Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Almost Famous: Untitled- The Bootleg Cut

Grade : A+ Year : 2000 Director : Cameron Crowe Running Time : 2hr 2min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” is a movie that anyone of a certain age, and at a certain time of their life, will absolutely fall in love with. Same goes for anyone who remembers that time of their life as vividly as the day they see it.

In its’ theatrical form, the movie was an instant classic (and an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay). But Crowe always had bigger plans for the film. And “Untitled: The Bootleg Cut” is his masterpiece. The film wears an extra 39 minutes of depth and character like someone who’s comfortable in their own skin even if they look overweight on the outside.

When the film came out in 2000, it resonated with me hard, and was one of the films I came to love most in the months after my grandfather’s death. It also gave me the feeling that, whatever came about in my life, I’d be able to handle it.

In the film, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is a 15-year old whose school hates him. His very conservative mother Elaine (played by Frances McDormand in a performance that is very much the equal to her Oscar-winning turn in “Fargo”) skipped him two grades ahead when he was younger (the scene when his sister Anita- a deliriously funny Zooey Deschanel- forces their mother into telling him how old he really is resonates with sly wit as much as it does with tragic feeling). But Anita is determined to make sure William doesn’t miss out on the same opportunities; when she takes off with her boyfriend Derek to become a stewardess, she not only plays Simon & Garfunkel’s poetic “America” to explain why she’s leaving, but she also leaves him a crate of records, and the words, “Look under your bed. It’ll set you free.”

And it does. By the time he’s 15 he’s a gifted writer on music and rock n’ roll who makes an impression with famed rock critic Lester Bangs (the amazing Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who will serve as an important mentor for him when he gets a chance to write about the up and coming band Stillwater for Rolling Stone. It’s not long until he’s on tour with the band- on the condition that he doesn’t miss more than 1 test- and witness to a lot of things we normally don’t hear about, probably because most writers and the artists they cover have an unspoken agreement to leave out certain things, at least that’s what Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), Stillwater’s guitarist, seems to imply at times when he and lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) aren’t coming to blows.

The situation is ripped from the life and times of Cameron Crowe, who was a rock writer for Rolling Stone before turning to filmmaking and creating the classic likes of “Say Anything” and “Jerry Maguire.” His mother is proud of him regardless of what he lets on this film- they have a great rapport on the commentary track that lets us in on the real scoop behind “Almost Famous.” It’s one of the great yak tracks.

The movie is also one of the best. True, it’s an idealized version, but I’d believe Crowe if he told me this is what his experience was like. Rock is in his veins, as you can realize just by hearing the soundtracks to his movies. It’ll be in your veins to, both as you watch the film and relive it in your memory afterwards. William’s journey into the turning tides of the music industry- with people like Russell, Lester Bangs, and Penny Lane (the “Band-Aid” played by a never-more-luminous Kate Hudson) to guide him in his coming-of-age- is a marvel of character and storytelling. Working with the brilliant cinematographer John Toll (“Braveheart”), Crowe- who compiles a brilliant classic rock soundtrack that’s accentuated by wife Nancy Wilson’s instrumental score- plays it loose and bright with the story, even when hearts get broken and egos get hurt.

For me, the film comes down to a sequence in New York. Things couldn’t be going better for William and the band- his article has just been announced for the cover- while Penny is at her lowest. She’s not just a groupie looking to be by famous people- she genuinely loves the music. And she loves Russell, even though he has a wife. She and the other Band-Aids have been dumped from the tour for $50 and a case of beer. She’s no good at goodbyes, and she almost ODs as a result. Thankfully, William has chased after her, and is there to save her life. He genuinely loves her, and Penny comes to realize it as she flies off to the real world. Watching him run after the plane, and seeing her wave back, you can’t help but love the vibe, the love, Crowe invests in this scene, in these characters.

I could run through the story beats, talk about the performances, but it’s the moments I love, that make me look back at this film, time and time again. A lot of it comes from William- so earnest, so optimistic, and so excited to be living his life. His interactions with Lester Bangs reveal the most about how these experiences came to define and color his life in the coming years.

Lester: “That’s because we’re uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.”

William: “I can really see that now.”

Lester: “Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start. The only true currency in this bankrupt world if what we share with someone else when we’re uncool. My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.”

This gets to the heart of what being a kid like William was for me, and still is. Lester’s words ring with the harsh sense of truth because, well, they are true. So is this quote by Band-Aid Sapphire:

“They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.”

Anyone worth their weight with passion for art knows that love. I feel it often. I’ve rarely felt it more than I did for this film, which, like any good song, can be played over and over, and never wear on you.

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