Almost Famous **½/****
Image A- Sound A- Extras A-
starring Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson
written and directed by Cameron Crowe
by Bryant Frazer Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's fondly remembered period piece about a bygone era of rock stars and the various satellites in their orbit, is a bit of a relic these days. Even on its release in 2000, when it was almost 30 years removed from its subject matter, Almost Famous was a notably uncritical celebration of a moment in 20th-century music history. Another 20 years on, having centred the phallic sexual and creative powers of a white guy with a guitar, Almost Famous is increasingly disconnected from the prevailing pop and hip-hop zeitgeist, and the film feels even more like cultural hagiography. On the other hand, it is a hell of a story. The fundamentals are autobiographical: Cameron Crowe really was a 15-year-old whiz kid who earned early graduation from high school; he really did seek career advice from legendary rock-and-roll critic Lester Bangs; and he really landed a ROLLING STONE assignment to hit the road with a group of next-big-thing cock-rockers. The story, as Crowe retells it here, has intrepid young journo William Miller (a fresh-faced Patrick Fugit) on assignment with the fictional rock group Stillwater--dealing with celebrity egos, yearning for the teenaged groupies who sprinkle their figurative fairy dust around a series of interchangeable ballrooms, basketball arenas, and hotel suites, and checking in with a protective mother (Frances McDormand) who can only peer helplessly into her son's wonderland from her world outside the circus tent. Finally, William meets with his editors back at HQ to bang out a chunk of blistering reportage that will lay bare the raw emotional state of a band on tour and cement his status as a rock journalist. What could go wrong?
"It's a shame you missed out on rock and roll," Bangs (channelled impeccably by Philip Seymour Hoffman) growls at William early on. "It's over." It's a funny line in context because Almost Famous already feels like a valentine to the era, yet here's Lester "the grouch" Bangs declaring that everything we love about it is a pale, corrupted shadow of what came before. Bangs comes off here as a bit of a crank, since Stillwater's world is loud, vibrant, and livelier than anything young William has ever seen. It's also complicated because Bangs isn't wrong. Robert Christgau described Bangs's early-1970s work at CREEM magazine as an attempt to "[keep] alive the dream of insurrectionary rock and roll as ROLLING STONE turned to auteur theory and trade journalism." Russell gets at this, too, when he tells William that, as bands become successful, their music sounds less like music and more like "lifestyle maintenance." And that's the tipping point Almost Famous attempts to depict: when rock music had grown into a powerful cultural force but hadn't yet been completely debased by commercial interests. Said interests are represented in the film by Jimmy Fallon, playing a business type who starts advising the group late in the film, getting them out of the tour bus and onto a private jet. (He assures them that, had he been on the scene sooner, he would have nipped William's story in the bud.) It may be hard to remember that it wasn't until 1981 that a major band cashed out in a major way with a corporate patron, as the Rolling Stones toured under the banner of perfumer Jōvan. Some cried "sell-outs," but no matter--there was too much cash involved, and the Stones' success opened the door for others. (Today, the website for Lollapalooza lists no fewer than 30 corporate sponsors hawking everything from liquor and cheeseburgers to technology and financial services.) It's a pretty neat trick that Crowe pulls, offloading the burden of skepticism and critique onto the ghost of Lester Bangs, freeing himself up to soak in the warm nostalgia bath he's drawn for himself.
Almost Famous is a sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll story as seen through the eyes of a smart but sheltered teenaged boy. That gets us a little bit of sex (we're mostly spared the spectacle of the men in the fictional band Stillwater making it with their teenage companions), not very many drugs (save for one riotous sequence in which Russ gets blasted out of his mind and declares himself a golden god, followed later by what feels like the requisite overdose scene), and a fair helping of rock-and-roll. (Peter Frampton acted as a consultant and Crowe's then-wife Nancy Wilson, of Heart, contributed credible arena-rock songs for Stillwater to perform on-screen.) Most of the drama comes from watching William figure out how to negotiate new relationships while honouring his mother's "don't do drugs" mantra (both the character and McDormand's performance are based on Crowe's real mom, Elaine Miller), satisfying his editorial bosses (they're undemanding, frankly; William mostly plays his editor like a Fender Strat), and keeping himself from being manipulated by the band itself. "You cannot make friends with the rock stars," Bangs admonishes him. Seems like a nice problem to have, maybe, but almost as soon as William's earnestness (and flattery) helps him gain Stillwater's confidence, he finds himself engaged in a lopsided give-and-take with lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup, charming but slippery throughout), who promises the kid a one-on-one interview but proves reluctant to actually deliver. It's a metaphor, naturally, for the capital-A Artist's aversion to public self-reflection and vulnerability. At Russell's urging, the band merrily refers to William as "the enemy." It's a joke because he's a cute and guileless kid they treat like a little brother, yet it's also a warning to keep their guard up around the ambitious little moppet.
Even as William struggles into Russell's confidence, he develops a naked infatuation with Penny Lane (an always-radiant Kate Hudson), one of the small cadré of groupies--in Crowe's retelling of the story, they insist on using the impossibly corny sobriquet "band-aids"--following Stillwater from coast to coast and, they believe, inspiring the band's artistry. William and the band-aids seem to recognize each other's outsider status, even though they're in fundamentally opposite positions relative to the band. As a journalist, William is expected to remain objective (whatever that means), delivering a story about Stillwater that exploits their larger-than-life qualities while dissecting the personalities involved. Inasmuch as an honest piece of journalism is the opposite of PR, the job requires him to be adversarial, or at least it should. (As the saying goes, if you're not thinking critically about what people are telling you, you're not a journalist; you're a stenographer.) But for the band-aids, it doesn't matter so much. They volunteer their service as adoring, uncritical companions, and their intimate presence in Stillwater's world is its own reward. Still, Penny and her young friends are the closest thing to a peer group William has.
If it all sounds fun, engrossing, and kind of fascinating, well, it is. Crowe has strong instincts as a writer and director, and he spins his one-of-a-kind life story into a multifaceted character piece. Fugit, then just 17, was a great find, and he vividly embodies William's mix of naivete and industriousness. The relationship between William and Russell feels frustrating but somewhat genuine, with William stymied by Russell's general distrust. Crowe delights especially in setting up unexpected exchanges between Russell and Elaine that bring in William's mother off the sidelines at key moments. Every coming-of-age film needs a loss of innocence, and Crowe portrays William's first time as a lush fantasy, with a trio of enthusiastic band-aids dancing around him like woodland sprites in nice underwear. Crowe primly avoids details of the sexual encounter, but the naked yearning and frantic disappointment in Fugit's eyes as his dear Penny opts only to wave a kiss goodbye before leaving the room is something else--a clearly autobiographical moment so utterly unadorned I'm surprised Crowe kept it in place.
And Crowe confidently stages the film's Big Moments, like the concert scenes that have the Stillwater actors rocking out in utterly convincing fashion in front of massive, enthusiastic crowds, or the tour bus singalong to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" that signals a sort of reconciliation (or at least resignation) among members of the punchy, exhausted, and sometimes resentful troupe. (I don't know exactly how Crowe does it, but watching that scene feels like seeing the sun come up after staying out all night.) There are smaller moments that I adore just as much, though, like the early scene where a younger William (Michael Angarano) is seen in flashback, handling the box of LPs his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) left him like sacred texts, or a tidy little reaction shot in the scene near the end of the film where Russell quite accidentally shows up at William's house. The camera cuts to Deschanel, hands on her hips, as she shifts her body just so. Her expression--it says, "this man is both famous and an idiot, yet I find his current misadventure intriguing"--is such an efficient takedown of the confused artiste that it never fails to make me laugh out loud.
More of this character-based detail, by the way, is one reason the film is improved in its extended "bootleg cut" (162 minutes). Identified on-screen as Untitled, this longer version restores bits and pieces that help refine the film's tempo, like the odd but memorable scene where the narrative grinds to a halt as Stillwater sits for a radio interview with a sleepy DJ (Tenacious D's Kyle Gass). (It's inspired, according to the audio commentary, by something that happened to Neil Young.) The longer edit also makes more room for the characters to express their enthusiasm for music. See, for example, the scene where Russell gets excited describing a single "woo" in a Marvin Gaye track as one of the "little things" that make a song a classic, or the banter between William and Lester, which in Untitled starts to encompass actual rock criticism. (Responding to William's complaint about Lou Reed's glam era, Bangs defends him this way: "Bowie's doing Lou. If Lou's doing Bowie, Lou's still doing Lou." And William responds, smartly, "If you like Lou," which makes a point about the overstated value of "authenticity" in rock music.) In nearly every case, Crowe's extensions and digressions add context that makes the whole affair seem more naturalistic and less artificial. Less superficial, too. This version of the film is actually more absorbing; the minutes fly by.
Yet for all his facility with character and performances (not to mention a hyperactive moving camera), Crowe finds it hard to resist a cliché. In one cringe-worthy scene, Fairuza Balk chases alongside a departing bus calling to Fugit, who watches from the window seat until she plows into a wall at full speed. (Memo to filmmakers: Do not recycle jokes from Airplane!. You will not improve them and you'll look foolish for trying.) The bit is echoed later, for some reason, when Fugit stares out from an airport terminal at the plane carrying Penny out of his life, and while it hits a key emotional beat for the film, it's also as corny as Kansas in August. Worse still is the scene where Crowe gives the band a scary moment where they think their plane is going down, Skynyrd-style, and years of repressed interpersonal conflict and distrust come spewing out as everyone on board takes turns spitting venom and spilling secrets--who's cheating on whom, who's got a dark secret in his past, who's holding a grudge. Struggling, perhaps, to force some levity into the latter section of the film, which turns into a bit of a slog, Crowe staged it as a disastrous but hilarious pressure release for the band (and the film), though it plays as contrivance. By the time the otherwise-silent drummer (John Fedevich) delivers the final punchline by confessing, "I'm gay," the gag has descended into sub-This Is Spinal Tap territory.
But the biggest cliché Crowe indulges here is, unfortunately, right at the heart of the film: Penny Lane, the sweet young thing who sleeps with rock stars in the apparently sincere belief that she and her fellow band-aids facilitate their creative process. Kate Hudson is great in the role, by turns mysterious, luminous, inscrutable, and, finally, utterly vulnerable. Still, she's not a real character. She's a fantasy, an object of desire, a prism in whose bent-light projections the men around her see their best selves and in whose beatific smile Almost Famous finds its most potent expression of nostalgia for a bygone time. "She was never a manic pixie dream girl to me," Crowe said recently, defending himself in the LOS ANGELES TIMES. "I always thought she was just a soulful, selfless, loving person who was super into community and kept herself a little bit hidden. She lit up a room by knowing everything about everybody." Of course, that's the problem--Penny is defined by the way she makes other people feel. Even the eventual drug overdose that lays bare her emotional devastation appears to take place largely so that William can literally save her life--not to mention steal a kiss while she's semi-conscious. I know, I know: scenes like this landed differently 20 years ago. We're lucky Crowe didn't have him cop a feel, too.
Crowe has perhaps taken more than his fair share of criticism for featherweight female characters. (The term "manic pixie dream girl" was specifically coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst's role in Crowe's later Elizabethtown.) The problem with Penny is related to the film's insistently good-timey depiction of rock stars and their excesses. For starters, I've always found the scene where Penny recoils against William's description of her as a "groupie," instead declaring herself a "band-aid," to be risible. I can't tell what we're supposed to make of the words he puts in her mouth:
"We are not groupies. Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music. We inspire the music. We are band-aids."
Are we meant to accept this uncritically? Is it really so bad to want to sleep with someone famous? Are Penny and her friends really inspiring Stillwater's music, or are they in denial about the purely opportunistic nature of their relationships? I don't know. Crowe successfully avoids addressing the question by filtering everything he shows us through the worldview of an awestruck teenager experiencing the adult world for the very first time. He comes close to indicting the entire chauvinist concept of the artist's muse when he shows the boys in Stillwater callously trading the women to Humble Pie during a card game. Because Crowe's not an asshole, he acknowledges their behaviour. He and Hudson show us exactly the moment when Penny's heart breaks on screen, and that's not nothing. Also, Crowe recognizes what William doesn't: that what Penny deserves is a fresh start away from all of these people.
Unfortunately, that doesn't add depth to the character as written. It's not hard to imagine a more three-dimensional version of this character who could display independence and real self-awareness, but Penny is either foolish or delusional, losing her will to live when her imagined relationship of love and respect turns out to involve neither. Almost Famous doesn't do right by Penny because it's not that kind of movie. I don't think Crowe would or could make that kind of movie, because it would be a feel-bad movie and, historically (his strikingly downbeat Fast Times at Ridgemont High screenplay notwithstanding), Crowe makes feel-good movies. He has, let's say, a limited range. But Almost Famous is probably his finest effort--a striking creative plateau conquered before a precipitous slide into irrelevance. It's a warm blanket, peak Boomer, the self-appointed Greatest Generation's ultimate comfort watch. It's also a reminder of how segregated rockist culture used to be--the closest Crowe comes to featuring an African-American is the Clarence Carter song he puts on the soundtrack. I like it, though, despite its flaws. At its worst, it's a deceptively simple gloss on a complicated era. At its best, there's a little bit of white-boy magic in it.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Almost Famous gets the modern-classic treatment on 4K UHD BD thanks to a new two-disc set (in limited-edition steelbook packaging) from Paramount that presents both the original theatrical release (123 minutes) and the Crowe-approved "Bootleg Cut" (162 minutes), identified on screen as Untitled. (An included coupon is redeemable for a digital copy of the theatrical cut.) Both features are correctly letterboxed to 1.85:1 and there is little if any discernible difference between the two transfers. (Untitled runs at an average bitrate of 41.8 Mbps, while Almost Famous comes in at 52.7 Mbps, so in theory the theatrical cut should do a better job at resolving fine detail, rendering grain, and avoiding artifacts.) Both discs offer a rewarding viewing experience that does justice to often shadowy, contrast-rich cinematography by John Toll, ASC. The film opens on a varied colour palette, as a turquoise-blue convertible weaves through San Diego city streets lined with deep green palms and eucalyptus trees. Skin tones are generally spot-on, though they vary from scene to scene; they're warmest in the concert halls, turning steely and pale in fluorescent-lit backstage scenes and going purplish-blue in moody nighttime shots. Blacks are deep and satisfying but not crushed. Grain is visible albeit muted, with some artifacting apparent on close inspection. Nevertheless, there's ample texture and detail visible in every shot. This is one of those transfers that seems to extract every bit of detail available in the camera negative. The application of Dolby Vision HDR is perhaps most apparent in scenes featuring intensely glowing light fixtures, though HDR also accents the pools of light reflecting off a ballroom floor after a show and sunlight streaming through the windows of Stillwater's tour bus. That tour bus, by the way? That was a real, roadworthy bus built with an elaborate overhead camera rig that tracked forward and back while hanging from the ceiling. Conveying the warmth of natural sunlight streaming into an interior set is one of the things HDR is best at, and the tour bus scenes benefit greatly from the extended dynamics.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack here first appeared on a 2013 Blu-ray release of the film's extended edition, and I'm a tad surprised to see some reviewers grousing about its quality. This film sounded great in theatres, and it sounds great on Blu-ray. The soundmix for Stillwater's performance scenes is loud as hell, with lots of concert-hall ambience and dynamics that mimic the aural arena-rock experience, albeit with greater fidelity than I suspect any touring band could have achieved in 1973. When William starts going through his sister's records, a needle-drop on The Who starts in mono (or near-mono) in the center channel, then expands to dominate the full sound field as young William's world opens up around him. There's also an earth-shattering kaboom! across all six channels late in the film, when lightning strikes outside Stillwater's jet. I knew it was coming and still I almost jumped out of my skin. The only bad thing I can say about the soundmix here is that Almost Famous isn't, you know, Kill Bill. It simply isn't that type of movie. But the mix is effective at everything it sets out to do; my only complaint is that the film would probably sound even better if it were updated for Dolby Atmos (or, heck, DTS:X).
Ported over from the 2001 "Director's Edition" DVD is an audio commentary for the full-length Untitled cut. I prize commentary tracks most of all as an information-delivery mechanism for filmmakers, so I was somewhat disappointed that Cameron Crowe's mother Alice (not a filmmaker) more or less dominates the proceedings. (In other news, I'm a hopeless churl who despises entertainment and hates to have a good time.) Joining her in the room are Crowe, Scott Martin and Andy Fisher from Vinyl Films, Ivan Carona (ID'd by Crowe as "our family friend"), and Mark Atkinson, then head of video mastering at DreamWorks SKG. The most important bit for posterity, I guess, is Crowe's affirmation of the theatrical cut as his preferred version, although he recalls a test screening in San Jose where he says the longer edit "tried the patience...of most of the viewers." I think he worries too much about the inability of a bunch of multiplex randos to stay awake for a two-and-a-half-hour movie, but OK. I was more annoyed by his subsequent assertion that other rock movies "never captured how much the bands, the musicians, love music," since most of the bits of dialogue that testified to these characters' love of music were edited out of the theatrical release. Bonus: the commentary is optionally subtitled.
Laudably, Paramount has augmented these discs with a slate of new extras. They're presented in 1080p on the same platter as the theatrical cut. "Filmmaker Focus: Cameron Crowe on Almost Famous" (8 mins.) has the director reminiscing about the shoot as a talking head occasionally accompanied by vintage B-roll videotape from the production. He describes Hoffman's portrayal of Bangs as an "out-of-body experience," explains why the film was shot in chronological order, and asserts that the film takes place in a period that "was much more innocent." "Casting & Costumes" (13 mins.) comprises lots of behind-the-scenes footage as well as a generous sample of John Toll's costume tests and casting footage. You can hear Crowe coaching Michael Angarano, who played a younger version of William in the scene where he figures out how much younger than his classmates he is, by telling him, "You're in hell, Michael. You're just in hell right here." And "Rock School" (11 mins.) describes how Peter Frampton and Nancy Wilson whipped the actors playing Stillwater into performance mode, schooling them with videos of Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, and Free. It's essentially a phony band's rehearsal footage, and it's kinda fascinating. Frampton calls Almost Famous "the best rock movie ever made," for what it's worth. A section of "Extended Scenes" (9 mins.) offers up cutting-room-floor footage in something like SD quality (it seems to be Avid-edited footage that was never conformed to the camera negative), and another section of "Odds & Sods" (9 mins.) delivers more of the same.
Completists will be pleased to encounter the title's legacy extras (all standard-def except for a slideshow), some with confusing titles, most with audio-only introductions by Crowe setting the stage, under the all-purpose heading of "Greatest Hits." Briefly, these include a standard-def making-of full of film clips, B-roll, and talking-head interviews (25 mins.); a vintage "Interview with Lester Bangs" in which Bangs rails against Jethro Tull, Bryan Ferry, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (2 mins.); Crowe's top albums of 1973, with brief audio commentary for each of the 10 entries; a "music video" for the Stillwater composition "Fever Dog" (5 mins.); the demo for Stillwater track "Love Comes and Goes," with vocals by Nancy Wilson, accompanied by shot-on-video B-roll (4 mins.); seven of Crowe's old ROLLING STONE articles as an HD slideshow; B-Sides, i.e., rehearsal footage from the deleted scene featuring Kyle Gass, followed by some behind-the-scenes moments (5 mins.); "Cleveland Concert," featuring nicely assembled footage of Stillwater performing on stage (16 mins.); a full performance of a song called "Small Time Blues" that's only glimpsed in the finished film (3 mins.); "Stairway," in which William attempts to win his mother over to his chosen profession by playing "Stairway to Heaven" for her (12 mins., and viewers are expected to bring their own copy of "Stairway," as Crowe failed to license it); the film's script and theatrical trailer (3 mins.), an "Eerie Outtake" with Philip Seymour Hoffman hearing voices in downtown San Diego (0:46), "Stolen Kisses," a lengthy outtake featuring Hudson (5 mins.), and "Cameron Crowe's Perfectionism," which captures Kate Hudson performing an unedited stretch of multiple takes, modifying her performance in response to input from the director and eventually crying out his name in sheer exasperation. It runs 9 minutes. The cherry on top is a complete copy of Crowe's highly readable screenplay--you can flip through it page by page and pretend you're watching a LaserDisc!
Almost Famous: 123 minutes, Untitled: 162 minutes; Almost Famous: R, Untitled: NR; 1.85:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision/HDR10; English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French subtitles; 2x BD-66; Region-free; Paramount