[box cover]

Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut

DreamWorks Home Entertainment

Starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup,
and Frances McDormand

Written and directed by Cameron Crowe

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Here's one for posterity.

Most reasonable people might question what DreamWorks thought it was doing, spilling $60 million on an unconventional home movie by a milquetoast auteur whose scant previous work consisted of light and charming comedies dear to the hearts of a gaggle of quirky teenagers. Then again, Cameron Crowe's previous film, Jerry Maguire, defied expectations, taking in over $150 million. But, then again, Jerry Maguire starred Tom Cruise at his peak — Almost Famous stars underage bird-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit. Then again, the studio was prepared to back Crowe's new film with an aggressive media onslaught, running the melodic chorus of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" during practically every commercial break of every prime time television show for ages. If that doesn't put bodies in the seats, nothing will. How true.

As it turned out, Almost Famous barely succeeded in recouping half of its large budget. Under normal circumstances, a movie so blighted by inattention would be hereafter referred to as a notorious failure, a serious lapse in judgment, a black hole. The catch is, people love it. It won over 30 top awards from various critics' societies and professional organizations, culminating in an Oscar for Crowe's original screenplay. The other catch is (and this one is slightly more valuable) it's a small masterpiece — the kind of movie that is fondly recalled and reviewed over the years, long after the likes of What Women Want (domestic box office: $182 million), Scary Movie ($156 million) and What Lies Beneath ($155 million) are relegated to the cobwebbed film catalogs of mediocrity. DreamWorks, in their insanity, backed a true winner.

*          *          *

Almost Famous recreates, with affectionate detail, the unusual chapter in Crowe's childhood during which he, at the age of 15 in 1973, went on tour with rock 'n' roll bands as a reporter for Rolling Stone. Patrick Fugit stars as Crowe's alter ego, William Miller, a boy accelerated through his school years by his impatient mom (Frances McDormand), whose rigid protective instincts are more intellectual than social: she forbids her children from listening to corrupting rock music but doesn't consider the consequences of placing her preteen son ahead a few grades in school, where his lack of physical development is prime fodder for puberty-fueled ridicule. When his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) gleefully escapes their mother's well-intentioned iron curtain, she bequeaths to William two items of infinite value: a piece of advice ("One day, you'll be cool"), and her record collection.

William begins writing about the music and by the age of 15 catches the eye of legendary Creem magazine editor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bangs, amused by William's youth yet impressed by his knowledge and perspective, sends him on assignment. On the strength of his work for Creem, William is targeted as a talent by Rolling Stone who, without meeting him, sends him on tour with (fictional) rising band Stillwater. Although it takes some persuading of his reluctant mother, William joins Stillwater as they cross the country opening for Black Sabbath and embarks on his coming-of-age in unusually rowdy, raucous, seductive, and tumultuous environs.

William falls in love, twice. First William idolizes Stillwater's charismatic and roguish lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), an icon of the rock star every teenage boy dreams of being. Usually wary of press, Russell befriends William, seeing him as an innocent acolyte. Next, William falls romantically in love with the free spirited "Band Aid" ("band aid" is to "groupie" as "escort" is to "whore") Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who is, herself, affectionately attached to Russell. Writer/director Crowe creates a unique, poignant love triangle with these three, and the dynamics of the struggles between their attentions to each other and their own self-consciousnesses are delicate and heartfelt.

*          *          *

Although Crowe's film has been criticized by some as too soft, it's a perfect look through the prism of its unusual central character. William is a teenager pushed past his adolescence into an adult world of cynics whose primary goal is to prolong their own adolescence. William's innocent observation of this communal puberty is reverent: He is finally in the company of like souls, reveling in their free expression of his angst, the way most teens revel in the music alone. However, knowing the band this infatuation is amplified, and yet it's also tempered by the self-aware dissonance between his idolization of cool people with specifically retarded character. While Russell craves "reality," he searches for it in an acid trip. While Stillwater aims for integrity in its music, the members run from it in interactions with girlfriends, fans, and each other. The band aids are similarly deluded. William's love for Penny is much like Crowe's romantic vision of his past: at once idealized and also aching for the ideal to be true, which it isn't. It's the best film about adolescence since Rushmore and the best rock movie since This Is Spinal Tap.

Crowe assembled a truly exceptional ensemble cast, headed by unlikely leading man Fugit, who, in his square, mousy way, is perfect as an instantly likable, underage music geek in over his head and forced to mature into a person of strength to handle his overwhelming professional and emotional responsibilities. As Bangs tells William, "There is nothing controversial about you." Of course, the breakthrough star of Almost Famous is Kate Hudson, who deserves every last sliver of hype buzzing around her electric performance. As her character Penny Lane is the center of attention wherever she goes, Hudson's presence is magnetic and life-affirming. With the same sparkle in her eye and smile that catapulted her mother Goldie Hawn to stardom 30 years ago, Hudson dances through the film with the ease, grace and vulnerability of a born star. However, it's important to note that she is not merely eye-candy; her skilled balance of false self-confidence, gusto and need is essential to the film's success (and culminates in a single, exquisite, breathtaking, transcendent moment).

The detail, charm, and verisimilitude offered by the rest of the cast is also invaluable — Crudup as the self-obsessed but likable Russell, Jason Lee as the lead singer with an inferiority complex, McDormand as William's sweet but domineering mother, Deschanel as William's wide-eyed sister, Michael Angarano as Young William, Flirting's Noah Taylor as the band's journeyman manager, Fairuza Balk as the skankiest band aid, Anna Paquin as the most peculiar band aid, Philip Seymour Hoffman as William's reluctant mentor, and even "Saturday Night Live"'s Jimmy Fallon as the band's ruthless new manager. Almost Famous is a rare movie that not only lovingly details a particular time, place and feeling, but is also a film that is able to portray its flawed characters with a tender mercy, aware of their shortcomings, free of cynicism and grudges. Crowe has miraculously crafted a personal story into a universally accessible epic about the most important moments in life.

Disc One: Untitled: The Bootleg Cut

This director's cut of Almost Famous (2:41:19) features 35 minutes of unused footage reincorporated into the film. It's easy to see why this material was discarded, as very little of it moves the narrative forward, but it is nonetheless valuable, expanding instead on the film's warm, sweet, and humorous textures, and occasionally even adding some edge. Of particular narrative value is the extended scene toward the end during which Stillwater's new manager (Fallon) makes a persuasive case for the band to deny the accuracy of William's article. However, also notable are additional scenes between young William and his mom, an amusing tangent with William's sister's boyfriend, and a couple of extended scenes during William's first appearance at a band party that underline the dark underbelly of the band aids' relationship with the band members. This cut features a commentary by Crowe with an inspired companion — his mother. Crowe is insightful, honest, and entertaining, and with his mother there much of the track focuses on the film's close relation to reality. There are other production members present, but they remain mostly silent save for laughter. Crowe also offers brief audio introductions to most of the other extra features on this disc, including:

Disc Two: Almost Famous Theatrical Cut

This disc features the original theatrical cut (2:03:06) of the film. Although the packaging claims that this disc includes deleted scenes with director's commentary, it doesn't. The disc does have its own set of unique extras, including:

Disc Three: Stillwater EP

This six-song EP features each of the Stillwater songs featured in the film: "Fever Dog," "Love Thing," "Chance Upon You," "Love Comes and Goes" (all written by Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe), "Hour of Need," and "You Had to Be There" (written by the film's technical adviser Peter Frampton with Wayne Kirkpatrick and Gordon Kennedy). Wilson, Crowe's wife and former member of the anthemic 1980s hair-ballad band Heart hasn't lost her, er, touch. Love is deaf. Frampton's two contributions are even more forgettable. These songs make for reasonable facsimiles of mediocre 1970s guitar band offerings, but notice how Crowe never dwells on or spotlights Stillwater's music during the film? There's good reason.

Please, fans of Almost Famous — accept it as a fiction. Do not ask this fake band to tour in real life. Do not pretend to love this music because you love the film. Really. Buy the soundtrack, instead.

— Gregory P. Dorr

Disc One: Untitled: The Bootleg Cut

Disc Two: Almost Famous: Original Theatrical Version

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