On the road with Stillwater. What a glorious time. For William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a teenage kid who fell in love with music and could also write about it, got the chance to go on the road with the up and coming band and get to see the first-hand experiences of an up-and-coming band in 1973.
Based on legendary filmmaker Cameron Crowe’s own personal experiences, this is a triumphant ode to the era of music that is sadly just in memories and YouTube playlists. Yet ALMOST FAMOUS is a unique coming of age story from a kid who got a lot of world experience much earlier than others his age, and Crowe is not afraid to hold back on exactly what he went through, sleep deprivation and all. It’s thrilling to think that in his formative years he not only got to tour with rock bands and write about them, but would also then go undercover in high school to write about the actual teenage experience which would then result in the classic FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. Then he married Nancy Wilson from Heart. And he’s still making movies and writing all these years later.
The late great Roger Ebert, who called this the best movie of 2000, said he wanted to hug this movie after it was over. To just get into the vibe of this movie is to experience pure delight from one memorable moment after another. This is part Huck Finn, part road trip and all coming of age and it’s among my favourite aspect of movies in finding yourself on an unexpected journey. That there’s also terrific music and characters along the way is just a bonus.
I have not seen ALMOST FAMOUS in many years but as a big Cameron Crowe fan at the time, I went to see the movie on the very first matinee on opening day and it was instant love. At that point in his career, Crowe was already on a streak with the likes of SINGLES and JERRY MAGUIRE and one thing I picked up as a young film writer at the time was how he told his story through various characters, all with their own voice. From the shyness of William Miller and how he counter-balances that with the always-on Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) to William’s other forged relationship with Stillwater lead Russel Hammond (Billy Crudup, still a criminally underrated talent) along with all of the big and little characters along the way, it’s a tremendous example of the power of how Crowe balances everything big and small.
I wanted to hug this movie too.
One of the big conversations that came out of this movie after its late 2000 release (which I always thought did well financially, but not at the box office level that it SHOULD have) was the two versions of ALMOST FAMOUS that emerged. Shortly after its theatrical release Crowe was discussing having an alternate version of the movie called UNTITLED which many thought would be a “Director’s Cut” of sorts. A longer, 162 minute cut the movie surfaced as a more “bootleg” version to tie in with the 70s angle with many, many additional sequences and more time for some of the characters that didn’t get as much attention as in the theatrical cut.
To many, this is the superior version. To this movie buff, ALMOST FAMOUS is the superior movie when you consider William Miller as more of the throughline to the complete story and how he matures and learns through all of his interactions and his eventual friendship with Penny Lane. The just over two hour theatrical version tells the complete story in a streamlined version, gets all of the major points across, and is by far the more accessible version of the story.
UNTITLED, to me, is a really great bonus feature and more of a hangout movie with a lot more content with not all of it working. It includes far more padding, smaller characters getting a bit too much attention (Jimmy Fallon is a sore spot here as his character overstays his welcome in a later scene) and more scenes that simply don’t belong. It also loses its way with William’s journey at times and breaks away from his character. I still love a lot of what is added in UNTITLED, mind you, but ALMOST FAMOUS is the one I am going to first.
That said, both versions can happily co-exist. 21 years later, ALMOST FAMOUS still resonates and remains one of Crowe’s most personal and intimate films yet still with a large studio budget behind it. I get the impression movies like this don’t get made anymore in the sea of remakes and superhero movies, or would get pushed to a smaller auditorium or downtown art house cinema now. These deeply human stories and road trip movies are greatly missed.
About the 4k release:
I appreciate you listening to my long writing on ALMOST FAMOUS as it’s a clear favourite of mine, and this wonderful new release from Paramount is one that belongs in every film fan collection. This review copy release arrived to me in the Steelbook edition, but you will be happy with either that or the standard slip-cover release. Both the theatrical and UNTITLED cut are both restored in 4k and while it’s not a mind-blowing restoration like some of the recent 4k discs I have watched, the look and sound is overall awesome.
Shot in 35mm by legendary cinematographer John Toll and wisely in the 1.85 aspect ratio (as I get older I seem to appreciate this taller, more intimate aspect ratio more than scope features), there are very heavy earth tones paired with strong film grain, and the flatter colors of the eras like lots of blue-jeans, red shirts and black hats that really stand out. Crowe has always worked hard on the visual design of movies and this is my personal favourite of his.
The sound mix is in the standard DTS Master audio and not remixed to Dolby Atmos, surprisingly, but what is here is very strong and was very close to the theatrical experience I had in a former THX cinema that had a pretty loud Dolby Digital sound system. The most impressive sound moment is Stillwater’s first performance which completely fills the room just like a real concert, and there’s a lot of directional surrounds with the music. Nancy Wilson’s perfect score is also a great complement to the sound design and is welcoming and not overwhelming.
With all of that said, this is not essentially a “mind blowing” 4k transfer in the video and audio department and not one to really show off your new 4k equipment to friends, but this is still by far the most definitive release of the movie to date. ALMOST FAMOUS has had several solid DVD and Blu Ray releases over the years so it’s great to see another terrific transfer.
There are so many extras here that I don’t know where to begin. All of the features from the previous releases have been imported, along with a new introduction by Crowe which he filmed by himself in his own home along with some new Nancy Wilson inspired musical features. Some of the original featurettes and deleted scenes are here and are worth watching again, but the clear winner here is the memorable commentary track that was first included on the UNTITLED DVD which was thankfully ported over to this 4k disc. Featuring mostly Crowe and some of the filmmaking team, the VERY special guest here is Crowe’s mom Alice along with Nancy Wilson’s score isolated as they talk, it’s a winning and lovely commentary that shows the positive mom and son combo. Bonus points if you turn on the subtitles and follow along.
As an added bonus, an Apple TV digital copy is included. As I always redeem these and add them as well into my Apple library, it’s great to see that both the theatrical and extended cuts are available here in 4k as well. Should you be a 4k fan who just purchases digital copies, I also strongly recommend going this route too if you don’t want a 4k physical disc on your shelf.
But not for this 4k fan. This sits on my shelf under A for Awesome. ALMOST FAMOUS is clearly a highly recommended purchase and an outstanding piece of work that holds up twenty short years after its premiere. Featuring a solid picture & audio transfer and packed with some of the original features and some new ones, it’s really wonderful and inspiring to see Cameron Crowe holding up the Special Edition aspects of his movies after all of these years.
ALMOST FAMOUS is now available on 4k UHD disc from Paramount. Many thanks to Paramount PR for sending along a copy for review.