I have seen Almost Famous in its theatrical rendition a total of four times: twice in the theater and twice at home, on the DVD released last February. What have I got to say about it? It’s a great film. It’s a personal film, and it’s a coming of age one as well, undoubtedly one of the hardest themes to nail correctly. But the magic that happens here is done so by the gently guiding hand of Cameron Crowe, whose note-perfect script and great nuances in acting, directing, and choices of music brought this film higher than expected. Unfortunately, it only resonated with so many, and was passed off as a “deep” film, something that almost guarantees box office failure.
And it failed horribly. I hate to call a spade a spade, but the film didn’t make a dime. With a $60 million dollar budget, the fact that its opening weekend drew a mere $7 million was lost at no one at Dreamworks, I can assure. I guess it says something when a film like Almost Famous loses to Urban Legends: Final Cut, doesn’t it? With an overall theatrical take of less than $33 million, this DVD release shows us the film that could’ve been-and should’ve been-sent to theaters in September 2000.
Either way, back when the DVD was released upon the world, there were rumblings of a mega-DVD release with commentary, deleted scenes, and a completely re-edited take of the film, one that is half an hour longer and called Untitled. This is that DVD release, and this is that re-cut. If you’re interested in the DVD, go on and scroll down to the Video, Audio and Extras section of the review, because I’m going to go on a bit about the differences in the theatrical version and this new, re-edited version.
You see, “Untitled” isn’t merely the theatrical cut with a 30-minute grandiose set-piece in the middle of it that was left out of theaters in September 2000. No, this is a totally reworked edit that features more in-depth character moments and even more laughs. The movie is now not just about William Miller and his rock journalist hopes and dreams. It’s now about his family, his mother and sister and their problems. It’s about the Band-Aids and their struggle for acceptance and a place to reside. It’s the story of Russell Hammond and Penny Lane. It’s all these stories, and no one story gets ‘first billing’. In Almost Famous it was William’s story. In “Untitled”, all of these stories have equal importance. I’m sure the heads at Dreamworks, when shown “Untitled” before September 2000, were puzzled as to how exactly to market the film. It’s not a film! It is chapters of a life, the life of William Miller, as told through Cameron Crowe’s eyes. And what a wonderful tale it is.
The changes aren’t huge, but they aren’t minor either. Some plotlines are filled out, some characters fleshed out better, and the climax of the film is more satisfying in many ways, not just the most obvious ones. While I loved Almost Famous, this new cut of the film has made a believer in me that not all re-edits of films are bad (such as the horrid The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen), and that sometimes you can go back and fix what you might have botched or overlooked the first time.
VIDEO ^ Disc One features “Untitled” while Disc Two holds “Almost Famous”. Both are presented in anamorphic widescreen presentations. Both show the same amount of high quality in the transfers, though a few instances of grain and shimmering show up in the restored footage in “Untitled”.
AUDIO ^ Both “Untitled” and Almost Famous feature Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtracks which are virtually identical. Almost Famous also features the English DTS track from the original DVD release, something “Untitled” desperately needs. With great imaging and deep, consistent bass that Dolby just can’t provide, a DTS “Untitled” track would’ve been a blessing. But, considering the films length and the extras already included, I’m sure space issues were the reason for its departure as well as the amount of money it would cost for such a remix. A French 5.1 track is included for Almost Famous, while no other language audio tracks are provided for “Untitled”.
Subtitles for both cuts are available for French, Spanish, and close-captioned English. Interestingly enough, on “Untitled” the commentary has the ability to be captioned-more on this later.
EXTRAS ^ Spread across both discs, these extras include some interesting deleted scenes and clever workarounds to copyright problems (read on to see why and how). Also, one note about the packaging: presented in a cool looking slipcase, it folds out like a classic 70’s album, with a sleeve in the front holding the 2-page booklet with production notes and chapter listings for both cuts of the film, as well as the Stillwater 6-track CD.
Disc One (Untitled) ^ Feature-Length Scene-Specific Commentary ^ Featuring Cameron Crowe, Scott Martin and Andy Fisher of Vinyl Films, Mark Atkinson from Dreamworks, family friend Ivan Corona and Crowe’s own mother Alice, the only words for this track are must listen. This is gripping from the get-go, with amazing stories from Crowe and his mother about how auto-biographical the film was, what sequences had to be cut down or lost for the theatrical cut, and delete scenes not included in the film (such as Bebe’s coke problem or William running into his long-lost father). Hear Crowe talk about some of the crazy times he had on tour with a band, and how the T-Shirt fight in the film was seen a hundred times in real life with just different variations. If you watch the movie and love it, this is the best companion piece included in the extras, hands down.
May I also mention that the commentary subtitles were very well done! I was highly impressed at their accuracy and hope that more studios begin this feature, especially with those commentaries-like this one-which feature multiple participants that are sometimes hard to differentiate.
Special Features ^ Most of the Special Features feature a small microphone icon beside them. Cameron Crowe’s introductions are audio-only, so click the microphone to hear what he has to say about them, then the feature is automatically began.
Introduction by Cameron Crowe ^ A quick minute-long blurb by the director describes how he wanted to load this special edition with cool box-set like materials, and urges you to explore the disc.
Deleted Scene: Love Comes And Goes (3:52) ^ Nancy Wilson’s original demo for this song is played over a digital video montage of behind the scenes material and rehearsal footage. Cameron Crowe’s introduction is interesting in how he describes his wife’s “man voice”.
Original Rolling Stone Articles ^ Seven Rolling Stone articles are included on which the movie is based, ranging from Joni Mitchell to Led Zeppelin. Interesting but blurry-I suggest reading this on a PC, not your TV screen. Here they are in chronological order, as displayed on the disc:
The Allman Brothers – Dec. 6, 1973 ^ Led Zeppelin – Mar. 13, 1975 ^ Neil Young – Aug. 14, 1975 ^ Peter Frampton – Feb. 10, 1977 ^ Fleetwood Mac – Mar. 24, 1977 ^ Van Morrison – May 19, 1977 ^ Joni Mitchell – Jul. 26, 1979
Interview With Lester Bangs (2:00) ^ The real deal, Lester Bangs himself, featured in a rare TV appearance. Interviewed by someone off-screen, we see just how well Phillip Seymour Hoffman did on his portrayal of the man in question. Shooting off about everything from Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s lack of musical talent to the absence of a 70’s rock god, this is an interesting piece that should’ve been longer. In circa 1970’s full-frame video and 2.0 Stereo.
Cameron Crowe’s Top 10 Albums of 1973 ^ Completely narrated by Crowe with pictures of the album in question, Crowe goes through each choice and tells their significance to him and why he chose them as one of the top 10. Here they are, in order shown:
Allman Brothers – “Brothers and Sisters” ^ David Bowie – “Aladdin Sane” ^ Jackson Brown – “Late For The Sky” ^ Bruce Springsteen – “Greetings From Asbury Park” ^ The Who – “Odds and Sods” ^ Todd Rundgren – “Something/Anything” ^ Elton John – “Honky Chateau” ^ Led Zeppelin – “Houses of the Holy” ^ Joni Mitchell – “For the Roses” ^ Rolling Stones – “Goat’s Head Soup”
B-Sides (5:20) ^ In full frame and Dolby Stereo 2.0, what should’ve been the Almost Famous version of “The Beginning” (the awesome documentary included on the Star Wars Episode I DVD), turns into just an outtake of the radio station interview included in the “Untitled” cut of the film. What can I say, I was let down. The introduction by Crowe explains how he and another person filmed pretty much everything, from script meetings to rehearsals to filming on digital video, and this is what they show for it? Talk about a missed opportunity…
Disc Two (Theatrical Cut) ^ Deleted Scene: Small Time Blues (2:50) ^ Remember the short scene in the hotel room hallway where William Miller eavesdrops on a couple singing a song? Well, this is the entire thing in one swoop, seen over the shoulder of Miller. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Stereo 2.0
Cleveland Concert (15:46) ^ The beefiest of the extras are the three complete songs performed by the fictional Stillwater band at Cleveland in front of a live audience. With title cards that read “Stillwater Almost Famous Tour”, “Cleveland, Ohio, 1973”, this interesting extra is, as taken from Cameron Crowe’s introduction, “Stillwater at their peak.” Watch and enjoy. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and 2.0 Stereo.
Stairway (12:12) ^ “If you told me that I wouldn’t be able to include the Stairway to Heaven scene in the theater or on the DVD, I would’ve said you were crazy” – Cameron Crowe ^ One of the most infamous scenes of the movie is the absent “Stairway to Heaven” sequence that was excised in both the Theatrical Cut and “Untitled” versions of the film because of copyright issues, or lack of securing them. In the film, the song is played to convince William’s mother (Frances McDormand) to let him tour with the band for the Rolling Stone article. By sheer determination Crowe has brought us this extra, though it still lacks the song itself. How does he get around it? Well, I won’t spoil it here, but it’s ingenious and should be used in the future by any filmmaker who lacks a certain song and still wants to show what could’ve been done had the music rights been secured.
Theatrical Trailer (2:26) ^ Presented in anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1, this solid trailer is decent and covers the movie concept pretty well.
Production Notes ^ The two-page booklet included in the slipcase includes a truncated version of the notes found here. Interesting tidbits if not bordering on fluff, the four or five screens are still worth reading.
Filmmakers ^ Biographies and Filmographies for the Director and Producers.
Cast ^ More Biographies on the major players in the film.
The Script ^ In about 400 screens total (no, I didn’t count), the entire script is available. Since it isn’t broken down into chapters or sequences, you begin on page one and must go one-by-one through every half-page to read the script. What’s really curious is the fact that no DVD-ROM counterpart was included, so if you want to check out the script, this is your only option.
Stillwater CD ^ Lastly, included for the set in the slipcase is a 6-track Stillwater CD, originally given out at the wrap party for cast and crew. Some pretty good songs are here, and the best compliment I can give the filmmakers is that it sounds like something a band from 1973 might sound like. Hardcore fans will eat it up and 70’s rock fans even more so.
Overall this is a great set and I’m very happy with it. While it did lose the “Fever Dog” music video and HBO Making Of fluff-piece included on the first DVD, I don’t miss them a bit. I find that the extras in their place are more than worthy. Sale off your old Almost Famous DVD or give it to a friend: This is the replacement we fans have been waiting for!
OVERALL: * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ Almost Famous: Untitled “The Bootleg Cut” (162 min., Unrated ) * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ Almost Famous (Theatrical Version, 123 min., Rated R) ) * * * * – 4 Stars
DVD Ratings ^ VIDEO – * * * * – 4 Stars ^ AUDIO – * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ EXTRAS – * * * ½ – 3.5 Star