Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s sensational account of the trials, tribulations and excesses of Hollywood during the sixties and seventies, has become one of the definitive books about modern American cinema. Along with the insight provided by Adventures in the Screen Trade and the bitchy gossip of You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, if you wanted to know the inspiration behind films like Chinatown and – more importantly for some – exactly who was sleeping with who, then Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was the book to get. Or, if you were one of the Hollywood stars mentioned, it was the book to be more than a little worried about.
Kenneth Bowser’s documentary based on the book could never hope to have the same impact as the source material, yet it still remains a fascinating account of a time when movie brats, lotharios and neurotics took over the movie business. Taking a more or less chronological approach, the documentary focuses mainly on the directors who made everything happen. With chunks devoted to Corman (who seems to have worked with everyone on the face of the planet), Hopper and Fonda (which makes it clear that there is definitely no love lost between the two) and many others, there’s plenty here to enjoy. Its style is reminiscent of another documentary about Hollywood, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Using archive footage and photographs, the film is quite successful in transcending simple talking heads. Yet – especially for the hardened cineaste – there’s very little in the documentary that feels revelatory. As a primer for those who wish to learn more about an important time in American cinema, then Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is perfect. But for those wishing to go deeper may find something lacking.
This is partly due to the (understandable) lack of input from Hollywood big hitters such as Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola, who were a mite peeved with the original book. So, whilst stars such as Richard Dreyfuss and Margot Kidder provide some fascinating anecdotes, one sometimes feels that you’re only getting half the story.
However it is fair to mention that the DVD comes with 100 extra minutes of footage not broadcast when the film was first aired on BBC 4. It allows many of the stories to be fleshed out (though, frustratingly, it doesn’t allow you to play them all at once) and give the documentary slightly more depth. More interesting are the two sections where the stars and Peter Biskind get to have their say about the book. Biskind recounts that he met Coppola, who wasn’t too happy. After some back and forth banter, Coppola said ‘I forgive you’, which made Biskind feel a lot happier. Until someone pointed out that’s what Michael Corleone says to Fredo at the end of The Godfather Part II. I hope Biskind doesn’t have any fishing trips planned.