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MRQE Top Critic

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When it was released in 2000, Almost Famous was a delight: a fan’s love letter to rock and roll in the early 1970s. Writer-director Cameron Crowe’s new version, Untitled: the Bootleg Cut, is even more satisfying.

Instead of including deleted scenes out of context in the Special Features section of the DVD, this version has two discs. The first contains the extended director’s cut, Untitled: The Bootleg Cut, along with some special features. The second disc bears the Almost Famous theatrical release and other special features.

It is the strong characters that make this film a joy to watch and the extended version gives those characters more depth.

The Music Will Set You Free

A DVD gem that shines for its fine characters and actingProtagonist William Miller’s fate is clearly sealed when his older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) leaves their San Diego home in 1969, setting out for San Francisco to be a stewardess. She says to him, “Look under your bed, it will set you free.” In one of many perfect notes Cameron Crowe hits in this film, Anita jumps in her boyfriend’s car, whooping with joy at her new freedom, but then blinks hard as she gazes back at her old neighborhood as she rolls toward her future, to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”

Cut to William (Patrick Fugit) flipping through the stack of records his sister left for him: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Who’s Tommy, and other musical touchstones of the time (some of the albums are out of place, for example, Joni Mitchell’s Blue was not recorded until 1971.) Cut again to 1973, when William is doodling the names of his favorite bands and has been sending copies of his high school paper articles to his idol, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a brilliant cameo), rock critic and editor of Creem magazine.

The newbie journalist gets his big break when Bangs assigns him to cover a Black Sabbath concert. After he is repeatedly and humiliatingly denied entrée backstage, the somewhat desperate William impresses the opening band, Stillwater, with his extensive knowledge of their music and a bit of flattery (“Your guitar playing is incendiary!”). This leads to a Rolling Stone magazine assignment to go on the road with Stillwater and the rest is history.

History Repeats Itself

It truly is history, despite the invention of the fictional band. This is Crowe’s very autobiographical tale of his beginnings as a writer: The commentary track bears this out, as he and his mother discuss in minute detail all the things that “really happened.” Occasional references from Crowe’s reprinted Rolling Stone articles, another DVD feature, surface throughout the film. Crowe tells his coming-of-age story not only from his own perspective but views it from his mother’s as well; she is forced to place her trust in her son and let him do what he is driven to do. Her exhortations to not take drugs are among the funnier running gags in the film.

This Cinderella story is all the more delicious because we can see that it is based on fact: a teen, on the fringes because mom sent him ahead a couple of grades, turns cool by going on the road with the country’s hottest young band and lands a cover story with Rolling Stone. What pimply, picked-on kid would not dream of instant delivery from the tedium of high school and life with mom? William’s coming-of-age road trip gives us the vicarious thrill, without the hangovers, of touring with bands with reputations for wretched excess like The Who, the Allman Brothers, or the Rolling Stones.

Crowe’s love of humanity is one of the things that makes Almost Famous great. This nerd-turned-hip story shuns many opportunities to condescend — the big sister to the little brother, the daughter to the mother, the mother to the son, the jaded rock stars and groupies to the innocent young journalist. Where mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap depend on belittling the intelligence of the band members, Untitled allows each of the participants in the drama to have their own intelligence.

Music Lessons

In the Stairway to Heaven deleted scene, a pivotal moment lands on the editing room floor. William and some of his supporters from high school — a friend and a couple of his teachers — ambush his mother, exhorting her to allow William to go on tour with Stillwater. It is William’s last-ditch effort to convince his mother that there is thought and poetry in rock music rather than merely “drugs and promiscuous sex.” (Instructions appear for cueing up your own copy of Led Zeppelin’s epic fantasy because the filmmakers didn’t get the rights to it). You can then spend the next several minutes watching a group of actors sit in an exact replica of Cameron Crowe’s childhood living room listening to Stairway to Heaven in its entirety. Everyone anxiously scans Elaine’s face, hoping she’ll finally give in and allow her son to fulfill his destiny as brilliant rock writer.

Eventually William succeeds in winning his mom over, of course. Untitled and the theatrically released version show only Elaine’s sudden about-face and cut to William on the tour bus with the band, his notebook and tape recorder at the ready.

But the lengthy deleted scene, while amusing for the cueing gimmick, is mercifully cut from the final version. Would-be filmmakers can watch it for instruction in when the writer-director crosses the line into obsessive recall of his own particular childhood moments. The commentary track reveals exactly how obsessive Crowe can get; he and his mother banter about the details exactly replicated from their own life as well as the many dresses and costumes that the costume designer, Betsy Heimann, recreated from photographs and clothing preserved by Crowe’s mother.

Almost Famous is jammed with details about the world of early-to-mid-seventies rock in its many forms — psychedelia, early heavy metal, and glam rock among them — at a moment when the making of popular music was on the cusp of exploitative commercialism. Despite his attention to the most minute of details, Crowe understates the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Perhaps Crowe is still pulling punches in his writing, still walking that tightrope between journalist and buddy-to-the-stars.

Musical Talent

Almost Famous is artfully cast. Patrick Fugit gives a convincing portrait of someone struggling to fit in and simultaneously assert himself. He works out who he is at the same time he is trying to work out his relationships with everyone else. Kate Hudson is luminous as the intoxicating yet vulnerable Penny Lane. Billy Crudup plays some mean guitar and inhabits the role of Russell Hammond (a part originally conceived for Brad Pitt), his face quietly telegraphing his anxieties as he negotiates the delicate task of filling his almost-famous rock-star shoes. Jason Lee is convincing as Stillwater’s attention-grasping lead singer, Jason Bebe. Hudson as Band-Aid Penny Lane and McDormand were both nominated for best supporting actress Oscars, but they must have split the Academy’s votes. They should have tied.

Even some of the smaller parts are well played. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a delightful impression of Lester Bangs (as you can see yourself if you watch the interview with the real Lester Bangs included on the DVD), and Terry Chen’s wild shirts and exclamations of “Crazy!” reveal the impeccably hip Ben Fong-Torres (Rolling Stone’s editor-in-chief). Saturday Night Live’s Jimmy Fallon plays a slick new band manager bringing the rising band into the new era of corporate rock. Even Michelle Moretti stole her mere two seconds on the screen as the Swingo’s Celebrity Inn desk clerk.

This film would not have been half as successful without the help of a fine soundtrack. Tunes by the Beach Boys, The Who, Elton John, Neil Young, and many others evoked colorful moments in my own past and served the story well. Crowe and his wife Nancy Wilson (formerly of Heart) wrote Stillwater’s songs, which are reminiscent of the early beginnings of the heavy metal era. The actors who played Stillwater spent several weeks under Peter Frampton’s tutelage, practicing four hours a night five nights a week for six weeks to learning to play their instruments and look like a real rock band. The show they performed in Cleveland for a live audience appears in its entirety in the special features. Untitled: the Bootleg Cut shines for so many reasons. The fine characters and acting; the careful attention to the relationships between artists, their fans, their friends, and their critics; and ultimately writer-director Crowe’s sheer generosity of spirit toward everyone from the straight-and-narrow mom to the burned-out groupie to his protagonist, the eager teen writer himself.

We’re fortunate to have Crowe’s perspective on a moment in American musical history that we will never see the same way again.