Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Biskind

Simon & Schuster, 1998, 506 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-80996-6

In the classic Brave New World, Aldous Huxley took a certain pleasure is describing the inane entertainment (“feelies”) perpetrated by Hollywood in his imagined future. It was obviously intended to be a parody of the lousy movies of the thirties, with its simplistic plot, stereotyped characters, obvious racism and happy expected ending.

Fast forward half a century: We’re still being fed pap by Hollywood. From a storytelling standpoint, cinema is the mentally retarded cousin of prose fiction. Most of the time, it does simplistic things, only to be applauded when it does something decent. The average novel on any shelf -including romance- is a better story than the average movie.

And yet, for a brief time in the seventies, it seemed as if Hollywood was re-inventing itself. Young film-makers like Hopper, Coppola, Friedkin, Bogdanovich, Scorsese were making challenging movies like EASY RIDER, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE GODFATHER, THE EXORCIST, RAGING BULL… But then came JAWS and STAR WARS, and the blockbuster mentality that now prevails.

At least, that’s the history that Easy Riders, Raging Bulls tries to tell. A fairly fat book, this non-fiction account remains unusually readable while also being formidably well-researched. (There is an excellent 23-pages index, as well as 35 pages of notes, most of them referring to personal interviews between Biskind and the people concerned.)

There is a lot of dirt in this book. The Seventies are described by Biskind as an era of unbridled hedonism, where everyone slept with almost everyone else, drugs were supplied by the bowls and rock’n’roll defined a generation. Biskind spares no punches in describing the descent through hell of most of the film-makers of this era, their troubled love lives and their constant flirting with auto-destruction. This should be a source book for anyone trying to portray South California as the modern Babylon.

Most of the book is in the details. It’s a shock to read about the behaviour of some now-quite-conservative personalities. This accumulation of anecdotes helps to sustain our interest in a book that could otherwise be stuffy. This is one great book for party anecdotes: “Did you know that Coppola once said to…”

Beyond the dirt and the shocking stories, though, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls fares less well at convincing the reader that there was indeed a “New Hollywood” in the seventies. A look at the most popular movies of the time probably reveals a bunch of movies that were neither superior, nor particularly innovative. We remember THE GODFATHER and THE EXORCIST… but the rest? If drugs, sex and rock’n’roll were necessary for better movies, was the price worth it? Or was the “New Hollywood” of the seventies only an new extension of the general climate of revolution that swept through the sixties?

It is ironic, though, to find out that the main perpetrators of the blockbuster mentality (Spielberg, Lucas, Don Simpson) were encouraged -even nurtured- by the “New Hollywood”. Biskind’s chapters about the success of JAWS and STAR WARS take on a bittersweet quality that’s well developped.

On the other hand, Biskind’s conscious silence about some latter work is surprising and self-defeating: Why not mention that of all these film-makers, only Spielberg and Lucas have managed to take control of film-making means (Lucas with ILM, Spielberg with Dreamworks)? Why conveniently forget Spielberg’s brilliant and artistic SCHINDLER’S LIST? Why not mention Coppola’s THE GODFATHER III? Or the good movies of the eighties and nineties? Or the bad movies of the seventies?

You could say that Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a book to read for all the wrong reasons: For the dirt and the scandals; for an unbiased history of STAR WARS; for the self-destructive paths of a few brilliant film-makers… An interesting book in its own right, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls nevertheless fails to convince that the “Sex, Drugs and rock’n’roll generation saved Hollywood.”

Imagine that.

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