Almost Famous (UK - BD)
Scott McKenzie takes a tour bus to the 70s to rock out with Stillwater, man...
Showing promise as an amateur music critic, fifteen-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) manages to bag the job of his dreams—following rock band Stillwater on tour and writing up his experiences for Rolling Stone magazine. After befriending the band members, most of all lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), he gets the inside scoop at a critical point in their career as the band stand on the edge of stardom. At the same time, he finds himself drawn to groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who is destined to have her heart broken by Russell.
I’ve always been a little surprised by the high regard that Cameron Crowe’s fans have for his work. I haven’t seen all of his movies but those that I have feel overly sentimental and optimistic, in particular Jerry Maguire. With this in mind, I have to say that Almost Famous is my favourite Crowe movie. However, even as I loaded the check disc in my player, I felt a little apprehensive at the realisation that I would have to sit through over two and a half hours of his brand of happiness as I realised this release was the director’s cut.
What makes Almost Famous enjoyable is that it’s such an easy watch. Based on Cameron Crowe’s own experiences as a teenager, the young William Miller features in almost every scene and Patrick Fugit is incredibly watchable in the role, drawing the viewer in with a geeky charm as he comes of age. The music is great as well, with the made-up band Stillwater given a believable history and a decent catalogue of original songs. In addition, no one in the story is ever in any danger and relationships seem relatively pleasant even at the worst of times so all the viewer has to do is buy in early on, then sit back for a good few hours of entertainment.
Both Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson were nominated for best supporting actress Oscars, but I wouldn’t say theirs were the strongest performances. In addition to Patrick Fugit, I’d say that this is probably Jason Lee’s best performance of his career up to this movie and since. He’s channelling Brodie from Mallrats, but it’s clear that he’s worked to give his lead singer a basis in reality and his hot-and-cold relationship with Billy Crudup’s character is what several key scenes depend on. Crudup fills the role of one of William’s two father figures and while I haven’t seen him put in a better performance, I thought the screenplay occasionally let him down with all the posturing about the true meaning of rock and roll and the scene where he trips out.
Even with the strong performances, there are no names that were truly big stars in 2000, which is possibly why Almost Famous is considered a theatrical flop, barely recouping half its budget at the US box office. Another reason may be the target audience of the story. At first glance it may seem like it’s a movie for teenagers, but with an R rating in the US and a 15 rating in the UK, the tone is more adult than you might expect from the plot synopsis. I’ve come to the conclusion that while the story centres around wish-fulfilment of a fifteen-year-old, the fact that it is set during the heady days of rock and roll and the rose tinted specs Cameron Crowe uses to transport us back there means that Almost Famous is actually a wish-fulfilment story for today’s mid-life crisis generation.
Almost Famous may be a charming movie, but the charm can wear a little thin after two and a half hours. If you were to watch the movie without any sound, you may think that the only direction Crowe gave Kate Hudson was tell her to stand around looking cool and flash a knowing smile at William every now and again, because that’s what she seems to spend a significant amount of the movie doing. I would put Almost Famous in the same bracket as Crowe’s other movies, namely movies that aren’t as deep and meaningful and they think they are, but as a slice of happy-happy historical entertainment told through a Forrest Gump-style filter, you can’t go far wrong.
Almost Famous is presented with a 1080p picture and I regret to report that the picture quality is up (or should I say down) there with Wall Street as one of the worst Blu-ray transfers I’ve seen. Colours are muted and black is more like charcoal grey. The picture is grainy (some scenes more than others), which is immediately obvious from the opening logos, but the main problem I have with the picture quality is an odd one.
For pretty much the whole movie, thin dark vertical lines cut down the picture. I don’t mean solid black lines or anything, just thin patches where the picture was slightly darker, which meant that walls of solid colour in background looked like they were decorated with stripes and the whole experience was like watching the movie through a track blind. This doesn’t show up on the screenshots, but it was obvious on my 37” TV at a distance of about six metres. If you pick up this disc and don’t notice this effect, add a couple of points on for the video score (the detail is good, after all), but if you do, it’ll drive you crazy.
In addition to the Polish 5.1 option, the only English option is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. Dialogue is a little muted, as is the recorded music that plays on the soundtrack, and there was no interference that I noticed, but it’s the musical scenes where the audio begins to impress. As with the Blu-ray release of Walk Hard, the volume jumps up a notch whenever the band take to the stage. The quality of the sound may not be any better, but it’s a neat trick to make the viewer believe they’re there on stage with Stillwater.
Given that various DVD releases of Almost Famous have come packed with extras, in particular the director’s cut edition, it’s very disappointing to see that the same care hasn’t been given to this Blu-ray edition. The ‘Love Comes and Goes’ featurette shows behind the scenes footage, first of all a rehearsal session for the radio interview scene. We then get a compilation of various clips of the cast and crew, set to a demo version of Stillwater’s ‘Love Comes and Goes’ sung by Nancy Wilson, ex-guitarist with hair rockers Heart and, coincidentally, Mrs Cameron Crowe.
Next up is some archive footage of interviews with the real Lester Bangs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie, and we get to hear his black and white opinions on bands of the time like Roxy Music and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Trailers for Across the Universe and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the only other extras that can be found.
I’m probably lining myself up for a lynching by the Cameron Crowe devotees when I say that I enjoyed Almost Famous and I consider it my favourite of his movies, but it definitely has flaws that stop me ranking it as a great movie. However, I know this movie has many fans, which is why it’s a disappointment to see it get such lousy treatment on Blu-ray. Bad picture quality and a why-even-bother set of extras make this a high definition release that has ‘double dip’ written all over it. Fans be warned.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 11th February 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Polish
Subtitles: English, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, English SDH, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Turkish
Extras: Love Comes and Goes, Lester Bangs Interview, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frances McDormand, Zooey Deschanel, Anna Paquin
Length: 162 minutes
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