new DVD set except for Stillwater's "Fever Dog" Music Video and the HBO Behind-the-Scenes Featurette on the making of the film. The "concert footage" on Disc Two basically incorporates the music video, and the HBO Featurette was really meant for people who had not yet seen the movie.)
"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 "seven," but I'm rating "The Bootleg Cut" an "eight."
(Yes, I know, I gave "Almost Famous--Untitled: The Bootlet Cut" across the board "eights.")