Almost Famous: Untitled Bootleg Cut Review
Director Cameron Crowe was a hotshot musical journalist for Rolling Stone magazine in his teens, years before he became more famous for his film output. Because of his musical background, Crowe's films have often been well-crafted entertainment on the surface and pop-culture junk food for those in the know. Indeed, Vanilla Sky, his remake of Open Your Eyes, was essentially an Americanised copy with added sixties and seventies pop-culture indulgences.
It is therefore no surprise that Crowe's most personal film centres around the world of music circa the late sixties and early seventies. Almost Famous is inspired by many of the events of Crowe's life as a rock journalist, even if most of the plot details are fiction. Filled with warmth and the occasional overdose of schmaltz, Almost Famous won the writer/director an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and garnered much praise for its nostalgic trip though rock and roll as seen through the eyes of an enthusiastic fifteen year old. However, two versions of the film are available. The first theatrical release version weighed in at just over two hours in length, and generally felt like a glossy trailer for a film that had a stronger core than it let on. Crowe always maintained that there was a Dirctor's Cut of the film, and so this DVD release, following on from the theatrical version DVD release, contains both versions. The Crowe cut of the film is more extensive, and contains more than thirty-five minutes of additional scenes. Crowe renamed this version Untitled: The Almost Famous Bootleg Cut. If you have seen Almost Famous already and are not a fan, you would be advised to check out the Untitled: Almost Famous Bootleg Cut as it is widely regarded as a much stronger film with more complex character structures and a fuller plot. This version is so much better than the theatrical version it renders the theatrical version completely redundant.
Almost Famous tells of young fifteen year old William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a boy who is younger than the rest of his classmates after his control freak mother (Frances McDormand) decided that he should be advanced a few years at school. Ever since his older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) rebelled against their mother and fled home, William has become acquainted with rock and roll through the use of her handed-down record collection (even though their mother outlaws the use of rock music in the house). Soon, William pushes his way into a friendship with Creem magazine editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who can detect talent in the youngster. This leads William to a chance assignment with Rolling Stone magazine, despite the editor not knowing just how young William actually is. William is assigned to follow the band Stillwater on the road and to write an article on them. On the way, William sees both sides of the rock and roll coin - the band and its egotistical yet compelling charisma, and the groupies and their deluded notions of being 'almost famous'. This contrast is suitably by experienced by William as he witnesses the relationship between Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and groupie 'Penny Lane' (Kate Hudson).
Almost Famous is a bittersweet attempt at glorying the last stand of American/British rock and roll before glam and punk stole the show. Using the eyes of young William Miller as a lens, Crowe is attempting to illustrate what the rock war meant to the innocent bystanders who merely witnessed it. Groupies are presented as civilians suckered into fighting this war, and they seem to suffer the most casualties. Although Almost Famous depicts this tacit battle, it never condemns it, and is often too sweet for its own liking. Because Crowe is re-staging most of his teen-life in the film, it's as if he almost feels indebted to the friends he made during that time, and therefore can't go for their throats. It's claimed that the fictional band Stillwater were an amalgamation of Crowe's experiences with the Allman Brothers Band and Led Zeppelin, and Crowe is obviously trying to protect them more than he should. When Stillwater are shown as egomaniacs or drugged out nymphomaniacs, Crowe tries to give the film a comic tone that often strays into Spinal Tap territory, as if he is deliberately removing the edge from proceedings. Amusingly, writer/director Cameron Crowe, being the fountain of music knowledge that he is, makes many factual errors during the film. When Anita leaves William her record collection in 1969, Joni Mitchell's Blue is amongst them, despite not being released until 1971 (same for the Stones' Get Your Ya-Yas Out!).
Despite these misgivings, Almost Famous is a winning film with a very enjoyable journey through the heart of rock and roll. Even the extended director's cut, at nearly three hours, moves along at a splendid pace and is delightful entertainment. Patrick Fugit is geeky, young and innocent with enthusiastic eyes, and he seems suitable for William Miller. Kate Hudson gained an Oscar nomination and public recognition for her role as 'Penny Lane', even if she is essentially a younger, more precocious version of her mother Goldie Hawn. Anna Paquin, Zooey Deschanel and Fairuza Balk all have supporting roles and perform well, and yet it's the adult cast members that steal the show. Frances McDormand deserved to win and not just be nominated for her performance as William's mother Elaine, because she manages to win the audience over despite the problems of her character's principles. At the beginning of the film, we instinctively find Elaine a joke because of her high-minded rebellion towards the culture of the sixties, and how she inflicts this also upon her children. However, as the film progresses, we slowly learn that Elaine just wants the best for William, and we can feel the love she has for him. Billy Crudup, who stepped in for Brad Pitt (after he cancelled) at the last minute, is very interesting as Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond as we are never sure whether to trust him; it's as if he is in transition from being a normal person to being a self-obsessed celebrity. Jason Lee, who is always very good, turns in a very moody and bitter performance of Jeff Bebe, the Stillwater lead singer who seems angry at being gradually superseded by Russell. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also very likeable as the real life Lester Bangs, a self-admitting music geek who never apologises for his loves.
Crowe laboured for years and years over the script for Almost Famous, and it shows. The jokes are expertly crafted and appear in equal measures throughout the film, and clearly helped sway the Oscar voters. Crowe manages to generate a perfect sense of time and atmosphere with the film, and you never feel that the film is set outside of the early seventies. It's only after watching the extended version of the film that you appreciate how glossy and superficial the original theatrical version is in comparison, and Crowe is fortunate to be able to present both versions in this DVD.
The soundtrack, often a staple of a Cameron Crowe film, is another fantastic bunch of memorable album cuts from the early seventies, ranging from Simon And Garfunkel's America to The Who's Sparks. Even the fictional band Stillwater have an admirable hit in the form of Fever Dog.
To conclude, Almost Famous is a smart and emotionally warm piece of nostalgia effectively mixed with some fine comedy. Whilst it certainly isn't a masterpiece of any sort, it is highly likely to feature in many people's lists of favourite films of all time.
Academy Awards 2000
Best Original Screenplay - Cameron Crowe
Academy Award Nominations 2000
Best Supporting Actress - Frances McDormand
Best Supporting Actress - Kate Hudson
Best Film Editing - Joe Hutshing, Saar Klein
Presented in matted anamorphic 1.78:1, the picture quality of the film is generally very pleasing, with deep and rich colour tones and sharp imagery. The transfer is mostly devoid of artefacts or grain, and the quality of the two versions is near enough the same.
The original theatrical version of the film is presented in DTS stereo and is a very rich in terms of a deep, atmospheric enveloping effect it provides for the viewer. It's unfortunate that the Untitled: Almost Famous Bootleg Cut version is only presented in 5.1, as for a film that boasts a heavy rock sound, there are noticeable differences between this sound mix and the DTS mix. It's also rumoured that the R2 version of the re-release is going to have DTS on both versions of the film. Even so, a 2.0 mix is also provided for both versions of the film.
Menu: A very interesting animated menu that is deliberately grainy and scratched, as if representing an uncut bootleg film. It's nicely animated, and is complete with Nancy Wilson score from the film over the top.
Packaging: Again, made to look like a bootleg box set, the cardboard minimalist packaging is stylish but very susceptible to damage, but as this is a "bootleg", it doesn't matter. A four page booklet is provided with production notes and chapter listings.
Extras for UNTITLED: THE ALMOST FAMOUS BOOTLEG CUT
For most of the special features, you can click on the microphone icon next to each selection and director Cameron Crowe will provide a brief narration as to what is contained in that particular feature.
Audio Commentary With Director Cameron Crowe & Friends: A very interesting and personal commentary by Cameron Crowe and his friends/associates (including his real-life mother!). All of the contributors are in the same room and have a close repartee with each other. Crowe is very charismatic and likeable, and obviously adores his mother and values her contribution to his life. Essentially, this commentary is a combination of film anecdotes and revelations about how close the film is to Crowe's actual childhood. At times what is revealed is truly hilarious and touching - Crowe mentions that an American TV channel recently showed Paul Simon the scene in the film in which William's mother attacks Simon & Garfunkel for promoting sex and drugs, and Simon replied with "She may be right!" This is a wonderful commentary and a very good reason to upgrade the original theatrical release DVD version.
Intro By Cameron Crowe: A brief introductory narration by Cameron Crowe as to what is included on this DVD release.
Interview With Lester Bangs: This is a two minute clip of an interview with the real life Lester Bangs, shot on very grainy stock and with poor sound. It's presented in fullscreen, and features Bangs spouting very passionate criticisms of British bands Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull and Bryan Ferry.
Cameron Crowe's Top Albums Of 1973: This is an interesting factual narration by Cameron Crowe in which he talks us through his favourite albums of 1973, complete with album cover illustrations. Crowe picks some interesting titles, such as Joni Mitchell's underrated For The Roses album and The Who's Odds & Sods.
Love Comes And Goes: This is a four minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage with Nancy Wilson's original demo version of Love Comes And Goes played over the top.
Rolling Stones Articles: A collection of articles, interviews and essays by Cameron Crowe, written during his time as journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine. Some are much more interesting than others, such as the ones featuring Neil Young, The Allman Brothers and Joni Mitchell. Unfortunately, the text format of these articles isn't as clear as it could have been, and opts for style rather than ease in terms of readability.
B-Sides: This is a five minute compilation of DV material that contains many behind-the-scenes moments of the film. It's interesting to watch the first time, but contains little of interest beyond that.
Easter Eggs: Go to the Special Features menu and highlight the Love Comes And Goes selection. Now select UP and a Polaroid picture will appear highlighted. Press ENTER and you will be treated to a 5-minute outtake of Kate Hudson paying homage to Truffaut in a scene from the film. This sequence also features an introduction from Cameron Crowe. Also, go to the Audio menu and highlight the Commentary by director Cameron Crowe selection. Then press RIGHT and this will highlight the spindle hole on the record label. Press ENTER and you will be treated to an outtake with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patrick Fugit, with added introduction by Cameron Crowe.
Extras for ALMOST FAMOUS: THEATRICAL VERSION
Intro By Cameron Crowe: The same introduction as featured on the Untitled: Almost Famous Bootleg Cut disc.
Cleveland Concert: This is an excellent extra for fans of the fictional Stillwater band, as this is an unedited 'concert' that lasts for sixteen minutes and features authentic performances even if Jason Lee and Billy Crudup are miming. Stage banter is provided in between songs and the songs themselves (Mostly written by Crowe's wife Nancy Wilson or Peter Frampton) are very good revisionist attempts at trying to recreate early seventies rock.
Theatrical Trailer: A slick trailer that is presented in anamorphic 16:9 widescreen and nicely conveys the general plot gist of the film.
Production Notes: Brief production notes are presented, in the annoying 'typed letter' style of the Rolling Stones Article extra.
Cast: Good biographies and filmographies are provided for the major cast members.
"Small Time Blues": This appears to be an extended three minute version of the scene in which William Miller walks past an open hotel room in which the inhabitants are singing Small Time Blues.
Stairway: This is a very innovative touch by Cameron Crowe, as this is an extensive scene from the film that had to be dropped from the final cut due to the studio being unable to acquire the rights to Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven. Because the scene is so pivotal to the structural development of the plot, and because Crowe obviously treasures it, it is presented here without the song in the soundtrack. However, for those that are determined to experience the scene how Crowe intended it, there is an onscreen cueing option for viewers to play their own copy of the song simultaneously with the film.
Filmmakers: The same style of biographies and filmographies as the Cast extra, but this time for the filmmakers that contributed to the making of the film.
Script: It's also pleasing to have the film's original screenplay presented as an extra, even if it again has to be displayed in the annoying 'Typed letter' style of the film. Still, at least the DVD has maintained a consistent stylistic template throughout.
Deleted Scenes: The packaging claims the DVD to contain deleted scenes with Cameron Crowe Audio commentary, but they are nowhere to be found. You can find a ten minute reel of footage containing Kate Hudson filming some scenes whilst on the tourbus, but this is only accessible if you do a full title search on the DVD and select Title 5. This doesn't appear to be accessible via the menu.
Fans of the film will be pleased with the fact that a third disc is included with the DVD, and this is a six track CD EP featuring all of the Stillwater song repertoire. Four of the songs are written by Crowe and his wife Nancy Wilson - Fever Dog, Love Thing, Chance Upon You, Love Comes And Goes. Two songs are written by Peter Frampton with Wayne Kirtzpatrick and Gordon Kennedy - Hour Of Need, You Had To Be There. Also, it appears that this CD will not be available with the R2 DVD release.
A lengthy package that contains two versions of the film complete with some fine extras, a bonus CD and fitting packaging. It's a pity the Untitled: Almost Famous Bootleg Cut is lacking a DTS mix (as the R2 packaging states that it does contain DTS mixes for both versions) and that this release is lacking the featurette from the previous release. However, on the whole this is a tremendous release that will satisfy all of the fans that held out for Crowe's director's cut and will annoy fans who couldn't wait.
Last updated: 31/05/2018 19:22:30