In 1998 Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was published. This galloping, gossipy bestseller traced the highs and lows, tragedies and triumphs during the sex-and-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll generation's revolutionary (?) assault on Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like Adventures in the Screen Trade and You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, it has come to be seen by some as one of the definitive books about modern American cinema. I can understand why - it has an epic tale to tell: the story of Hollywood in the decade when directors dictated the agenda; before studios settled on a formula for routine blockbusters in the style of Jaws and Star Wars, after the death of the old studio system, in the 1960s, following big-budget flops, such as Cleopatra and Paint Your Wagon.
Documentary maker Kenneth Bowser has provided an understated, broadly chronological summation of that book, which is narrated earnestly by American actor William H. Macy. It is divided into chapter headings and shifts logically between subjects in a pacey fashion. This is accomplished by fluid switches between talking heads and relevant clips from films under discussion, in a fashion that has drawn understandable comparisons with another documentary about Hollywood, The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Does it work? I have to admit to mixed feelings about this adaptation. Some of the archival footage - including Roman Polanski's harrowing and emotional press conference following Sharon Tate's murder - is undoubtedly fascinating. Interviews with the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Margot Kidder, and Cybill Shepherd elicit occasional insights. Personal backstories, such as outlaw director Sam Peckinpah's hard-drinking and heavy drug consumption, and director John Schlesinger's decision to come-out while making the gay-themed Midnight Cowboy, are handled with sensitivity (with Bowser clearly taking less vicarious pleasure in chronicling chaotic lifestyles than Biskind did).
In fairness, Biskind's sprawling book struck a reasonable balance between personal stories with film appreciation, and evoking a strong sense of the cultural and social milieu around that creative explosion. How well does this documentary condense that in its short running time of 2 hours? The answer is that it does it with great difficulty. The result is many glib generalisations and questionable omissions. How else could you explain, contextualise and criticise seminal films such as All the Presidents Men, American Graffiti, Chinatown, Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon, Harold and Maude, Mash, Mean Streets, Network, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, The Wild Bunch, amongst plenty of others, in so short a period of time? The result is more than a faint waft of hagiography hangs in the air. I would have liked to see some critical voices take to task this unqualified account of a time when movie brats, lotharios and neurotics apparently took over the movie business. I can't help but feel that this documentary would have had been better at double, triple or even quadruple the length in which it is seen. This cut just feels like a surface gloss on the work's subject: the New Hollywood era between counter-cultural biker movie Easy Rider and boxing biography Raging Bull. *
Unfortunately, it is also glaringly obvious that only a handful of the period's major filmmakers and stars have agreed to take part (despite what the slightly disingenuous title credit appears to suggest). Hollywood icons such as Robert Altman, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, and Martin Scorsese aren't interviewed contemporaneously by Bowser - leaving you feeling throughout that you're only getting half the story. Instead, much of the anecdotal material is relayed by secondary participants, who are only slightly unfairly characterised by one Amazon reviewer as, "the third assistant cameraman, the consulting script associate and the tea boy".