Art imitating life.
That may well be the theme of Cameron Crowe's 'Almost Famous' (which is also known as 'Untitled' domestically in its extended cut, the film's original title). A "semi-autobiographical" look at his own life as a teenager writing for Rolling Stone magazine, we get to follow a different band (not the Allman Brothers Band), but this is one of those films with your typical "the characters and events in this film do not represent real people and events, and any coincidences are purely coincidental" disclaimer that exists solely to prevent lawsuits. Apparently, far too many of the events in this film are based on the real life events Crowe saw firsthand while, even if characters are mish-mashes of famous people, and the events from his entire career are crammed into this single tour.
A fifteen year old in 1973, with a controlling mother (Frances McDormand), and a sister who had to escape the crazy household (Zooey Deschanel), William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is hardly your ordinary teen. He's been writing about music ever since his sister gave him her record collection, and has been sending his newspaper clippings to people in the industry. His enthusiasm lands him an assignment to cover Black Sabbath, but fate (and an asshole security manager) intervene, and instead, Miller finds himself implanted with the up-and-coming rock band Stillwater. It's his job to write a three thousand word article (which may land the band on the cover of the magazine), when he's never written more than a couple of pages, but this assignment of a lifetime will also prove to be an education that couldn't be found in public school, full of life lessons, new friends, and insight into the music industry he idolizes.
'Almost Famous' is a nostalgic trip through a great time in rock 'n roll, despite a certain pessimist saying that rock was already dying (and if the radio today is any clue, it's long dead), about a more innocent, less litigious time when the music was pure, the sex and drugs weren't every day gossip fodder, when even a kid, given the talent, could do (and did) the job. It's almost like a portal to a better age, a fond memory that would be impossible to conceive if the things portrayed didn't (mostly) happen in reality. It's the very definition of a whirlwind ride of a film, one that sweeps you off your feet, and doesn't let go, making the lengthy runtime whizz by in a second, leaving you with characters that feel beyond real, events that you can relate to, and lessons that can be learned vicariously through the naive William Miller. It's wall to wall awesome, the only shortcoming is the fact that it can be a bit too fanatical and, on occasion, a bit too much of a good thing.
Fugit is a perfect casting, a somewhat fresh face in a difficult role, a child among men, while Hudson is at her peak, back when she was still adorable, rather than simply annoying, artificial, and best known for her tabloid flings. The main members of Stillwater (Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond, Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe, with supporting actors filling out the group that talk so little they may as well not exist, and manager Dick Roswell as played by Noah Taylor) are wonderful in their roles, while McDormand is quite believable as an uptight, controlling mother. Don't forget the sheer star power hidden in this film, in the lesser roles. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a scene stealer every time he appears as Creem editor Lester Bangs, and a fun spot from Jimmy Fallon where he works best (you know, not leading the show), while the band-aids group includes Bijou Phillips, Anna Paquin (looking way, way young), and Fairuza Balk. We also see early in their career appearances of Jay Baruchel, Eion Bailey, Terry Chen, Rainn Wilson, and one of the few film appearances of Mitch Hedberg, on top of numerous, numerous musician cameos and supporting roles.
The music in the film feels real, perhaps because legendary musicians helped teach the actors how to be believable, while the music itself was written by Crowe, his wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart, and Peter Frampton, and with guitars recorded by a member of Pearl Jam, Mike McCready. Yes, it feels awkward hearing the singing that's supposed to be Lee, particularly to those of us who have followed his career, but it's the lesser of two evils, considering I never, ever want to hear him wail on his own.
'Almost Famous' is a great piece of fiction based on reality, covering the fictional Almost Famous Tour '73 for a band named after a real life band, though none of the events directly relate to them. The entire plot of the film, Miller's attempts to interview the band that go awry, while he instead witnesses their ups and downs to inspire his writing, is secondary to the music, atmosphere, and cornucopia of believable characters that will live on in film history, as anecdotes based on real rockers that may already be forgotten (the anecdotes and the rockers). A brilliant film, that deserves every award bestowed upon it, with more heart in any single scene than Crowe's later films have had in their entire runtimes, combined. Ah well, at least the Freebird scene in 'Elizabethtown' is pretty awesome.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats/Comparing Releases
'Almost Famous' has not been released domestically, though a number of countries have released the film through Sony's foreign rights ownership (Dreamworks, the rights holder in America, need to get off their butts on this one, already!). This review will focus primarily on the UK release of the film, as it is very inexpensive, though there will be some comparisons with the Japanese import of the film.
Both imports reviewed here are housed on BD50 Dual Layer Discs, that are Region A/B/C, so they're safe for importing, housed in slightly fatter packaging. The cover art varies from release to release, but the extras and menus do not, just the languages of each. Pausing the film will intermittently bring up a Disney-esque timeline that, similarly, lingers far, far too long and obscures the film once you resume play.
Additionally, both imports contain the 'Untitled: The Bootleg Cut' of the film, which runs an additional 40 minutes in length. They do not contain the airline edited version that edits out the plane turbulence scene. I wonder if airlines would ever show 'Cast Away.' Would the crash involve a freak train crash, as in the plane edit of 'Get Shorty?'
'Almost Famous' is the kind of film that looks better in memory than it does, you know, on screen. You remember the colorfulness, the fun design and retro kitsch of it all, but alway drown out the less impressive moments. For the nearly three hours I watched this 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode (at 1.85:1), I just wanted to hound it, and be, to quote the film, "honest and unmerciful."
Once the video-ish opening sequence ends, and the heavy gauze is lifted, we get a picture that is fairly consistent for its lengthy runtime, and not all that impressive. Yes, the colors are quite vivid and absolutely intoxicating at times. Sure, I loved the hell out of the textures, particularly on the period fabrics and clothing materials that just screamed how very alive they were. And, yes, I found the edges to be absolutely amazing, with some of the craziest stray hairs I've seen, including a jungle on Deschanel's arms.
But damn it if the flaws didn't pull me out of every minute of the film. Noise only pops up a few time, but light artifacting can be pretty obvious, particularly in solid blacks. Whites are busy, blacks are soft, and dirt pops up a few times, with a few scratches that beguile the age of the film. The killer, though, was facial features. At times, there were none. As far as DNR is concerned, there's evidence it was used. Is it baked into the film, or a new product of this disc? You got me on that one.
The sole English track on this release is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that is amazingly soft and quiet for a film that spends a ton of time covering a rock band and their various concerts. I was honestly beside myself that this film sounds so damn wimpy, even at a few notches higher than I normally play films (I mean, come on, you have to play this one loud!).
Dialogue stays front and center, but doesn't have too many problems. There are a few lines that feel very out of place, like bad instances of ADR, but that's going to be in any release of the film. The room is utilized somewhat properly, kinda sorta. I liked that presence in the rears was here today, gone tomorrow, active and quite busy at concerts, and otherwise somewhat relaxed, to try to put us in the same place that Miller and Stillwater would be in, where only in concert would things truly be alive. Bass levels are reserved for the soundtrack, but it works when it is appropriate. There are a few clunky movement effects, and some localization, but this film is surprisingly front-heavy for its genre and age. The airplane scene in the third act is by far the most active, insane, and best sounding portion of the film, as we finally get the activity that would overpower dialogue, even at yelling levels, which many scenes before should have. I know, that sounds backwards, but there were far too many times where things should have been rowdy, but were instead somewhat calm. Don't get your hopes up, ye with expensive sound systems.
'Almost Famous' is an awesome film, one hell of a ride that passes by in a moment. It's a must-see film, possibly one of the must-see films of the last decade. Easily imported from the UK, this release is quite inexpensive, though it isn't the best disc, by any means, and it's incredibly short on extras. You can go the expensive route and order it from Japan, but you won't gain anywhere near enough to warrant the discrepancy in pricing. The only thing that makes this a risky import is the fact that a USA release might have all of the extras proper, or even, heaven forbid, a remastering. If you're impatient, jump. If you haven't been tempted up to now, you may want to keep on waiting.