The Double Album

Almost Famous made a meager $32 million during its run in theaters at the end of 2000; having cost more than $60 mil, the movie was deemed a bust--by DreamWorks, which footed the bill, and by more than a handful of writer-director Cameron Crowe's old rock-crit running buddies, who thought it bankrupt in more ways than one. Richard Meltzer, the last of the bohicans, took delight in bashing to bits Crowe and the movie's depiction of music scribbler Lester Bangs; "a gross cultural-personal 'lie,'" Meltzer insisted, "a shitty movie suggested by an unaffecting (if 'successful') life." His angry ol' crit reared its ugly head in the story "Third Spud From the Sun," which found its way into the Nick Hornby-edited Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001, the sort of collection other rock critics read in the shitter, either enraged with jealousy or engaged in the act of self-pleasure. Whatever beef Meltzer has with Crowe is his biz (and he can keep it). Crowe may not have been the world's finest journalist--his Rolling Stone profiles, available for your perusing on the new double-disc Almost Famous DVD, are so puffy you could sleep comfortably on them--but Meltzer's criticism smells of envy, of someone jealous Crowe made a movie in which Bangs (and not he!) is prominently featured and jealous of Crowe's post-rock-journalism success. Guess you're nobody till somebody hates ya.

The reasons for Almost Famous' box-office failure were always a little mystifying: It was the quintessential concept album about a nebbishy fan who, for a little while, fell in with the cool kids and became one of them. It mattered little whether you knew it was Crowe's life story thinly veiled, because it resonated like any great pop song; you could sing along to it as though it were your tale. Only now, with the release of the so-called "bootleg" Untitled version that contains some extra 39 minutes, do you realize its flaws--how it always felt that Band-Aid Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, playing the groupie who loved the music, not just the men who made it) was patronizing Crowe's surrogate, William Miller (Patrick Fugit); how singer Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) seemed too much a non-entity to be a real golden god; how the love triangle between the three never quite connected at the dots. The "new," longer version, which runs nearly three hours, feels somehow shorter and more coherent--like a flawless double album instead of a single disc stripped of some of its best songs.

The relationship between William, Penny and Russell now feels taut, tangible; their prolonged scenes together--of which there are a dozen more--prove how much they love each other, even if they never quite trust each other. The film now contains a longer scene in which Russell confesses to William how he no longer loves music, how the band feels to him like a job: "Everything, to me, used to sound like music," he says, as they stand by a hotel swimming pool. "Everything. Now I don't hear it. You know what I'm trying to say?" For the first time, it feels as though Russell truly is telling William ("the enemy") his secrets. And for the first time, it feels as though Penny is falling for William, not merely adopting him like a stray.

There's also the addition of a hysterical scene featuring Tenacious D's Kyle Gass as a DJ too stoned to conduct an interview; he instead goes on and on about "hermetically sealed bags of human emotion"--like, far out. The collection also features a Crowe commentary, an old interview with Bangs, the theatrical version, a six-song Stillwater CD and a grab bag of other goodies. But the long cut is the shortest way to the viewers' hearts. For the first time, a filmmaker has done right by the DVD format, where "special editions" rarely are: Crowe's taken a very good film and made it great.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky