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15 year old aspiring rock music critic William Miller’s (Patrick Fugit) dreams come true when his idol, Creem journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) hires him to review a local Black Sabbath concert. When he gets to the concert William discovers he’s not on ‘the list’, and is locked out of the arena. Later, he talks his way into the show by stoking the egos of Sabbath’s opening act, Stillwater. Stillwater takes a shine to the boy, and invite him to their next show. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone magazine contacts William with a job offer, and he suggests a piece on his new friends. Soon the young writer finds himself on the road with the up and coming band, where he befriends a group of touring groupies, including the charming and beautiful ‘Penny Lane’ (Kate Hudson), a mysterious girl desperately in love with Stillwater’s lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup).

Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut
I do not get the love for Cameron Crowe. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is more director Amy Heckerling’s victory (and I’ll even crawl out on a limb to say that Clueless is better anyway), Say Anything is a sappy joke of a cult hit (yeah, you heard me, Generation X), Singles had a shelf life of a brown-spotted banana, Jerry McGuire is only good for dated catch-phrases, Vanilla Sky was a pale shadow of Abre Los Ojos, and, well, I haven’t seen Elizabethtown, but don’t know anyone else that has either, which says something for its pop culture impact. Crowe’s brand of romanticized nostalgia is easy to swallow, thin on calories, and about as challenging as playing checkers with a headless chicken.

…Well, except for this one time when he made one of the best and most enduring films of the last decade. I suppose that was kind of impressive.

Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut
I believe that Almost Famous endures because every inch of its on-paper concept says it shouldn’t. Coming of age tales are passé, nostalgia is a criminally easy means to capture an audience, and autobiographical movies really shouldn’t be longer than two hours, tops. Objectively speaking, Almost Famous might be the most narcissistic major motion picture ever made, especially this longer, even more self-indulgent director’s cut. God help us, it even ends with a heavy handed, touchy-feely moral.

Crowe finds a relatively original comedic voice to manage the more over-told elements of this story. The soft edges of this humourous streak (and I’d call Almost Famous a comedy over a drama in most respects) don’t dull the narrative edge, even when it dips into the low-brow realms of slapstick. One of the most endearing running gags is the consistent reaction to William’s mother, who disarms everyone with her militant, no-nonsense parenting (‘She really freaked me out’). These brief jokes both lighten the mood, and serve to keep the mother in the story without stopping the plot. Sometimes Crowe’s sense of nostalgia hurts the film, as he includes a few too many in jokes for his own amusement (the ‘I’m on drugs’ bit successfully transcends this problem), and it can be hard to really care about some of the more important players’ theatrics, especially on repeat viewings. But the tone is relatively consistent, and to borrow a phrase from my British buddies, Crowe isn’t afraid to ‘take the piss’ out of the melodrama and every turn, which makes the whole experience all the sweeter.

Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut
Almost Famous is also far from an artless, point and shoot exercise. Crowe doesn’t go out of his way to bring camera acrobatics to the audience’s attention, but his shot choices occasionally generates lyrical visuals, and the editing practices create an atmosphere that recalls real memories. There’s also a subtle sense of point of view, like shots that peak around corners, or over an extra’s shoulder. In general the film inhabits a space between rough, documentary filmmaking, and Crowe’s usual colourful simplicity. Some period films are love letters to an era ( American Graffiti), while others are love letters to genre ( Miller’s Crossing). Almost Famous manages to act as love letters to era, genre, and, perhaps most importantly, to writing, specifically music criticism. The utter joy with which Crowe recalls his relationship with Lester Bangs is the real heart of the entire film. Bangs has more of a positive effect on William’s life than his mother, sister, band, or Penny (especially Penny, who looking back, reveals herself as a rather reprehensible, self-obsessed character), and his dialogue is unforgettably tangy (‘It takes them (the Boxtops) less than two minutes to accomplish what Jethro Tull takes hours not to accomplish.’).

Many of the film’s achievements rest on the cast’s shoulders, especially lead Patrick Fugit, who sadly hasn’t gone on to the bigger and better roles since landing in the public eye in the role of William. Sure, he’s still working, and is always a highlight, but sometimes it feels like Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg are living the career he earned with this performance (I say as a fan of both of those actors). And the casting victories don’t end with the lead, the supporting cast is flecked with soon to be bigger names, like Zooey Deschanel, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee (who broke away from Kevin Smith with this one), and an actress known up to that point only as Goldie Hawn’s daughter – Kate Hudson. Coen Brothers favourite Frances McDormand and Hudson were both nominated Best Supporting Actress during the 2000 Oscars. Hudson’s performance set her career aflame, but she never really cashed in the good will the role gave her. Personally, I’m more impressed with McDormand on successive viewings. William’s mother at first appears to be a bit of a cliché, and her presence in the film is usually in the form comedic relief, but she’s a relatively complex character, one that needs to be an obstacle without being a villain. McDormand plays the character with just enough charm that we like her, feel sorrow for her, and in the end are happy when William returns to her.

Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut

Video


Almost Famous makes its US Blu-ray debut here, and though it’s an overall upgrade over the DVD release (the director’s cut was crammed onto a single disc with extras and a DTS soundtrack), it’s a bit of a disappointment overall. Like the DVD release, this transfer suffers from sharpening artefacts, specifically edge enhancement. This problem increases during wide shots, where the white lines increase frequency, and other highlights appear a bit blown-out. Grain isn’t a huge deal, but there is quite a bit of noticeable artefacts like dirt, flecks of white, and minor print damage. Strangely enough, the reinserted scenes are the most well maintained and clean moments in the whole transfer. Crowe uses a lot of big facial close-ups, and these prove to be noticeably sharper than those found on the DVD (to a fault if you don’t want to notice minor facial hair on the actresses), but overall details are inconsistent, occasionally delving in to the downright fuzzy (see the scene towards the end of the film where Penny tells William her real name). Almost Famous is meant to look older than it is, and it does often feel like an authentic period feature, so arguably a precise and sharp transfer wouldn’t serve the film. However, this transfer verges on bad so often I almost recommend against the double dip.

Audio


The new transfer doesn’t impress, but this new, uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio track is noticeably louder, and more cleanly separated than the DVD’s standard DTS sound. The vast majority of the film’s sound is built around the music, including both live concert moments, and standard score/soundtrack music. There’s not a lot here to make Almost Famous comparable to something like Transformers, but as far as music heavy track go you could do a whole lot worse. One of the more exciting aural bits comes towards the beginning of the film, when little William puts down the needle on The Who’s Tommy. The sound starts scratchy and soft from the middle, and slowly bleeds into the stereo channels, eventually even making some impressive rear channel directional effects taken directly from the song. The concert sequences are another source of aural amassment. This track captures the feel of a live performance, minus the more overwhelming elements. Even more impressive is the rear and stereo representation of the back stage scenes. You could swear that Black Sabbath was playing right outside your house. But, of course, the most incredible sequence for aggressive audio is the plane scene, which rocks every channel from side to side, tears up the rear speakers with realistic thunder effects, and punches the LFE with startling impact noises.

Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut

Extras


The extras here match the previous ‘Untitled Bootleg Cut’ release, with the exception of the original theatrical cut of the film. I very much prefer this longer version, even if it is quite long, but the theatrical cut isn’t available at all on Blu-ray, which is a bummer and an oversight the way I see it. These extras begin with Cameron Crowe’s director’s commentary, which features not his actors, his cinematographer, his editor, or even his song writing wife, but his real life mother. This track ranks among my all time favourite film commentaries. Minus his mother, Crowe would likely still be a solid commentator, and he spends the majority of the track discussing the technical aspects of filmmaking, but with his mother in the room Crowe is forced to recall his actual teenhood. The director and his mother discuss the true stories behind the film’s most indelible scenes, and it’s rather shocking how close everything but the love triangle follows real life.

Following a brief audio introduction to the set is ‘The Making of Almost Famous’ (24:0, SD), a fluffy, but reasonably informative elongated trailer. This EPK is best for its images of the real Cameron Crowe as a kid, hanging out with rock stars. The section on casting is also good stuff, including Patrick Fugit’s audition tape, and the section on teaching the actors to be rock stars is pretty adorable. Next is a real, on camera interview with the real Lester Bangs, complete with a Cameron intro (2:00, SD), followed by a list of Crowe’s top albums of 1973, with audio descriptions from the man himself, a ‘Fever Dog’ music video (4:40, SD), a ‘Love Comes and Goes’ video with introduction (3:50, SD), a ‘Small Time Blues’ extended scene (2:50, SD), a deleted ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sequence that begs the viewer to play the song themselves since the production didn’t get the rights to the song (12:10, SD), deleted footage from Stillwater’s Cleveland concert (15:40, SD), seven of Crowe’s Rolling Stone Articles, ‘B-Sides’ rehearsal footage (5:20, SD), the Oscar winning script, and a trailer.

Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut

Overall


People quote Jerry McGuire to this day, and that moment where John Cusack holds a boombox over his head will be referenced until the end of time, but for me Cameron Crowe’s most enduring cinematic legacy will be the magical moment in Almost Famous where a bus full of people making up with each other by singing along to Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’. This longer ‘Bootleg Cut’ is the ideal version of the film, and it’s a joy to finally have it on region A Blu-ray, even if the image quality is a bit less than satisfying. I could’ve also done with a few new extras (like a belated 10th anniversary featurette), but the classic features still scratch the itch, especially Crowe’s commentary with his mother.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray's image quality


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