Almost Famous Review
There's a very easy way to gauge whether you will really enjoy Almost Famous or not. About halfway through, there is a scene where Elton John's 'Tiny Dancer' is played on the band's coach, and there is a moment where everyone sings along to it. If you like the song, and feel that a group of rock stars singing along to it is charming and almost poignant, then this is the film for you, and highly recommended. If, however, the song strikes you as being the usual sentimental and uninspired dross that Reg Dwight has been peddling for the last 30 years, and that the rock stars lose all credibility at that moment, then this is not perhaps going to go on your must-see list.
The basic plot is a good one; then again, it is based (heavily) on Crowe's own life. William Miller, the Crowe substitute (Fugit) lands an assignment from Rolling Stone to tour with Stillwater, an archetypal 70s rock band, where he is introduced to the pleasures of drugs (although he doesn't take any), sex (he possibly doesn't get any, although there's a chance he does), and loud rock music (which he does indeed experience). Meanwhile, his over-protective mother (McDormand), a university professor, is prone to making statements like 'Rock stars have kidnapped my son', even while Miller is beguiled by the 'band-aid' Penny Lane (Hudson). All the while, Miller is guided by the guru-like Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and comes to develop his own writing. Etc.
There's a lot to like on Crowe's film. The script is often witty, with a few moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, such as a potential plane disaster where the band confess their most intimate secrets. The casting is mostly spot-on; Fugit does a fine line in confused and overwhelmed, Hudson is glorious as Penny Lane, although it's a surprise that Crowe doesn't use the Beatles song of the same name, and Hoffman is magnificent in a small cameo, beautifully encapsulating both the allure and the pitfalls of becoming a rock hack. And of course it goes without saying that the period detail looks great, that the cinematography (by John 'Thin Red Line' Toll) is wonderful, and that the film has a gloss and style completely suiting its subject.
Unsurprisingly, there's a but. The film was praised to the skies when it came out, winning Crowe an Oscar for best original script, but it's very hard to avoid a feeling of 'and?' after watching the film. A major problem with the film is Crowe's choice of soundtrack; most of the music here is mediocre in the extreme (no Beatles, no Lennon, no Dylan, not enough Bowie, too much Elton John), and this isn't helped by the fact that Stillwater themselves sound more like a Led Zeppelin tribute band than the sort of seminal 70s band that would get onto the cover of Rolling Stone. This almost entirely scuppers the film's credibility as a film about rock music, along with the almost prepostrously clean-living ways of these rock stars, who seldom take drugs, are strictly monogamous in their infidelity, and, as mentioned before, listen to Elton John.
Another problem is the irritating feeling of smugness throughout the film. It's probably better not to know that the film's autobiographical, but aspect after aspect doesn't ring true. The most difficult character is Crowe/Miller's mother, played by McDormand. It's obvious that Crowe was bound by the fact his mother is still alive, and unlikely to respond favourably to a negative portrayal of her, so the character is a rather unlikely synthesis of loving parent and maniacal control freak, with such revelations as Miller being two years younger than he believed himself to be being passed off as a mother's eccentricities, rather than the sort of insane behaviour that the average viewer might see it as.
However, this is an entertaining watch all the same. There are nice moments, interesting insights into what it is actually like to be a rock journalist, and some great performances. But this is nowhere near the classic it was trumpeted as; perhaps we will have to wait for Crowe's reputedly darker director's cut to see a great film.
Dreamworks have done a superb 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. Colours are bright without seeming garish, detail levels are high and constant throughout, and there is no trace of damage to the print, as you would expect from such a recent film. The only minor problem with it is that occasionally the darker scenes did sometimes seem slightly murky, but they are few and far between. A fine transfer, as usual from Dreamworks.
A good 5.1 Dolby and DTS mix is provided. It gets a good workout in the film's concert scenes, with some strong use of surround effects, which give a good impression of actually being in the crowd. Otherwise, as with most dialogue-driven films, there isn't an awful lot of use of the rear speakers, although the period soundtrack does occasionally come in useful. The DTS option is slightly more energetic in the gig scenes, but of little difference otherwise.
A rather uninspiring bunch here- Crowe was said to want to do a commentary and do a director's cut, but was busy with his latest film. The making-of featurette is the usual promotional tosh, albeit with some interesting moments, such as footage of Fugit's screen test and Crowe's reminiscences of his youth. The music video is simply some edited concert footage from the film, and the production notes, trailers etc are the standard stuff. The one really interesting extra here is a reproduction of Crowe's Rolling Stone articles, which does help to show how accurate his portrayal of Stillwater is, even if sanitised somewhat.
A film that many will like, and which is never less than enjoyable, Almost Famous still has the faint air of an opportunity slightly missed. The disc is excellent technically, but the extras are of little lasting interest. And, as mentioned above, if you have an aversion to Elton John, this is not a film that is likely to convert you....