If, by the end of 2003, you didn't have a clear idea about the historical significance of the late 1960s and '70s, well, you never will. First came A Decade Under the Influence: The '70s Films That Changed Everything, co-directed by Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme. Then came Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, with the even heavier subtitle, How the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. The latter film, based on Peter Biskind's dishy 1998 book, has recently been released by Shout! Factory, and like its Independent Film Channel counterpart, is loaded with extra interviews that actual do provide added insight.
At first blush, the two films are a blur. For the life of me, I couldn't initially remember who interviewed for which documentary -- or more accurately, who didn't interview for which documentary. Then returned the vivid memory of how badly burned were some of the subjects of Biskind's incredibly dishy book, most notably Robert Altman and William Friedkin (two larger egos you will never find), so much so that they boycotted Bowser's filmed version of the book. Which is hilarious when you think about it, for here is the opportunity to set the record straight, but instead, Altman and Friedkin ponied up for Decade instead.
They missed a great opportunity, for much of Easy Riders lies on the second, bonus disc that essentially is just more interviews -- additional footage from the original version, and interviews with those who weren't included in the original version. (Film critic Andrew Sarris, who can be just as baffling in speech as in print, vaguely discusses his clashes with fellow critic and arch rival Pauline Kael.) But on that second disc, there is a section called "The Participants Strike Back," where the subjects of the book finally get to take their cuts at Biskind. "They missed the humor," notes Joan Tewkesbury, the screenwriter for Nashville. "Somehow, it all got confused with drugs, but there was a euphoria that we were getting away with it."
Peter Bart, the former vice president for Paramount who's now back in journalism with Variety, agrees: "The book made so much about the intrigue that it ignored the sense of fun, the joy, and the camaraderie of getting the work done."
And the work, if you didn't already know, was magical at times. This was the era that produced some of the most important American directors, with giants such as Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, and bright flames such as Arthur Penn, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin. (Altman, who started his career much earlier, still did his best work in this era.) Bowers dutifully follows Biskind's book structure, presenting his narrative in an easy-to-follow chapter form, starting with the mid-1960s crumbling of the old Hollywood studio and the rush to fill the void by writers, directors and actors often inspired by the French New Wave yet trained on the fly-by-night sets of producer-director Roger Corman. Fueled by turbulent social and political change and the sex and drug revolutions, the younger generation "stormed the gates," as Biskind put it, and for but a brief decade made compelling cinematic works. (It should be noted that 20 of the films in the American Film Institute's Top 100 movies of all time came from the period 1967-1980, with The Godfather checking in at No. 3.)
But the more powerful and drugged out the "movie brats" became, the more consumed they became, and by the end of the 1970s, it was the straight-arrow crowd led by Spielberg and George Lucas and their passion for action that would fuel the blockbuster phenomenon that dominates Hollywood to this day. As they like to quote Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, "We blew it."
In between all of that is an amazing amount of cinema history that would excite any film geek but is also romantic enough to entice the average viewer. For no matter how much the participants might disagree, the beauty of Biskind's book is the dish, the gossip, because he rightly reasoned that then more than ever, the personal lives of the artists inspired their professional lives. One need look no further than during the making of The Last Picture Show, how Bogdanovich hopelessly fell in love with Cybill Shepherd, who had been recommended (ironically enough) by his wife, Polly Platt. All three of the unwilling members of this love triangle discuss the affair with a certain resignation, though when Shepherd says, "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't have done it any differently," she does so with the same twinkle that made her such a convincing Jacy Farrow. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls now serves as a nice dual-media history lesson about a seminal period of American filmmaking. The book remains required reading. After all, at nearly 500 pages, there's so much more dish. But in this thoughtful documentary, you get the point.