Peter Biskind's Easy Riders/Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood was one of the most entertaining movie books to come along in years. First published in 1998, it offered a mostly insightful overview of those tumultuous years in the film biz, roughly between 1966 and 1981, when desperate studio heads gave unprecedented freedom to a new generation of filmmakers: Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Bogdanovich, Altman, Milius, Ashby, Lucas, Friedkin. Biskind rightly recognized the degree in which the personal and professional lives of these budding directors and their actor friends and associates intersected. Instead of a book of film theory or one dominated by behind-the-scenes histories, he zeroed in on this weird scenario, exploring how studios entrusted millions of dollars to unproven, unstable, and in some cases completely out-of-control talent. He documented how, for a brief dozen years, they were able to make a series of incredibly daring, watershed films, and how drugs and alcohol contributed to the decline of what might have been a new Golden Age of American cinema.
The book was also deliciously salacious and inflammatory and gossipy. The back cover alone had more honest rage than a tall stack of standard Hollywood books, such as Robert Altman's heartwarming tribute to producer Don Simpson: "Simpson was a bad guy, a bum," he told Biskind, "It's a big plus for our industry that he [died]. I'm only sorry he didn't live longer and suffer more." Or Marcia Lucas on Francis Coppola: "It was no secret that Francis was a major pussy hound....Francis would be feeling up some babe in the pool. I was hurt and embarrassed for Ellie, and I thought Francis was pretty disgusting, the way he treated his wife."
This same uneasy but completely engrossing story is carried over in the BBC's film version of Easy Riders/Raging Bulls (2003). The documentary, written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, who also made Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (1990), emulates the format and style of Biskind's book very closely.
Of course, many of the author's interview subjects were badly burned by the book, especially Altman and William Friedkin, so one can hardly blame them for not participating here. Partly because of this, those directors aren't discussed much, while other important figures of that era, such as Michael Cimino, aren't mentioned at all. Nonetheless, the 40-odd interviewees, including at least several who disliked the book, talk freely here.
While overall the interviewees are a bit more guarded, the movie of Easy Riders/Raging Bulls is still refreshingly frank. Directors, screenwriters, producers, and actors talk about the excitement of that era, the camaraderie, the jealously, the pride they took in the environment that allowed such filmmaking, the drugs and booze that worked to unravel it. And how the blockbuster mentality crept into the industry, after The Godfather successfully opened on a then record 400 (!) screens. After Jaws became the first movie to earn $100 million (on 1,200 screens -- Hollywood learns fast), great movies doing "decent [business] wasn't enough anymore." By 1980, a movie no longer had to be good, "just as long as it made a great trailer."
And there are some great stories: Jack Warner's first viewing of Bonnie and Clyde ("What the fuck's an homage?"); Peter Fonda's surprise at how well Columbia's publicity department actually understood Easy Rider. Henry Jaglon's flight to Peru with the cast and crew of Dennis Hopper's ill-fated The Last Movie ("It really was a ship of fools."). One of the more defining moments of that chaotic time is remembered by Jonathan Taplin, who recalls an AFI tribute to an ailing Alfred Hitchcock, during which the younger generation of filmmakers crammed into the men's room, 3-4 to a stall, all to snort coke.
And yet much of the show revolves around the enormous excitement it was for these artists to make these incredible movies. Thirty years later, many of them are still visibly thrilled talking about what they and their friends had achieved.
The different personalities compliment one another. Margot Kidder and Richard Dreyfuss are charming and speak with surprising candor. Bogdanovich is both more the historian excellent at putting everything into context yet also more reserved. John Milius, with his prop of a cigar, is like a macho Orson Welles-type raconteur. A still wacky Karen Black adds palpable tension in her interview, while Joan Tewkesbury smartly criticizes the stifling influence of Entertainment Tonight, in which box office figures became all-important.
Movie documentaries increasingly avoid using film clips because studios presently charge such ridiculous rates for their use. Nevertheless, the show makes good use of clips from many of the era's key films, most Columbia- and MGM-owned titles, though there are clips from several Universal and Warner Bros. movies as well. Long static shots of talking heads are balanced with fast-paced cutting to news footage (Polanski at a press conference following the murder of Sharon Tate, the Fox backlot being bulldozed, interview footage from about 1970 with a scrawny, nerdy George Lucas) and shots of original one-sheet movie posters than have cleverly been brought to a kind of organic life via animation.
Video & Audio
The documentary is presented in 1.77:1 ratio in 16:9 anamorphic format. The image is sharp and the interviews are well lit. The film clips are of variable quality. An excerpt from Dementia 13 looks better than this reviewer has ever seen it, while clips from The Last Picture Show look awful. Trailers are sourced for some excerpts, and 'scope films have been cropped to fit the 1.77:1 frame. The stereo sound serves its function. Unfortunately, no subtitles are offered. This reviewer found the menu screens, which imitate the flicker of a movie projector, annoyingly hard on the eyes. Epileptics with big TVs may want to avoid watching this in a darkened room.
The single extra is both very satisfying and rather peculiar. More Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll is nearly a second, mirror image like documentary, running 102 minutes. It's minus the film clips and animated posters, but otherwise has been edited together in the same manner. Watching all these outtakes one would think the show would play like yesterday's leftovers, but in fact is as entertaining and informative as the main feature. Several interview subjects cut out of the main film turn up here, including legendary DP Gordon Willis, critic Andrew Sarris, and director Monte Hellman.
Many of the interviewees react to the late Julia Phillips's explosive book, You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, with Margot Kidder amusingly describing her reaction this way: "God, I though we were having a good time! What is this? It was the happiest time in my life. What is this horribly depressing book about a coke addict and some criminals up the road?"
There are more great stories, such as Peter Bogdanovich in his early days so poor he was reduced to wearing ill-fitting, cast-off suits worn once by Jerry Lewis. Or screenwriter David Newman recalling a screening of The Lady Eve that Bogdanovich had arranged to prepare Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal for What's Up, Doc?. Instead of enjoying the film, the two stars became obsessed with counting the number of close-ups afforded Fonda and Stanwyck and, otherwise disinterested, stormed out halfway through.
To its credit, the show offers a lengthy section entitled "The Participants Strike Back," in which many of the interviewees strongly criticize Biskind's book, some not without justification. Finally, Biskind himself offers a kind of rebuttal, in which he raises the kind of issues commonly faced by biographers and celebrity journalists.
Ultimately, Easy Riders/Raging Bulls does what a good Hollywood documentary is supposed to do: it makes you want to go out and rewatch all these seminal movies. In 2004, at a time when major studio films overall have never been worse (well, maybe 1928-29 was as bad, when talkies first came in), movies like Mean Streets and The Last Picture Show and The Conversation and dozens more can't help but play better than ever.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.