Paramount // 2000 // 162 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // January 31st, 2011
"It's all happening."
To follow up the success of Jerry Maguire, writer-director Cameron Crowe turned away from the heartsick teens and twenty-somethings he wrote about in movies like Say Anything, and Singles, looking all the way back to his own teenage years for inspiration. Unlike the kids in his Fast Times at Ridgemont High, though, Crowe didn't spend his youth partying and chasing girls. He left those pursuits to the famous rock stars he traveled with and wrote about as Rolling Stone magazine's youngest contributor.
Like the main character in his semi-autobiographical Almost Famous, Crowe's career as a rock journalist began when he was only 15 years old. Though most of the characters are composites of people he met while out on assignment, much of the film comes right out of Crowe's life: his trouble fitting in at school, his overprotective mother, and his friendship with legendary critic Lester Bangs. As it appeared in theaters in 2000, the film is a wild ride through '70s rock and roll, but it wasn't the version Crowe wanted to release. Fans finally got the chance to see a longer version of the movie a couple of years later, on DVD. This version restored more than half an hour of footage, and included a host of extras that didn't make it onto the theatrical version DVD. Now, more than ten years after Crowe's pet project hit big screens, the version of the film he wants you to see is available on Blu-ray as Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut.
When 15-year-old budding journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit, Saved!) gets the opportunity to write an article for Rolling Stone, he decides to ignore the objections of his non-conformist mother (Frances McDormand, Fargo) and follow in the footsteps of his sister (Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer), who left home "to look for America."
For his first big assignment, he heads out on tour with up-and-coming rock act Stillwater. Although he gets easy access to the band's frontman, Jeff (Jason Lee, My Name is Earl), he has a tough time pinning down their moody guitarist, Russell (Billy Crudup, Watchmen). Things get more complicated when William befriends, and falls for, a beautiful groupie named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), who only has eyes for Russell.
As the tour winds on, and William is no closer to getting what he needs to write his article and finish his last year in high school, he looks for support wherever he can: from his rock critic friend and mentor, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, Magnolia), from Penny and the rest of her so-called "band aids," and from the music itself.
Cameron Crowe's gift as a writer and director is his ability to make what he does look easy. He's incisive without being preachy, and while his characters never feel like they can walk off the screen, they're completely convincing in the context of the story being told -- connecting with each other and with the audience through tiny moments that speak to larger emotional truths.
This Bootleg Cut, which goes by the movie's original "Untitled" moniker, allows Cameron to include more of those moments. Certain scenes are exclusive to the longer cut, like a Stillwater radio interview with a tripped out DJ played by Tenacious D's Kyle Gass, and an example of William getting bullied at school for being so young. Much of the added 36 minutes, however, are longer versions of scenes that made it to the theatrical cut -- added lines of dialogue, and lingering shots that aid character development and give the movie more room to breathe. In this longer version we get a new first scene between Russell and Penny at the Riot House hotel that helps flesh out their complicated relationship; and we get to see the band's reaction when they find out how many of their secrets William's article reveals. It's usually easy to see why deleted scenes didn't make it into the movie. Having seen this Bootleg Cut, I can't imagine ever going back to the theatrical release. It's simply a better version of the movie.
Almost Famous may be wrapped in the long-haired power chords of rock and roll, but it's about relationships. Crowe takes us inside the "circus" of the rock tour -- where everyone fits into a specific place in the hierarchy of cool. At the top of the pack are the musicians, who expect to be fawned over even when they don't deserve praise. Below them, the managers and roadies -- macho beer buddies who keep the show going and absorb a lot of the abuse. Below them, the groupies and hangers-on, who themselves have a rigid pecking order ranging from band geishas to starry-eyed fans willing to do anything to get closer to the musicians they love. At the very bottom are the journalists, unknown quantities equally capable of evangelizing a band or tearing it to pieces.
In Almost Famous, that dangerous journalist happens to be a 15-year-old kid. As it was for Crowe, William's fresh face lets him get close to the band he's covering. That access puts William into a relationship triangle with an egotistical guitarist and the girl who captivates them both. As William, Patrick Fugit spends much of the movie simply watching other people. It's a difficult acting job because his success is gauged mostly against other characters' reactions to him. It's a surprisingly subtle performance for someone so young. Crowe deserves praise for his script, but much of the movie's strength lies in what isn't said. Kate Hudson is a stunner, but what makes her Oscar-nominated turn as rock's Helen of Troy so convincing is her body language -- the arresting glances; the hopeful, hesitant smiles. Her performance is both heartbreaking and beautiful. Billy Crudup's Russell goes to similar lengths to remain mysterious and aloof, his quiet charm the opposite to Jason Lee's mercurial Jeff.
To bring this rock and roll circus to life, Crowe assembled a dream team of acting talent. From the biggest part to the smallest, the casting is spot-on. It's even more impressive now, considering how many actors Crowe caught early in their careers -- including Jason Lee before his name was Earl, a pre-romcom Kate Hudson, and a fresh faced up-and-comer named Zooey Deschanel. The focus on young actors helps Crowe capture the reckless abandon of rock and roll in a way that big name actors wouldn't have let him. It's no accident that the most established actors in the film -- the brilliant Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffmann -- play characters with the most life experience. Even the supporting cast is awash in famous faces like Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, and Bijou Phillips as Penny's fellow "Band Aids;" Jimmy Fallon as a sleazy manager; The Office's Rainn Wilson as a Rolling Stone editor; Judd Apatow stable boy Jay Baruchel as an obsessive Led Zeppelin fan; and Peter Frampton (who also consulted on the film) as Humble Pie's manager.
Almost Famous isn't just a nostalgic look back at Cameron Crowe's early years as a journalist, it's also a love letter to rock and roll. At the beginning of the movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs warns William Miller off, telling him that rock is over. But you wouldn't know it from the rest of the film. Crowe didn't just write about music; he's also a fan. Almost Famous is packed to the gills with period tunes -- a treasure trove of iconic rock cuts from artists like Elton John, Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Iggy Pop, Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, and David Bowie. Even the notoriously stingy Led Zeppelin (a band Crowe covered extensively in the '70s) licensed five songs for the film. The songs are more than just background music; Crowe is perfectly happy to quiet his actors and let the music take over entire scenes. This is especially true during the Stillwater concert sequences, for which Crowe's rock star wife Nancy Wilson, of Heart, wrote a bunch of original songs. Even though tracks like "Fever Dog," and "Love Comes and Goes" were written recently, they sound like they could have been hits back in 1973.
The Bootleg Cut hits Blu-ray sporting a stunning 1.85:1 1080p transfer. The print is warm with just the right amount of film grain, all the while maintaining a high level of detail and color accuracy. Although the costume and set design puts Almost Famous firmly in the '70s, it looks as sharp as if it were filmed yesterday (except for a late scene of William and Penny outdoors that stars out soft before coming into focus). It's the kind of bump in quality I hope we see more of in re-releases of movies that were originally shot on film. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track isn't quite as impressive, but it complements the movie well. While much of the mix is focused on the front speakers, the full range of surround gets a workout during the major musical sequences. The concert scenes are mixed to be louder than the rest of the movie, but I've never been to a concert that wasn't louder than everything else in life.
The extras are all ported directly from the Bootleg Cut's DVD release, with a couple of notable exceptions I'll get to in a bit. The menus have all been prettied up for Blu-ray, but the bulk of the bonus features are still in full screen, non-anamorphic standard definition. It's too bad, but hey, it is a bootleg:
* "Intro by Cameron Crowe"
This brief intro plays automatically when you go to the extras menu...every time you go to the extras menu.
* Audio Commentary by Director Cameron Crowe and Alice Crowe
Cameron Crowe's mother didn't just inspire one of the most memorable characters in Almost Famous, she's responsible for making him the man he is today -- and she knows it. Every bit as opinionated and proud as Frances McDormand's portrayal of her, Alice Crowe joins her son in one of the most fun and insightful commentaries I've ever heard. Besides the requisite nuts-and-bolts info about how the movie was made, Crowe looks back at the real-life stories and people that inspired his screenplay. Movie aside, this longer cut is worth it for the extra half hour we get to spend with the director and his charming mother.
* "The Making of Almost Famous" (24:50)
A relatively in-depth look at the making of the film, including cast and filmmaker interviews, and pictures of a 15-year-old Crowe hanging out with some of rock's biggest acts.
* "Interview with Lester Bangs"* (1:55)
A quick collection of interview snippets with the guy who redefined rock journalism. It takes less than two minutes to see that Phillip Seymour Hoffman's manic portrayal is nothing compared to the man himself.
* "Cameron Crowe's Top 10 Albums of 1973"
Ten of the director's favorite albums of the year, with brief commentary for each. His varied picks include records by Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and Jackson Browne.
* "Fever Dog" Music Video (4:42)
Good song, lousy music video. This full version of the big Stillwater number plays over assembled footage from the movie.
* "Love Comes and Goes"* (3:53)
A music video of sorts for one of the Stillwater songs, in demo form with composer Nancy Wilson on vocals.
* "Rolling Stone Articles"*
Seven of the articles Crowe wrote for the rock magazine from 1973 -- 1979, covering The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. Presented in high-definition text with the option to scroll or page through with your remote.
* "B-Sides: Behind-the-Scenes Footage"* (5:21)
A very brief collection of video camera footage that shows the cast hanging out and rehearsing a few scenes.
* "Cleveland Concert"* (15:45)
To get the concert performances we see in the film, Crowe filled a hall with screaming fans and had the Stillwater actors play through entire songs as if it were a real concert, complete with in-character between-song patter. This "concert" consists of the three songs "Love Comes and Goes," "Hour of Need," and "You Had to Be There."
* "Small Time Blues" (2:55)
The full version of a song from the movie that William overhears in a hotel, being played by its composer, Pete Droge.
* "Stairway"* (12:13)
One of the most interesting bonus features, because it's a deleted scene that requires audience participation. Crowe managed to convince Led Zeppelin to let him use several of their songs in the movie, but the one he couldn't get the rights to was the iconic "Stairway to Heaven." Too bad, because that meant he had to cut a scene in which William tries to change his mother's mind about rock music (and about him writing for Rolling Stone) by playing the literary-inspired song for her in its entirety. Because he couldn't get the rights for the bonus features either, the scene tells the viewer when to cue up their own, legally-obtained copy of "Stairway" to play while watching it. The scene also includes a cameo by Alice Crowe as William's guidance counselor, who ironically tries to help an actor playing her son persuade an actress playing her to let him do something she wasn't comfortable letting her real son do in the first place.
The script, in HD.
(* Indicates that the feature has an optional audio introduction by Cameron Crowe.)
Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut on Blu-ray has everything that its DVD counterpart did, with two big exceptions. The DVD set had three discs. The first was the longer cut of the movie, the second was the original theatrical version, and the third was a CD of six Stillwater songs. The Blu-ray version has only that first disc. Given how much I prefer the longer cut to the original, I'm not sure why you would need the shorter version; and though Wilson wrote some great songs for the faux band, not getting them in CD form isn't a deal breaker. The bigger problem is that this release is a Best Buy exclusive. I've got nothing against the big blue box store, but as far as I'm concerned, limiting customer choice is so not rock and roll!
It took Crowe twenty-some years to bring the fascinating story of his early rock and roll years to the big screen, which makes the decade fans had to wait for the best version of that movie in the best quality seem short by comparison. Either way, the wait is over, and Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut is a winner on hi-def, minus some lazy porting of bonus features from the DVD. It's too bad only one retailer is allowed to sell it, but that shouldn't keep you from buying it.
As a matter of fact, I do remember laughter. Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2011 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 162 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scene
* Music Videos