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 Disc: Vital Stats
Paramount released 'Almost Famous' exclusively in Best Buy stores, under the "The Bootleg Cut" moniker that indicates the lengthier version of the film that is also known as 'Untitled.' This cut is identical to the cuts of the film found on the UK and Japanese versions of the film made by Sony. As it stands, there is no way to view the theatrical cut of the film on Blu-ray. The is a BD50 disc, housed in a standard case, with a Paramount standard undersized (too short!) slipcover, that is very "earth toned" and somewhat bronze-ish.
There is currently no announced release date for this film at other retailers. Paramount took HD DVD's money, they took Samsung's money, so why wouldn't they take some of Best Buy's money?
I didn't give high marks to the UK release (and my scores for the Japanese version would have been the same, even if there are a few tiny differences) of 'Almost Famous,' so what does one do when the American release is inferior in visual quality? Knock it down a point or two! Paramount's release of the Bootleg Cut of the film is a slight disappointment compared to the other releases, with an AVC MPEG-4 encode that screams, "Hey, I've been tampered with!"
The problems with this release of the film are a bit of a laundry list. Skin tones are more extreme than before, as what was once a somewhat mellow standard has become an extreme, too red or too pale, more often than not. There's some slight edge work visible, as well as minor noise, questionable shadow details, random white and black blips that are scattered throughout the film (and while frequent, are hardly prevalent), some light aliasing, and most troubling, a bit of the ol' DNR. Backgrounds can be unusually static, faces can be waxy and overly smooth sometimes, and there are even a few shots of Penny Lane's hair that have been messed with, as the once buoyant, wild hair becomes a flat wash out of nowhere, between shots that are normal. If the previous releases had some minor hints and allegations of criminal alteration, this release has police-outlined corpses and evidence markers.
The picture that was once consistent, good or bad, is now inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable. Whites remain busy and blacks a bit soft and weak. I'm a bit bummed out.
I will say, though, that this audio track is an improvement. No, going from a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix to DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 isn't the reason. Instead, scenes have some actual power, music stands out more, rock concerts actually sound like rock concerts. It's a bit more accurate to what we see on screen, this time around.
I did notice a couple of brief hiccups in the track that I didn't catch in any of my previous viewings of the film, though, so I won't say this is a dramatic improvement over the previous release. You get some bad with the good, I suppose. Still, I'm a fan of this audio track, especially since I don't have to crank the disc up to ridiculous levels anymore.
Numerous features on this release include introductions by Cameron Crowe. Neatly enough, in the extras menu, you can highlight the microphones (save for the one designating what the mics mean) and you can listen to the intros on the screen you're on. Very cool stuff.
By the time you're done weeding through this release, you'll be pretty sick and tired of Fever Dog, or, at least, I sure as hell was. This is a fantastic story, full of exaggerations and stretched truths, along with sketchy timelines condensed for dramatic purposes, is quite superb. It's got heart, brains, soul, and plenty of rock 'n roll. It's a step back from the other releases in video quality, but a step up in audio. Extras? Not everything from the DVD release of 'Untitled,' but still a crapload more than the import releases. If you haven't bought the import, buy this. If you did, and you own the DVD release, you may not need to purchase this one. No matter what, be sure you own 'Almost Famous' on Blu-ray.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.