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Almost Famous (4K Ultra HD)
Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies. It is a "chicken soup" movie for me; I can watch it when I am feeling low and my mood is instantly elevated. I do not pretend to be as taken with Crowe's more recent films, like We Bought a Zoo and Aloha, but this 2000 release (and its extended, "Untitled" version) is a wholly involving fairytale about a young writer's immersion into the world of 1970s rock music. As most readers now know, the film is loosely based on Crowe's own experiences writing for Rolling Stone, and its characters and band Stillwater are composites of real subjects Crowe encountered. Patrick Fugit is excellent as 15-year-old William Miller, a child prodigy pushed ahead in school by his loving but overbearing mother Elaine (Frances McDormand). Taken with a cache of forbidden rock records left behind by his sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), William looks to rock journalist Lester Bangs (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) for inspiration. Impressed by his gumption, Bangs hires him to cover a Black Sabbath concert, where he meets "bandaid" Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, in a seminal performance) and the members of Stillwater, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), Ed Vallencourt (John Fedevich) and Larry Fellows (Mark Kozelek). The band pulls William into their circle, which leads to Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) hiring him to cover the band on the road without a clue that William is a child.
Something about the way Crowe shoots Almost Famous makes it that much more appealing. We see the evolving world of ‘70s rock music through the eyes of a precocious, whip-smart child. The sex, drugs, infidelity, betrayal and redemption are all there, but Almost Famous does not dwell on the negative, instead navigating its often-turbulent waters with the optimism of William. Although the two-hour theatrical version is masterful, I will always prefer the director's "Bootleg/Untitled" cut, which runs nearly three hours, for the way it allows the film's characters to evolve and breathe. The free-love ‘60s may have ended, but Almost Famous is still set in a time where artists crafted instead of riding tidal waves of studio production and stock sound meant to sell merchandise. William finds Russell distant and unwilling to sit for his necessary interview; instead preferring to attend a local teenage party or rekindle last summer's affair with Penny. A recurring theme is that William, fresh-faced as he may be, represents the enemy for Stillwater: the rock journalist ready to cut down their values. Since William has little of the life experience necessary to become jaded or influenced by the temptations of life on the road with a rock band, he simply comes along for the ride, taking in the situations that come at him from every side. That makes him the perfect man to document this band with complete honesty. His editor salivates at every phone update, though Elaine frets that William will be sucked into a world she does not understand.
As good as Fugit and Crudup are, it is Hudson that always steals the show for me. Her performance is absolutely perfect as the woman who transcends the label of "groupie" and becomes the band's biggest fan. My heart breaks every time William unloads on Penny the news that she and fellow bandaids Polexia Aphrodisia (Anna Paquin) and Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) have been traded to another band for $50 and a case of beer. Wiping a tear before forcing a smile, Penny asks, "What kind of beer?" It is moments like these that make Almost Famous great. Scenes that would be cheesy in a lesser film, like the entire tour bus breaking out in song to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" work so well here because they are rooted in genuine emotion and involving characters. It dawned on me during this viewing that the film offers relatively little of its running time to Stillwater performances, as good as the fictional band is. Much more time is spent in the in-between; those moments between shows, heartbreaks and triumphs. Packed with memorable music and sights of the era, Almost Famous offers spot-on production design and cinematography and is expertly acted across the board. This is a film I revisit every couple of years, as Almost Famous journeys into rock and roll with heart, empathy, and, above all, a respect for its subject.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
Paramount continues to churn out excellent 4K Ultra HD releases, and Almost Famous is no exception. This native 4K production arrives with a 1.85:1/2160p/HEVC/H.265 transfer with Dolby Vision and HDR10. Remastered from the 35mm camera negative and supervised by Director/Writer/Producer Cameron Crowe, this 4K upgrade provides a wonderfully authentic, filmic presentation of the film. The movie looks gorgeous in motion, and this 4K release offers fantastic texture and detail to support the beautiful period settings and costumes. With its muted color scheme and occasional, purposeful softer focus, Almost Famous has a warm, appealing appearance. Fine-object detail is abundant, from facial features to costumes to the band's equipment. Wide shots are clean and deep, and color saturation is excellent. Black levels are strong, shadow detail is apparent, highlights remain in check, and the film's grain structure is natural and appealing. The HDR pass offers an authentic boost to colors, increasing the presentation's depth and realism. I noticed no issues with edge enhancement or compression artifacts.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix appears to be the same offered on the 2011 Blu-ray release. Although certainly competent, a definitive Dolby Atmos mix would have been appreciated. The dialogue-heavy film benefits from this clean, efficient soundtrack. I noticed no issues with dialogue crowding or clipping, whether said dialogue comes from the center or surround channels. Ambient effects, like crowd noise and weather, infiltrate the surrounds to provide an authentic experience. The few action effects, like a bumpy plane ride and live Stillwater sets, rock the house, benefiting from subwoofer support and excellent element spacing. A French 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and English SDH and French subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc 4K Ultra HD release arrives in striking Steelbook packaging, with images of Penny Lane on the front and back, and a group shot in the interior. A digital copy code is included. The first disc includes the theatrical cut and the bulk of the extras and the second disc includes the Bootleg cut and an audio commentary. On the first disc, the extras are listed under "New Releases" and "Greatest Hits." The former includes Filmmaker Focus: Cameron Crowe on Almost Famous (8:06/HD), a brief, newly produced conversation with the auteur. You also get Casting and Costumes (12:52/HD), a look at the production design; Rock School (10:48/HD), which sees the cast training to be musicians; Extended Scenes (9:00/HD), some of which are quite interesting; and Odds and Sods, which are additional takes and tidbits. Returning extras include an Introduction by Cameron Crowe (1:00/SD); a The Making of Almost Famous (24:50/SD); a vintage Interview with Lester Bangs (1:55/SD); Cameron Crowe's Top Albums of 1973 (3:52/SD); "Fever Dog" Music Video (4:42/SD); "Love Comes and Goes" Music Demo by Nancy Wilson (3:53/SD); several Rolling Stone Articles; B-Sides (5:21/SD), a short behind-the-scenes film; Stillwater's Cleveland Concert (15:44/SD); "Small Time Blues" Music Video (2:55/SD); Stairway (12:13/SD), the famous scene in which William plays "Stairway to Heaven" for his mother that requires viewers to play the music themselves; formerly hidden Easter eggs; and the Theatrical Trailer (2:33/HD). The second disc includes an Audio Commentary by Cameron Crowe to accompany the extended version.
Paramount delivers an exceptional 4K Ultra HD release for one of my favorite films, Almost Famous. Cameron Crowe's rock and roll fantasy is gifted a gorgeous remastered image, attractive Steelbook packaging and a couple of newly produced extras. Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson offer seminal performances in this story of a young writer who travels across the country with 1970s rock band Stillwater. The replay value on this is exceptional, and the 4K Ultra HD upgrade is worthwhile. DVD Talk Collector Series.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.