Plot: What’s it about?
The story of Cameron Crowe is almost as amazing and interesting as is his latest movie, Almost Famous. Crowe, somewhat of a child prodigy when it came to writing, tells the story of his life in a semi-autobiographical form in one of the better movies to come around in a while. While Almost Famous concentrates on his childhood, we also have to realize that this is the person who went “undercover” in a high school for a year so he could write the novel (and later the screenplay) for the cult classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Crowe, a more reclusive director, has also written and directed many of the more popular movies of our time. Movies from Grunge Rock Singles to Sports Agents who find that they have a conscience. Movies like Say Anything to Singles to Jerry MaGuire. It’s true that Cameron Crowe has a future ahead of him with writing and directing, but how hard will it be to top his latest?
Something about the 70’s has always left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths. It was gateway that was somewhere between the 60’s (quite possibly the most popular and ‘interesting’ decade of the last century) and the Reganomics and greed of the 80’s. Though it’s never really got the respect that it deserves, the 70’s has become my personal favorite decade when it comes to music. And wouldn’t you know it…that’s the meat and potatoes of Almost Famous! William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is a budding reporter, his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) is a wild child who’s leaving home and manages to rub off one last big of big sisterly influence on her little brother. Music. She leaves him her LP collection which he sees opening a new world for him. His ultra-conservative mother (Frances McDormand) forbids any kind of rock and roll music. Through some sort of sheer luck, William lands a job as a reporter for a local music magazine. The “been there done that” editor of the magazine, played to perfection by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, warns William of the life he is choosing, but it’s not long that he lands another “gig” at Rolling Stone magazine. This is the essence of the story. William, given immense freedom with his new assignment, is to do a cover story on the band “Stillwater”. Stillwater is a newer band starting to make a name for themselves, and it’s a good story in Rolling Stone that can either make or break their band.
The band doesn’t really know what to make of William. They see him physically as an awkward teenager, but on the other side of the coin, they see him as someone who could write a nasty article in a leading magazine. Dubbed as “the enemy” by Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), the story takes off as the band heads out across country on their “Almost Famous” tour. Stuck right in the middle of all of this is the one and only Penny Lane (taken from the Beatles’ song, of coure) played to an Oscar Nominated role by Kate Hudson. Hudson is one of the shining stars of this film and clearly proves to be a great actress. Her genes (her mother is Goldie Hawn) and natural talent/beauty only add to her flare in her role, and it’s a welcome to see her in a great movie with such a great supporting cast. Plenty of great music, great performances and a great screenplay will make watching Almost Famous a real treat. I’ve heard it reported by Roger Ebert that in twenty years Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup will be really big stars, and at that time we can look back to this movie that might have jump started their careers. Who knows if that’s true or not…but one thing is for certain, we can look at the job they did portraying the past–if that’s any indication on how their careers will turn out; I’d say they’ll be a bit more than “Almost Famous”!
Video: How does it look?
Cameron Crowe has shot most all (if not all) of his films in a 1.85:1 ratio. Now don’t be alarmed, but the opening titles are slightly windowboxed. I thought that this might have been shot in somewhat of a more narrow ratio (say…1.66:1), but once the titles are overwith, the movie expands to it’s correct anamorphic ratio. I found, for the most part, the image to be clean and noticeably free of any errors. I do think that the includsion of three audio tracks has taken a bit away from the overall clarity of the image, but that could be me. Colors are bright and vivid throughout and all those brown hues that the 70’s are famous (no pun intended) for can be seen with the utmost clarity. Black levels seem to be right on target, though some scenes seem to have a “burnt out” look to it, but I think that it’s the image that is suffering, it’s the way it was supposed to be. Overall, the image is great, but not perfect. Still, it’s yet another tribute to Dreamworks for another fine transfer.
With this new special edition, we are treated to an extended version of the film containing some 35 minutes not included in the film’s theatrical run. The additional scenes are placed back in the movie, which is always preferable to having the plain old "Deleted Scenes" (which this DVD has as well). The images are just as sharp, clean and crisp as the theatrical version and the description above says it all for this version as well.
Audio: How does it sound?
The audio…OH, the audio! Almost Famous can be described as having one of the best soundtracks available on DVD. Now its not as “in your face” as movies like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Twister”, but the soundtracks have a very rich depth to them that literally makes the movie come alive. As with most other Dreamworks titles, there is a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mix and a DTS surround mix. I first listened to the DTS mix (given the choice, I’ll usually pick the DTS mix first), and was impressed with it’s ambiance. The dialogue is clean and clear on all three mixes, but I’ll give the edge once again to the DTS mix. Even with the lower compression (the older DTS titles took up much more space on the disc, hence the lack of extras), the DTS has the edge with some effects that I couldn’t pick up in the Dolby Digital versions. Even the opening credits of a pencil writing the names of cast and crew, I picked up a few ‘ticks’ here and there. Most impressive. I don’t know what else to say, other than the fact that this is one great-sounding disc.
While the Dirctor’s Cut of the film contains a Dolby Digital track and not the DTS that is included with the theatrical version, it still sounds great. This is a movie, though, in which you can tell a difference between the two tracks. I suppose the missing footage from the Dirctor’s Cut wasn’t mixed for DTS sound and hence we are only left with one 5.1 soundtrack. Still, the audio is clear and clean and surround effects do nothing but enhance the ambiance of the music throughout. While I prefer the DTS, it’s just simply not an option while watching the extended cut of the film. Is this a bad thing? No. Because either way you go, you’ll get a great sounding movie.
Supplements: What are the extras?
As promised, Dreamworks has delivered a great Special Edition of this movie. Oddly enough, it was known at the time of release of the original DVD that a "better" edition was in the works, but they opted for a mainly bare bones edition for the first incarnation. But that time has passed and we now have the Director’s Cut and a 2 Disc (plus CD) version of this fine film. The main attraction of this new edition is the added scenes in the movie, hence the "Director’s Cut". Some 35 minutes have been added back into the movie and while they are not all welcome (to me at least), they do add a depth that was not felt before, as it is with most movies that have deleted scenes back into the movie. The only drawback is that while watching the Director’s Cut, you only have the option of the Dolby Digital 5.1 track as opposed to the Theatrical Cut which has DD/DTS tracks. Insignificant, but still noticeable. The disc also features a commentary by Director Cameron Crowe who also won an Oscar for his screenplay. Crowe is very talkative (as he is on the menus…we’ll get to that later) and is obviously very proud of his work here, as he should be. Though a few times he tends to be silent and let the images on screen take precedence…no big deal. It’s a good track and odds are that if you’re buying this disc, then you’ll want to listen to it.
The discs have different features on them and the first disc houses the film’s Untitled: Bootleg Cut, which as I mentioned, only has the Dolby Digital soundtrack to choose from. You may also find an interview with Lester Bangs (played in the movie by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who sounds very jaded and opinionated as to what rock groups do what, but we see that he knows what he’s talking about and as the editor of "Creem" magazine, does the music industry a service by actually being honest. There are some B-Sides, which I didn’t really understand, it is mainly rehearsal practice for the actors filmed by Crowe on his DV camera. Just like in the first disc, there are some Rolling Stone articles that Crowe himself worked on featuring Peter Frampton and the Rolling Stones among others. Crowe also shows us his listing of his top ten albums of 1973. I was born in 1973, so it serves as kind of a guide by seeing what kind of music was popular when I was just a newborn. Oddly enough, I am really into classic rock and I’m very familiar with a number of these songs and albums. Not that important, and I can’t say that I agree with his choices, but it’s his movie, so who am I to say differently? Lastly, a "music video" by Nancy Wilson ‘Love Comes and Goes’ is the original song (later performed by Stillwater in the movie) played over some more DV footage of the cast. Also, I might mention that a number of these supplements come with an audio introduction by Cameron Crowe. These are accessible from the main menu by highlighting the little microphone, the introduction then proceeds directly into the feature. Clever.
The second disc contains the theatrical cut of the movie, which is the same version as the old DVD. You do get the added benefit of the DD/DTS soundtracks, but no commentary is present. Some more supplements have been included here, including a fifteen minute concert of Stillwater in Cleveland. We only got to see a bit of this in the movie, but this is the whole concert. Very nice. A few "deleted scenes" are included (I put them in quotes because they’re not the normal scenes we’re used to). First is "Small Time Blues" which is just that…a song of the same name. I didn’t really get it as there is no commentary to accompany it, but it’s nice to have it just the same. The Stairway deleted scene is interesting in the sense that it’s a scene, but it attempts to be interactive. Crowe’s introduction suggests that you watch the scene and play the Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven" at the same time they do, however the scene doesn’t actually have the song in it, just the actors pretending they are listening to it. So if you’re like me, then your DVD player doubles as a CD player and it renders this "feature" useless. Still, it does show how William convinced his mother to let him go on his "four day adventure". A theatrical trailer, very in-depth cast bios and some production notes are also included as well as the entire screenplay. Yes, that’s right…Dreamworks doesn’t let you connect to it via DVD-ROM, but if you’re ready, able and willing…you can read the entire screenplay right on the DVD. How cool is that?
The last disc that is included is the CD by Stillwater. They were a real band, formed by the actors but "broke up" when filming ended. According to actor, Billy Crudup, they will not reunite either! The music video "Fever Dog" was included on the last DVD, but taken off here, but we’re still treated to the audio version of it and "Love Thing", "Chance Upon You", "Love Comes and Goes (Stillwater version)", "Hour of Need" and "You Had to Be There". While I also bought the soundtrack to the movie, this expands on even that. This is a great movie and now a great DVD…again. While other studios make promises about making new, better versions of their movies, Dreamworks has delivered as promised. I don’t know about how I would feel if we had to wait this long and this were the first incarnation of it, but it’s here now and if you don’t own the movie–buy this one. If you do own the movie–buy this one! It’s a simple as that. You won’t be disappointed.