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ALMOST FAMOUS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Patrick Fugit, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Director:  Cameron Crowe
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  123 Minutes
Release Date:  March 13, 2001

Film ****

“I have to go home.”  “You ARE home.”

I find it entirely appropriate that writer/director Cameron Crowe says his favorite kinds of movies are the ones that make him laugh and cry at the same time.  His films always have that affect on me.  Though I never manage to rattle off his name when I’m listing my top filmmakers, Crowe has made more pictures for the time capsule than just about any director I can think of.  Almost Famous, a largely autobiographical movie, is his masterpiece.

This is a film with so much heart that the screen can barely contain it all, and that’s what I love most about it.  It’s a love letter to rock and roll as told by and seen through the eyes of a bright, wide-eyed, fifteen year old writer who finds his talents have opened doors for him into worlds he’s only dreamed of.  It’s a rare coming of age story that’s not about loss of innocence, but rather, the beauty of preserving that innocence forever in memory and spirit.

William Miller (Fugit) is a kid with a brilliant future.  He’s so bright, he’s getting ready to graduate high school three years ahead of pace, and seems destined for a great career in law.  But something happened four years earlier that altered the course of his life:  his older sister fled their home and their loving but somewhat overprotective mother (McDormand).  Instead of a goodbye note, she played Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” to explain why she left.  “One day,” she told her kid brother, “you’re gonna be cool.”  And she proved she believed it by leaving him her treasured collection of rock records.

After capturing the attention of Creem magazine editor Lester Bangs (Hoffman), who becomes a friend and mentor to the young writer, William finds himself in a new world, and with the chance few fifteen year old kids ever get:  an assignment for Rolling Stone.

He hooks up with an up and coming band, Stillwater, led by the unpredictable guitarist Russell Hammond (Crudup) and finds himself in a world of music, backstage parties, trashed hotel rooms, and ‘band aids’, led by the sunny Penny Lane (Hudson).  It’s a world of heartaches and hopes, of disasters and dreams, and William’s youthful eyes and smart mind are opened to all of it.  It’s really no world for someone his age…in fact, his magazine editors have no idea he’s as young as he is…but with an old tape recorder, pockets full of notes penciled on anything he could get to write on, and a lot of pluck and determination, he navigates his way through this strange, exciting and sometimes terrifying world with earnest resolve.  He learns a lot about the rock and roll life.  He learns even more about himself.

This is the kind of film for which it’s almost belittling to discuss what it’s about.  Words can’t describe the beautiful, touching moments of humanity that Cameron almost surely plans, but that come across like he just happened across them with luck.  A tired band with an uncertain future finds a joyful moment in an impromptu singing of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, easily the finest single moment in motion pictures this year.  It has nothing to do with anything, except that its exactly the kind of simple, unimportant moment that could easily happen in real life, and is the kind of thing one never forgets.

The writing and directing are impeccable, and the cast is sheer perfection.  Young Patrick Fugit is a remarkable find, arguably with a future as bright as his character’s.  He plays William with such humanity and appeal that no one could dismiss him as too good to be true.  Frances McDormand is perfect as always as the mother (“Rock stars have kidnapped my son”) in a role that could have easily been reduced to caricature in the hands of lesser actress.  She finds the heart of this woman, and we can’t help but love her for it.

But special mention must go to Kate Hudson, who turns in the year’s most winning and memorable supporting performance as Penny Lane.  It’s a role that evolves with the movie…she starts out just as a colorful supporting character, but grows into a person of depth, feeling, and importance right before our eyes.  It’s a joy to watch her work, and her Golden Globe win was well deserved.

The fact that this film didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture is a travesty and a faux pas that will taint the integrity of the Academy Awards for many years to come (there, I said it).  Almost Famous boasts a brilliant script, superb actors in top form, expert direction, and a soundtrack of music that will keep you humming for days…but the real genius of the film is that it becomes so much more than just the sum of its individual parts.  It’s the rare kind of picture that warms the heart and tickles the funny bone at the same time, and is a beautiful, funny, loving look at a period of time when innocence was treasured, not wastefully discarded.

Video ****

Dreamworks, as usual, is in top form with this DVD.  This is a flawless transfer that presents a wide array of colors and lighting schemes with integrity.  Whether showing the sunny outdoors of California or the darkened night skies of Topeka, whether in a flatly lit hotel room or an outrageous ocular assault on a concert stage, Almost Famous renders with excellent detail and sharpness, with strong, natural and well contained coloring in every setting.  There is no evidence of compression, nor any grain, break-up or softness to spoil the spell, proving once again why this young studio remains a master of the format.

Audio ****

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (DTS also included) teases you at first by simply being a clean, crisp rendering of dialogue and classic rock tunes, but when Stillwater hits the stage, it bursts open with a sonic euphoria that had me on the edge of my seat.  Cameron Crowe worked diligently to make them seem like a real band, and they really come to life with this audio that makes strong use of the .1 speaker and rear stages to make it a live concert experience come to life.  For a film that serves as a love letter to rock and roll, you can’t ask for a much better listen.

Features ***

I so wanted a Cameron Crowe commentary track, but I’m happy with what the disc does have to offer, starting with a nice making-of documentary (more interesting than most because of the autobiographical aspects of the picture).  It talks with Crowe, his wife Nancy Wilson, and all the principle cast members, and even Cameron’s early Rolling Stone boss!  There is also a trailer, a Stillwater music video for “Fever Dog”, talent files, production notes, and even a collection of Cameron Crowe’s magazine articles, including the piece on The Allman Brothers Band that started it all.  Plus, the disc boasts some nice animated menus with sound and a very cool design.

Summary:

Almost Famous, like many of Cameron Crowe’s movies, is one for the time capsule; one that you’ll want to pull out and watch time and time again just to remember the feeling of seeing it for the first time.  Regardless of what Oscar says, it’s one of the year’s best films.  Unabashedly recommended.