“Almost Famous” (2000)
Running Time: 161 minutes
Written and directed by: Cameron Crowe
Penny Lane: “I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriosuly, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”
Released recently on 4K Blu-ray is the now classic “Almost Famous” (2000) which is now over twenty years old and has become Cameron Crowe’s best and most personal film. 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.
“Almost Famous” is based around 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.
There is no doubt that “Almost Famous” is a nostalgic look back through a certain time in rock ‘n roll history, possibly through rose coloured glasses especially in terms of sexual revolution, gender rights, artists rights, money, friendship, personal responsibility, greed and any number of elements in life. Certainly some parts of this movie have aged badly, some have not. It would be nice to think the music was a pure form of art, which is something Crowe attempts to clumsily say, but even the main character can see that commerce is linked to it, and sometimes is far more important than it. Also the idea that Penny Lane and her crew are the ones in control is a complete joke and the musicians use of them is not altruistic but possibly a form of rape. At the time these musicians were becoming successful they were selling millions of albums and making huge amounts of money something really not addressed in this movie, which is easy to do because they are all made up. The great thing about “Almost Famous” is that it is possible to move beyond that as there are other parts that are very easy to enjoy. This is something that Crowe does well, think about all his other films, there are some very distasteful aspects to them that are glossed over by performance, music and humour. As time has moved on for him and societies point of view has changed it is harder to hide them, think the controversy with “Aloha” (2015) and his series “Roadies” (2016). One might argue that these are real events and so are not negative, the problem is he has dressed up realness with fakeness in terms of real places, people and bands. When you fake the identities you are giving people an excuse to enjoy some pretty distasteful behaviour. Think about how women are treated in all his movies, they are hassled by men until they give in or the opposite, they are infatuated with a man.
In terms of casting Patrick Fugit is perfect, a fresh face in a difficult role, a child among men, while Kate Hudson is at her peak, back when she was someone who tried to challenge the authority shown in the film. The main members of Stillwater (Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond, Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe, with supporting actors filling out the group, and manager Dick Roswell as played by Noah Taylor) are wonderful in their roles, while Frances 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, while the band-aids group includes Bijou Phillips, Anna Paquin, 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.
“Almost Famous” is a great piece of fiction based on reality, a more fairytale piece of history that leaves almost everything distastful out of the narrative, which explains why many love it.
“Almost Famous” arrives on Ultra HD with a great-looking HEVC H.265 encode, giving fans a welcomed step-up over the previous mediocre Blu-ray although it’s not the huge improvemnt we’ve come to expect of the format. Coming from a brand-new remaster of the original 35mm camera negatives and approved by director Cameron Crowe, the native 4K transfer shows a nice uptick in overall definition. But, on the whole, the picture falls on the softer side, littered with several poorly-resolved sequences that are comparable to its BD predecessor, and this is especially true with the added footage for the “Bootleg Cut”. Overall contrast enjoys a nice though mild boost with cleaner and a tad more energetic whites, but it’s a relatively minor jump and not by much. On the whole, the 4K video appears flat and muted due to the aforementioned creative visuals. Specular highlights and brightness levels are greatly impacted by these stylized choices, causing the hottest spots to noticeably bloom and lose some of the finer details, like the various light fixtures throughout. Meanwhile, blacks tend to be drabber and murkier for a good chunk of the runtime but also slightly truer in some articles of clothing. Shadow delineation is strong but not significantly improved.
“Almost Famous” has same DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack enjoyed on the Blu-ray. A a new Dolby Atmos option would have been an upgrade, this lossless track remains an excellent and plenty satisfying mix, which stays true to the film’s original front-heavy design, exhibiting superb clarity and definition in the mid-range.