The easy analogy for "Roadside Prophets" is the hippie-biker classic "Easy Rider." "A Gen-X Easy Rider," "Easy Rider For the 90s," "A Modern Easy Rider," etc. Yes, there is in fact a lot in writer/director Abbe Wool's 1992 cult comedy that stirs up memories of Fonda and Hopper, but to suggest this is nothing more than an alt-rock Bush (Sr.)-era retread of a familiar road movie is to underestimate this sly examination of lost, lonely, drifting souls.
The film stars John Doe, he of the legendary punk band X, as Joe Mosely, a nice guy with a crap job and a sweet ride. After a shift at the factory, he meets Dave Coleman (David Anthony Marshall), a fellow nice guy with a crap job and a sweet ride. Dave tells Joe about this glorious town in Nevada called El Dorado, where there's a casino named the Three Queens (or the Four Kings, or the Two Jacks, Dave can't remember), a place you just, like, have to visit, man. And then Dave dies. Well, Joe, being such a nice guy and all, decides to take Dave's ashes to El Dorado, assuming he can find the damn place.
Joe winds up with an unlikely riding partner in Sam (Adam Horovitz, aka the Beastie Boys' Ad-Rock), who just bought his own motorcycle and hopes he can tour the western desert with his new friend. Sure, man, it's a free road.
All of this is a thin line on which Wool (who previously wrote "Sid & Nancy") can hang a series of whimsical philosophical notions presented by a hodgepodge of cameo stars. Timothy Leary pops in to warn Sam about the dangers of heavy stuff, advising the kid to keep an eye out for "transcendent reality - seeing in, seeing out." Arlo Guthrie reminisces of a road journey he took in the early 1960s. Jennifer Balgibin has no problem with free love and sex without commitment. David Carradine offers a gentle song, some free sleeping bags, and plenty of hits off his hookah. Stephen Tobolowsky would like you to remember to cut up your plastic six-pack holders so the animals don't get stuck in them. Bill Cobbs and Lin Shaye serve up hospitality while telling tales of how cancer and AIDS changed their perspective on life. Harry Caesar sits Joe down to discuss solitude and regret. Ellie Raab is off to Alaska to help clean up the oil on the shores. And John Cusack? Why, he'd like to buy you the biggest dinner you've ever had.
Along the way, Joe finds himself and Sam comes to terms with his past, which is just how it should be in a road movie. Wool's script taps into the disconnect and uncertainties of the years following the Reagan era, when Generation X was coming of age and finding its ground. Granted, John Doe isn't exactly the right age to stand in for Gen-Xers, but he does supply a bridge between the hippie generation of Guthrie and Leary and Horovitz' younger set. "Roadside Prophets" has one generation looking back for help from the previous one, wondering if Gen-X can ever be as free as those who went off to Woodstock.
And yet the film remains timeless, because while it is of the early 90s, it is not locked into it. After all, alienation is a universal feeling, and when Joe hears Caesar's hotel manager speak of how much it hurts to be alone and how much he wished he did more with his life, this isn't the cry of a single generation, but of all of them.
Wool packs all of this in yet refuses to let the movie become heavier than she wants it to be. She keeps her film light and snarky, with a third act that successfully parodies all expectations we've come to have about the road movie formula. The way the script deals with the standard big-night-at-the-casino finale is intelligent and biting, and its aftermath grows into a thoughtful conclusion that perfectly wraps up the entire journey.
It's easy to see why "Roadside Prophets" became an under-the-radar cult classic (great cast, sly writing, killer music, beautiful scenery), yet it's a shame that the film never rose above its slightest cult status. Here is a quiet gem of a movie waiting for you to discover it, a movie itching to please those with tastes for the overlooked and the underseen.
Image's anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer is quite stunning, considering the age and relatively low budget of the picture. Some grain and softness is inevitable, while the rest is quite lively and impressive, making the most of Wool's desert vistas.
Purists will welcome the original stereo track, while I actually prefer the Dolby 5.1 upgrade. The surround mix adds a fullness to the soundtrack without overdoing it - sounds remain mostly up front, with rear speakers used only for ambiance. No subtitles are provided.
None. Which is a shame, for obvious reasons.
The lack of bonus material is the only drawback to this disc, which does the movie right with an admirable presentation. Fans of independent cinema from the era will delight to see another favorite finally on disc, while newcomers will have plenty to enjoy as well. Recommended.