Our review of Almost Famous, published May 28th, 2001, is also available.
"One of these people is going to save the world. Which means rock and roll can save the world, all of us together. And the chicks are great."
Cameron Crowe is the King of Moments. He finds the special, sometimes awkward touches in life and savors them, and portrays them naturally on screen. These moments have propelled every film Crowe's been involved in since his screenwriting debut with Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Spicoli bidding Mr. Hand "Aloha" after a late-night cram session, or Judge Reinhold exclaiming, "Doesn't anybody f***ing knock?!" John Cusack holding the boom box over his head blasting Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" for Ione Skye in Say Anything. The first time Jonathan Lipnicki sweetly kisses Tom Cruise's cheek in Jerry Maguire. And we won't even get into "Show me the" you-know-what. Crowe knows human interaction, and he knows the things that burrow into your brain to make a moment memorable, for better or worse. Almost Famous is no exception, and those moments are more abound in the Director's Cut, dubbed Untitled here. This is a bittersweet film about finding yourself through music, and it is a triumph in recreating the feeling of a fascinating time and place.
Facts of the Case
Almost Famous tells the story of William Miller, a young rock and roll fan who gets the chance to chronicle the 1973 tour of the fictional band Stillwater. The story as most know is based on Crowe's own life story. At 15, he began writing for Rolling Stone, touring with bands like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers. William spends most of the movie chasing his interview, encountering a colorful crew of roadies, rockers, and groupies—pardon, "band aids." What starts as a four day trip quickly slides into a full-fledged tour, with William struggling to keep his cool in a scene that's full of the coolest of the cool.
The "Crowe Moments" were abundant in the theatrical version of Almost Famous, such as William's rude awakening that he may not be the first guy to fall for Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, who was deservedly up for an Oscar for this role) when he "introduces" her to Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Or William's mother interrupting a call with Rolling Stone to tell him to fix the garbage disposal. Untitled extends the film by nearly 40 minutes, like an extended jam, giving us more of those moments without making it feel that anyone's solos are going on too long. Witness a grade-skipped William being ridiculed in the locker room for his prepubescent body, and his priceless reply to his tormentors. The movie is bubbling over with authenticity in its tasteful and largely accurate production design, without resorting to gimmick (one gaffe Crowe points out in the commentary: a young William perusing his sister's old record collection stumbles across a copy of Joni Mitchell's album Blue—which was not yet released). Crowe's attention to detail in the constant fighting between William's sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel, in a performance that stands out in a movie of fine performances) and his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand, also Oscar-nominated) had me laughing out loud with its authenticity as it mirrored with frightening accuracy the spats my own mother and sister had. William himself is played with admirable understatement by newcomer Patrick Fugit, whose charm suggests Bud Cort on Xanax (in a good way). Untitled was Crowe's name for the film during production (along with Vanilla Sky, the title for Crowe's latest film) and the handwriting on the notepad in the opening credits now replaces Almost Famous with Untitled, officially making this cut its own film. (Incidentally, the hand doing the writing is that of Crowe himself, a la James Cameron's charcoal drawings in Titanic.) The family scenes are given more room to breathe in Untitled, which benefits the film's subtext substantially. After spending a little more time at home in this version, with the rock music-hating, goal-oriented Elaine, we understand William and Anita's desire to see the world even more. The small additions in Untitled, like the rain-drenched "conversation" William has with Stillwater's bassist and Anita's ex-boyfriend coming back to visit William, give this version a scope more worthy of comparison to Martin Scorsese than the more Frank Marshall-esque theatrical version. If you felt the original version lacked a grit and undercurrent, you owe it to yourself to check out Untitled.
The meticulous and appropriate soundtrack is part of what invites you into William's world. It never veers into the kind of crammed-with-hits nostalgia that a lot of movies about the period suffer from. The songs sometimes reflect the scene, like Simon and Garfunkel singing the line "I've gone to look for America" as Anita leaves home, or Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" as William and Russell pull into a high school party in suburban Kansas (one of the film's best sequences, even better in Untitled). Sometimes it's less literal, like when the band has Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" blaring as the band cruises into New York for the first time, which is exactly what you feel this band would do. The songs consistently succeed in giving a sense of the time, place, and of course, taste. Led Zeppelin in particular is all over this film, both in the soundtrack and story. In fact, and astute viewers will note what a coup it is to be hearing Zeppelin in a movie, as they usually don't allow films to license their music. (Dazed and Confused didn't feature the Zep song that was its namesake for this reason.) The movie even closes with their song "Tangerine," and after the screen fades to black, there's a long pause before the credits roll to let the song finish out. A nice reminder of the movie's theme that in the end, music should be judged on its own.
None of the extra scenes Crowe has added feel forced or harmful to the flow of the story, the way the plantation scene was in Apocalypse Now Redux. Crowe compares it to a record being re-released with bonus tracks from the original sessions, but Untitled is superior in that instead of tagging these scenes onto the second disc, they're reincorporated to enrich and enliven the movie itself.
Both versions of the film are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. While the second disc theatrical version of Almost Famous is offered in Dolby 5.1, DTS, and Dolby 2.0, Untitled features only Dolby Digital 2.0. DreamWorks releases have such clarity, however, that the difference is barely noticeable. This is the kind of movie that wishes its audio could be played on vinyl, anyway, so don't stress about your setup. (Particularly fun audio-wise was the Stillwater concert, which succeeds in recreating the sound of a rock band in a boomy arena.) There's a layer change right after McDormand says "Rock stars have kidnapped my son" that isn't too obtrusive, and the subtitles are placed subtly on the screen. The commentary track (see below) is also offered in subtitles, a clever feature that allows you to pick up the stories without leaving the movie.
The commentary is the highlight of the disc. Featuring Crowe and his mom, Alice, as well as a childhood friend and production crew members, this track is fun and conversational. Crowe switches from personal anecdotes to discussions of recreating the film's more ambitious settings, as he trades barbs with his mother with as much ease as he did on the Fast Times DVD with Amy Heckerling. His mother is occasionally amusingly defensive of her tactics, but surprisingly game and quick to laugh at her eccentricities depicted in the film (such as the scene in Untitled where she berates a man for painting "Merry Xmas" on a sign instead of "Merry Christmas"). Crowe also gives insight into character motivations heretofore unknown, such as the unseen cocaine habit of Stillwater lead singer Jeff Bebe (the always good Jason Lee). One scene where Lee seemed slightly overly animated in the theatrical version particularly benefits from this illumination in Untitled. There are others on the commentary track, but their words are so few and far between that finding them could be considered an Easter egg. Speaking of which, be sure to check the audio section and the menu Polaroids on disc one for two deleted scenes, one eerily fascinating and one annoyingly—if intentionally—repetitious.
Standard fare, though interestingly the theatrical trailer contains even more footage not seen in the film, such as William looking up at his older classmates from his diminutive standpoint at a dance. One trailer available on the original release of the film is not included here, but to no great loss.
CD of Six Stillwater Songs
Decent songs, but this is only for the Almost Famous superfan. Though I enjoy the tracks that appear in the context of the film, most on this disc sound suspiciously more like the grunge of Seattle where Crowe and co-collaborator and wife Nancy Wilson (who wrote the songs together but credit the songs to "Hammond," Crudup's character) hail from than bona fide '70s arena rock. Crowe was probably trying to avoid copping too many rock clichés for Stillwater's songs, but it doesn't make this CD any more enjoyable.
Entitled "B-Sides," this is a solid if uninspired look into life on the set. Teetering between being promotional and informative, this is pleasant and fun, but provides far less insight into the film than the commentary track.
Deleted Scenes with Commentary
There are some gems here, chief among them the scene where William attempts to convince his mother that rock music is literate by playing the Tolkien-inspired "Stairway to Heaven" to her in its entirety. In a charmingly low-tech move, the DVD viewer must provide his or her own "Stairway" to the table, as Crowe didn't have the rights to the song for the film (the studio must have given him a Zeppelin production cost maximum, or else you sense this movie would have ten more of their songs). During the scene, a screen instructs the viewer to grab "Stairway" and has a countdown to sync it up. Take the time to do as much pausing and fast forwarding as you have to do to get it synched up correctly for the song's finale. Superb air guitar. Also included are an additional acoustic composition by Wilson, and the full take of William catching Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris singing to each other at the Continental Hyatt House, as well as a handful of other goodies.
Cameron Crowe's Top 10 Albums of 1973
An interesting list of Crowe's favorites, both common and surprising, from the year in which the film took place. Crowe provides audio commentary on why he made these choices.
This is the entire "live" concert Stillwater did in San Diego, which doubles for Detroit in the film. Though Lee lip-synchs and some backing tracks are standing in for the non-musician actors, this is a spirited performance full of rock poses and microphone-stand theatrics and guitar hero solos. Again, the music feels slightly out-of-touch, but it does admirably steer away from Rock Star-style parody.
Shooting Script with Cameron Crowe's Notes
Invalid resource to any budding screenwriter, it demonstrates how closely Untitled adheres to the original Academy Award-winning script. Crowe, like the best songwriters, has a way with depicting feelings without explaining them outright. This is evident in the subdued, sincere script, and it stands out particularly in a time where scripts seem to be the weak point in most films.
Original Rolling Stone Articles with Commentary
The real articles from Crowe's tenure as a journalist. It demonstrates why no one questioned his age, as the articles are all insightful about the artist he's exploring. Crowe's articles were also featured on the original disc from last spring. (Absent is the HBO special from that release, which was more promotional but also more informative than the B-sides featurette, and its absence is felt.)
Almost Famous and now Untitled manages to do something few movies today bother to do. Crowe takes the time, especially on Untitled, to invite us into the world of his characters, however small or grand. I submit that Almost Famous is a film only the hardest of hearts couldn't have a special place for, and Untitled solidifies it as Crowe's most ambitious and accomplished work yet.
Rock on! An engaging, warm tale of discovering yourself through music.
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Scales of Justice
• Both the Theatrical Cut and the New "Untitled" Edition of the Film
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