For cinema studies majors seeking a thesis, “The Use of Music in the Films of Cameron Crowe” would be a worthy subject.
Even in his non-music-centered films, each selection is chosen with layered precision, as revealing as it is iconic. When Jerry Maguire hits the open road after signing his first client, and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” soars on his car radio, it’s a moment of ecstatic kismet — but one that, in the lyrics, forecasts the character’s future free fall. The use of Radiohead’s woozy track “Everything In Its Right Place” at the outset of Vanilla Sky subtly suggests the spatial and temporal disconnections that would define this most experimental of Crowe’s movies.
But Almost Famous is his magnum opus, his music id unleashed. Viewing Paramount’s new and drop-dead gorgeous Blu-ray transfer of the extended “Bootleg Cut” ($22.99) and immersing myself once again in this vital Bildungsroman, I was reminded of Crowe’s almost singular talent of director as DJ. There’s the movie’s justly lauded signature scene, of course, in which Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays in fictional band Stillwater’s tour bus after a particularly fractious moment and inspires a communal sing-along — reinforcing pop music’s status as a connective tissue in our cultural firmament. (Ben Folds would go on to cover this song on one of his tours solely on the strength of this scene.)
But having seen — and admired, and, frankly, worshipped — this film so many times, I was able to focus less on story in this viewing, and more on the incidental details, starting with the songs that inform the movie’s universe. When Anita (Zooey Deschanel) leaves her cloistered suburban neighborhood to become a flight attendant in a major metropolitan city, Simon and Garfunkel’s exquisite “America” is just as responsible for the moment’s tactile poignancy as the characters’ performances and Crowe’s direction. For the first time, I picked up on the usage of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” when Russell (Billy Crudup), the increasingly jaded Stillwater guitarist, chooses oblivion over stability for a night of drug-fueled debauchery.
For music nerds, the Easter eggs embedded in Almost Famous are legion, extending from the soundtrack to the mise-en-scène. Having deepened my own rock ‘n’ roll appreciation since the movie’s 2000 release, I picked up on its nods and winks to the period and its personalities: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs dismissing the “fatuous” aesthetics of Jethro Tull from the friendly confines of a rock radio station; the advertisement for John Coltrane’s Giant Steps standing out among the audiophile clutter of Bangs’ apartment; the Stillwater poster that places the band members in the same positions as the Allman Brothers in the Southern rockers’ seminal Live at Fillmore East album sleeve; Jay Baruchel’s Led Zeppelin obsessive, Vic, donning a shirt containing the entire lyrics of “The Rain Song”; Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) describing a brooding Russell as “very Bob Dylan in ‘Dont Look Back’ today.”
This was not my first time viewing the “Bootleg Cut,” which runs two hours and 40 minutes (the theatrical cut is also included in this edition), which should be remembered by history as the essential version. Aside from a scene early on, in which an 11-year-old William Miller is mocked for his underdevelopment by his older schoolmates, none of the added material feels extraneous by any stretch, so I had trouble identifying the extra 30 minutes. It is simply a version that gives the viewer space to appreciate the textures, the music, the themes and the wisdom. You can luxuriate in every moment, appreciating the easy authenticity that Crowe and his cast were able to achieve, as much an example of lightning in a bottle as a perfect pop song.
That said, Almost Famous is such a Great American Movie that its flaws are almost inconsequential, but they are present. One is the miscasting of Jimmy Fallon as a shark-like manager who momentarily persuades Stillwater to sign him. He always felt like a poseur in the part, and still does. Another is the scene in which William (Patrick Fugit) smooches a virtually unconscious and Quaalude-afflicted Penny Lane (“I’m about to go where many, many men have gone before”); this sort of questionable consent has not aged well.
This extras-packed release includes all of the material from the previous “Bootleg Cut” plus a handful of new and never-before-seen reflections from Crowe and his cast. This material was shot last year, so the director appears from the quarantine of his backyard. As a true music connoisseur, he describes his aspirations for Almost Famous as “If we’re lucky enough, it’ll feel like a song you’ll want to play again.” As the teenage rock journalist whose own backstory inspired the movie, Crowe himself did meet Lester Bangs outside a radio station. The modern-day Crowe describes watching Hoffman’s indelible portrayal of Bangs as “like watching an out-of-body experience,” and no longer seeing the actor behind the legendary rock writer.
Other new bonus features include rare footage of audition tests and costume fittings, and a featurette about the making of Stillwater’s music. Crudup, remarkably, had to learn the guitar from scratch, with Peter Frampton and Nancy Wilson serving as technical advisers.
A few deleted and extended scenes, categorized under the section “Odds & Sods” (note the reference to the Who album of 1973), offer some ancillary comedic asides and deepen the characters of the “Band Aids” played by Fairuza Balk and Anna Paquin. A moment in the Rolling Stone offices, in which William is given a night to improve his fawning first draft of his Stillwater feature, leans a bit too hard on mythology and was rightfully cut: “Let him use the big office,” one of the editors says, “It’s where Hunter used to write.”
Almost Famous is, finally, a fin-de-siècle saga. It’s certainly about the loss of innocence, but it’s doubly a meditation on the harsh flipside of the Sixties’ free-spiritedness, and the transience of a once-potent strain of rock decadence. It’s an obituary for its era — one that’s worth reviving again and again.