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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    English, Spanish, Portuguese
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Cast/crew biographies
  • Production notes
  • Animated menus
  • Music video - Fever Dog - Stillwater
  • Awards/Nominations
  • Filmographies
  • Interactive film trivia

Almost Famous

Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 118 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

Cameron Crowe is, without a doubt, an incredibly accomplished and sensitive filmmaker. And that fact will come as no surprise to those who have been following the man’s cinematic career to date - in particular, his 1989 directorial debut with the warm-hearted and insightful romantic comedy-drama Say Anything, which spoke to its audience like very few films of its genre can. But then, Crowe’s no stranger to insight - his screenwriting debut with Fast Times At Ridgemont High (a script based on his own book of the same name, for which he returned to school as a student to ensure that his research was spot-on) was one of the most intelligent and non-exploitative teen movies of its era, and his follow-up to Say Anything - the under-appreciated Singles - applied Crowe’s insight to a 20-something group of characters with just as much success. It wasn’t until Jerry Maguire that Crowe scored widespread recognition as a filmmaker, though - and immediately after that 1996 movie, he vanished to work on other projects rather than immediately start work on another feature film. That long-awaited movie, though, arrived last year in the form of Almost Famous, which sees Crowe return to the wide-eyed optimism and emotional honesty that made Say Anything so special.

There’s one thing that’s key to the success of Almost Famous above all else; prior to writing and directing feature films, Crowe was a music journalist. The youngest ever associate editor of Rolling Stone Magazine, he started touring with and writing about rock bands as a teenager and through the 1970s delivered some of the most incisive and honest rock journalism ever to grace the pages of that publication (and in the ‘70s, Rolling Stone was literally the USA’s bible of rock music). This film is, ultimately, Crowe’s own story - though obviously names, incidents and locations have changed in most cases. This is why Almost Famous works so well - just like with Say Anything, the viewer has the very real feeling that the story they’re becoming involved in has come straight from the heart of the man that wrote the script and made the movie.

This almost-true story has all the makings of a great tale. The pre-pubescent William Miller (Patrick Fugit in his feature debut) experiences something of a revelation the day his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) leaves home (and a liberal but protective mother played by the inimitable Frances McDormand) to become an airline stewardess. For William she leaves behind her record collection, and it’s not long before the young boy is consumed and fascinated by the music he finds there; The Who, Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, all of it is like a gateway to a new world. By 1973, William is 15 and has started writing about music for his school’s newspaper. But he’s fascinated by the “real” music press, and after sending some of his work to Lester Bangs, the voice behind legendary ‘70s rock magazine Creem, he gets to meet the man himself, and is invited to write a piece for the magazine. Before long, Rolling Stone is paying attention, and not knowing of his true age, they send William out on the road with up-and-coming band Stillwater. The young William Miller’s rock education is about to begin - he encounters drugs, neurotic rock stars, the excitement and chaos of being backstage at a gig. He also quickly discovers a group of manic female fans that call themselves “Band-Aids” - unlike “groupies”, these women don’t want to pursue rock stars for sex, but just want to be around and involved in the creation of the music they love and, of course, those that create it. One “Band-Aid” in particular, a woman that goes by the pseudonym of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), becomes William’s closest friend as he tries - usually in vain - to get the interview he’s been assigned to do with Stillwater and to make it home in time for high school graduation. Along the way, he befriends Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and becomes his confidante and friend, he is deflowered by several other “Band-Aids” (played with wonderful abandon by some terrific supporting cast including Anna Paquin - as the wonderfully-named Polexia Aphrodesia - and Fairuza Balk), he saves a band member from a drug-induced disaster and a Band-Aid from suicide, is party to their near-breakup and is, needless to say, having the experience of his life.

Crowe’s perfectly-rounded and spot-on script and direction is paired here with flawless acting from the entire cast - and what a cast it is. Along with those mentioned above (of whom Kate Hudson is particularly memorable) there’s also Mark Kozelek (from the superb US band Red House Painters) and Kevin Smith movie regular Jason Lee playing roles as members of Stillwater; there’s Australian actor Noah Taylor in an hilarious turn as the band’s manager; there’s also Philip Seymour Hoffman’s remarkable interpretation of Lester Bangs, singer/songwriter Bijou Phillips’ brief role as another Band-Aid and even a cameo appearance by ‘70s rock megastar Peter Frampton (who also acted as technical consultant on the film). There’s humour aplenty, some genuinely heartfelt and moving moments, and an immaculate attention to detail that puts you right in the middle of the ‘70s rock world.

But behind it all is a wonderful screenplay, the ring of truth and Crowe’s flawless, seemingly effortless direction. No one makes movies quite like Cameron Crowe, and Almost Famous is arguably his finest yet. There’s wide, wide appeal in this story, but if you’ve ever spent any length of time as a committed music fan (or, like this reviewer, spent time writing about music), you’ll take this warm, nostalgic and intelligent movie straight into your heart - where it will stay for a long time.

  Video
Contract

Almost certainly the same director-approved telecine transfer that was used for Dreamworks’ original US DVD release some time ago and presented at the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the vision on Columbia Tristar’s region 4 disc has been given the added advantage of having its MPEG compression done by Sony’s DVD Center team, who have done an absolutely flawless job here. Rich in detail, this is a superb transfer that accurately reflects the intended look of the film (shot by the innovative John Toll, cinematographer for The Thin Red Line and Braveheart). Black levels are very good when they’re intended to be, and difficult scenes - on-stage footage, in particular - pose no problems on disc. There is, put simply, absolutely nothing wrong with this transfer, and certainly no compression artefacts to worry about. The opening credit sequence, by the way, is slightly “windowboxed”.

The layer change occurs quite early in the movie, just before the 40 minute mark; it’s very well handled, and while there’s a short pause, it seems quite natural thanks to clever, intelligent placement of the break.

  Audio
Contract

Nothing to complain about here, either - the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly vibrant and lively, particularly during concert sequences. While Almost Famous is a dialogue-heavy movie, there’s a wealth of classic rock on the soundtrack, running almost continually, and it’s crystal clear throughout. Aside from the obvious employment of the surround and subwoofer channels during concert scenes, the surrounds are constantly active to provide environmental depth, without ever being showy.

The original region 1 disc included a DTS soundtrack as well; while we don’t get one in region 4, we’re not missing out on much - the Dolby Digital track here is of the highest quality, accurately representing the way the movie sounded in cinemas.

  Extras
Contract

Ironically, just as our long-awaited region 4 DVD of Almost Famous hits the stores there’s been an announcement from the US of a new “collector’s edition” of the film on DVD in region 1, including a new “director’s cut” of the movie itself as well as a commentary and oodles of other extras. It’s a shame we don’t get that edition here - maybe one day we will - but in the meantime, what’s here is pretty much identical to the R1 release.

Featurette - The Making Of Almost Famous: Produced for the HBO cable network in the US, this is a cut above the usual promo-frenzy featurette included on most DVDs. Featuring interviews with Crowe, his cast and crew as well as some fascinating photos of the director in his rock-writer years, this 25-minute mini-documentary is well worth watching, even though it doesn’t reveal a wealth of information (there is, though, some terrific footage of the filming of one of the concert sequences). Always quotable, Crowe offers plenty of fascinating information about the genesis of his film here. An excellent bonus feature, its full-frame video quality is excellent apart from one minor moment of aliasing and some scratches on the footage from the movie itself, and its sound is (we presume accidentally) in mono.

Music Video - Fever Dog by “Stillwater”: Making extensive use of movie footage (both used and unused), this is a promo clip that presents the fictional Stillwater as a real band, performing a very Led Zeppelinesque song written by Anne and Nancy Wilson (of the band Heart; Nancy is also Crowe’s wife). Needless to say, thanks to the huge shooting budget and the skill of the man behind the camera this is a first-class rock video for a band that doesn’t actually exist. More mysteriously, the sound here, like the documentary, is in mono.

Rolling Stone Magazine Articles: This is wonderful stuff. Seven full-length features written by Crowe during his years as a Rolling Stone journalist are presented here on text screens, and they’re all compellingly good. Dating from 1973 to 1979, the artists featured here are The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, and all are well worth taking the time to read. The experience of researching and writing the first two features presented here, according to Crowe, provided the basis of the story for Almost Famous.

Theatrical Trailers: All admirably provided with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, there are trailers here for Erin Brockovich, A Knight’s Tale, Charlie’s Angels and, of course, Almost Famous. All are appropriately letterboxed except for the full-frame Erin Brockovich, and of the four only A Knight’s Tale is 16:9 enhanced.

Production Notes: 16 pages in a nice big font, reproducing what’s most likely the press notes written for the film’s cinematic release.

Cast And Crew Filmographies: Actually both capsule bios and lists of movies worked on, these are done the way all bio/filmography sections should be - in other words, comprehensively. With 10 cast members and 12 crew covered, there’s a lot of useful information here.

  Overall  
Contract

A very special film from a very special writer/director, Almost Famous is a must-see for anyone who’s ever loved music, the world that music lives in and the people that make it. But equally, you don’t need to know the first thing about music or its history to enjoy this film - Cameron Crowe’s deft touch with both the written word and the art of directing has made sure of that. One of the best films to date from this relatively young but masterful modern creative force - if not the best - Almost Famous is everything that’s good about movies packed into two captivating hours. Columbia Tristar’s DVD, while not as extras-loaded as the new US release, delivers where it counts - with superb video and audio quality, as well as with a small but vital set of extras that are genuinely worth the time.


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      And I quote...
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