Almost Famous

Almost Famous (2000)
Dreamworks Home Entertainment
Cast: Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Extras: “Making Of” Featurette, Articles, Music Video, Theatrical Trailer, Cast & Crew Biographies, Production Notes

These are the words spoken to a fan who has the power to influence the public, in writer/director Cameron Crowe’s very personal "Almost Famous, " brought to us on DVD from Dreamworks. The story of boy-meets-rock and roll didn’t make much music at the box office and has earned the distinct honor of being this year’s top snub in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards. But here I am simply a fan with the power of public forum, to tell you that I cannot make "Almost Famous" look cool enough. Truthfully, I love this movie.

When we first meet William Miller (first played by Michael Angarano), we learn that he is being raised by a strong, intelligent mother (Frances McDormand) who wants nothing more than to keep her son from the harm of the world, and a sister (Zooey Deschanel) with eyes full of Simon and Garfunkel who can’t get to the harm of the world soon enough. In the middle of this maelstrom, William comes to find out that he’s actually been lied to about his own age, an effort of his mother’s to advance his studies, then suffers a further blow to his normalcy when his sister finally splits for San Francisco. Sad to see her go, William finds solace in the gift she has left behind for him, a gift that will change his life forever: her record collection. Four years later and now fifteen, William (played now by Patrick Fugit), starry-eyed in love with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, finds a mentor in the nation’s top rock critic, Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Aside from offering the advice of being "honest and unmerciful", Bangs also gives William his first assignment. When his age keeps him from getting backstage to interview Sabbath, William meets up with the Band-Aids, a group of very young girls, lead by the lovely Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who fancy themselves more than just groupies. When they fail to get him backstage, William tries his luck a third time on the opening band, Stillwater.

Startled by this kid’s specific knowledge of their band and more importantly his admiration of their music, the band brings him in. Once in the company of one of his favorite bands, William is immediately smitten with the rock and roll lifestyle and soon finds himself on the road with Stillwater, only now on assignment from Rolling Stone magazine. It doesn’t take long for William to fall in love either, and Penny Lane’s the obvious choice for his affection. Unfortunately, she’s in love with Stillwater’s lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who seems as if he’s incapable of loving anyone as much as he loves himself, despite being very friendly with Penny Lane. A rift is formed between the two, as well as a small brewing feud between the band members. All William can do is try to keep up, try to get his interviews, try to get home, and try to finish his story. Though the youngest of the entire group, the kid with the wide eyes of inexperience proves he can certainly hold his own in any maturity contest among this group. Funny without being cynical, sweet without being sappy, nostalgic without being exclusive, Almost Famous is a great moment in life, extended for two hours.

I saw "Almost Famous" twice in the theaters, the second time to confirm my suspicion that it would enter my top ten list of all time. I’ve seen it a couple of times since and I still just can’t find a fault with it. The acting is top notch across the board. There’s a reason that Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Oscar and Renee Zellwegger got a serious career boost for "Jerry Maguire." The reason is that Cameron Crowe writes impeccable parts for his secondary characters, and "Almost Famous" is no exception. Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson (who both received Oscar noms.) are terrific. McDormand does so much with a small but pivotal role that it’s almost a shame it can’t stand out on it’s own. Kate Hudson, however, brings her character to life like the snap of a glow stick. She IS the girl you can’t take your eyes off of, but she’s also so much more. Patrick Fugit is also somewhat of a marvel in his first major movie, and what a treat it is to see a teenage character portrayed by a real teenager, zits, baby fat, and awkwardness all. Billy Crudup is awesome and intense in a layered role, as the guitarist who is self-centered and very much a rock star, yet somehow remains quietly down to Earth. Jason Lee is an easy choice for scene-stealer, as the lead singer of Stillwater who feels the limelight slipping from him to Russell and is none too happy about it. He has great lines and great delivery and is so much fun to watch. With all these great actors and great roles, there is one that seems to be even more overlooked than the film itself was in theaters. I’m of course talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman, who will never make you feel more proud of being uncool than when he offers advice to William in a late night phone call. Hoffman as Lester Bangs breaks my heart in this movie and he’s only on screen for maybe ten minutes. Much has been made about how closely "Almost Famous" mirrors writer/director Cameron Crowe’s own youth. It would be easy to imagine this movie as a two hour long session of someone patting his or her own back, but that’s simply not the case. Instead of bragging to the world about how much better his life has been than everyone else’s, Cameron has opted to make a film about the experience of experience, a personal journey that is very much accessible to all.

"Almost Famous" is presented on DVD in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer (1.85:1). The first thing you need to know about the transfer is that it is from Dreamworks. The second thing you need to know is that the movie was shot by back to back academy winning cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, The Thin Red Line). You put those two things together and you get an amazing looking DVD. Color is pitch perfect and the black level is deep and dead on. Being a recent film, you can typically expect a great print to work with and this one is no exception, with nary a scratch or blemish. You’ll notice some grain evident in some of the hazier skies of the West Coast, but this is not a defect of the DVD and was present in the original source. Overall, this is just a great looking film with highly detailed art direction captured perfectly by John Toll. Many of his other films are notable for their breathtaking exterior shots, but in Almost Famous he proves he can make simple things look amazing as well. Just notice how William’s pen seems to literally glow when we first see him in class. It’s just beautiful. Another great job by Dreamworks.

Since "Almost Famous" is largely about Rock and Roll you’d expect a soundtrack that hits you in the gut, and with this DVD you are treated to such a soundtrack in both <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 and <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 surround. While the Dolby Digital track does not sound bad by any means, the DTS stands out as the superior listening choice. The Stillwater concerts sound awesome, putting you right in the middle of the arena, engulfed in sound from every direction. The spatial imaging is a bit more distinct on the DTS track and as always, the low end has a tad more bite. While music is clearly the standout on the track, there is also some nice effect work in an airplane scene for your speakers to have fun with. Again, as with the video Dreamworks has done a great job with this disc.

You’ll notice on the packaging that this is not a full-fledged Special Edition DVD. That version has already been announced for sometime later this year after Crowe finishes work on his current film, and will contain a director’s cut of the film along with other unique features. But to be honest, I can think of at least a couple other studios whose special edition discs contain as much or in some cases, less features than this DVD. First up, is the HBO Behind-the-Scenes Featurette "The Making of Almost Famous." Running about twenty-five minutes, this was better than what I had expected. Though still featuring voice-over and plenty of footage from the film woven in with interviews to people we never see, I was surprised by how much they went into Crowe’s own version of "Almost Famous," complete with tons of photos of the young journalist with the likes of Jimmy Page and David Crosby. There’s also footage of his real mother on set, as well as some footage from Patrick Fugit’s audition, where he looks even younger. Not incredibly revealing, but a pretty good making of nonetheless. Continuing the search for the real Cameron Crowe, Dreamworks has included seven of the director’s actual stories originally published in Rolling Stone. I’m honestly surprised these didn’t fall victim to some stingy legality, and feel they’re a great addition to the disc. Want proof Crowe can write? Well, here you go! Read on! Next up is a video made from footage in the film for the song "Fever Dog" by Stillwater, the fictional band in the film. Though non-<$16x9,anamorphic>, it’s still fun to watch and I can’t get the song out of my mind for the life of me right now. Finally, we have the standard theatrical trailer, cast and crew bios, and production notes.

"Almost Famous" is my pick as the best movie of the year. It’s just good, plain and simple. With any luck, the film will find a new life on home video. If not, you still have to give Dreamworks credit. Not only did they make this movie, but they’ve supported it in spite of any financial shortcomings by offering a terrific DVD. And if that weren’t enough, they’re going to release this "disappointment" again in a special edition. If you’re going to wait for the deluxe treatment, that’s fine. But don’t wait any longer to see this movie. That’s as honest and unmerciful as I can be.

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