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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Toning down the more scabrous content of Peter Biskind's1998 bestseller "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," documaker Kenneth Bowser has fashioned a galloping chronicle of the sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll generation's revolutionary assault on Hollywood in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Toning down the more scabrous content of Peter Biskind’s gossipy 1998 bestseller “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” documaker Kenneth Bowser has fashioned a galloping chronicle of the sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll generation’s revolutionary assault on Hollywood in the late 1960s and early ’70s, balancing personal stories with film appreciation and a strong sense of the cultural and social scene that spawned the creative explosion. Airing in the U.S. on popular arts cable web Trio in March and in the U.K. on BBC soon after, this lively recap should segue to buff business on DVD.

Premiered as the opener of Slamdance in the two-hour BBC version, the docu will be seen by U.S. viewers in a cut 14 minutes longer. That version reportedly features an expanded account of the off-screen soap opera starring director Peter Bogdanovich, then-wife Polly Platt and girlfriend-discovery Cybill Shepherd on the set of “The Last Picture Show,” as well as a greater discussion of the contributions of film critics Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. A companion piece to Sundance docu-competition entry “A Decade Under the Influence,” “Easy Riders” differs from the Ted Demme/Richard LaGravenese-directed study by breaking down the subject into individual episodes rather than focusing on the critical overview. The arc covered is more or less identical, starting from the late ’60s, when the studio moguls had become obsolete and expensive Hollywood pics were being snubbed by audiences, and closing on the arrival of the blockbuster and the end of the director’s era. Cut-off point in Bowser’s film is slightly later, however, ending on Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” which it calls the period’s “the last primal scream of defiance.” Adding a different take, “Nashville” scripter Joan Tewkesbury also attributes the death knell of ’70s Hollywood to the advent of “Entertainment Tonight” and mass-media attention to box office scores.

While there’s considerable overlap, principal differences between “Decade” and “Easy Riders” is the latter’s more detailed focus on industry background, and more upfront treatment of drugs and personal behavior problems.

On the independent side, this includes Roger Corman’s factory, which tapped hip trends to create drive-in fodder and foster new directing talent; Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider’s stable, which revolutionized and radicalized the way films were produced; and Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt to start a filmmaking commune in San Francisco with Zoetrope.

Studio developments tracked include the revitalization of Paramount after Charles Bluhdorn installed Robert Evans and Peter Bart to head production and shepherd such key films as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Harold and Maude” and “The Godfather”; the setting of a new precedent when United Artists began giving directors creative control; the short-lived Directors Company of Bogdanovich, Coppola and William Friedkin, who quickly bailed; and the impact of certain successes on release patterns and marketing strategies.

Other chapters include the difficult gestation of “Bonnie and Clyde” under the unimpressed eye of Jack Warner, passing through the hands of Francois Truffaut and (almost) Jean-Luc Godard to Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn, and the unconventional birth of Bogdanovich’s sniper thriller “Targets.” Personal backstories are told, such as director John Schlesinger coming out while making the groundbreaking gay-themed drama “Midnight Cowboy”; outlaw-breed director Sam Peckinpah’s heavy boozing and drug-taking; the shock waves that followed the Manson family killing of Sharon Tate and others in Roman Polanski’s home, and Schneider’s involvement with Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.

Considerable attention is given to the Malibu set that drew together Brian De Palma, Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Harvey Keitel, John Milius, Steven Spielberg and Michael and Julia Phillips, among others. Recalled in part by actresses Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt, who functioned as the group’s de facto social queens, this network revolved predominantly around a bunch of guys who got together to talk movies and fuel each other’s creative drive, and is made vivid via never-before-seen Phillips home movies featuring all of these luminaries in their extreme youth.

Docu also takes in the fallibility of the new-wave directors, often following a major success with a fall. Case in point is Dennis Hopper, who went from “Easy Rider” to the ill-fated “The Last Movie,” the Peruvian location shoot characterized by drugs, out-of-control partying and the director’s increasing paranoia.

Certain directors like Robert Altman declined to be interviewed, reportedly objecting to the scandal-mongering of Biskind’s book. Dividing the docu into chapter headings and shifting laterally between subjects in a fast, fluid edit, Bowser largely adheres to the book’s structure, but generally is more reverential, taking less delight in the excesses of sex, drug taking and artistic megalomania that were prime fodder for Biskind.

Perhaps the one significant disappointment is the limited coverage given to director Hal Ashby, one of the most tragic figures of the movement and subject of an uncharacteristically poignant chapter in Biskind’s book.

In addition to clips and some highly entertaining interviews — Karen Black’s eccentric observations are a riot — the docu assembles fascinating archival footage, much of it rarely seen, including Polanski’s emotional press conference following Tate’s murder, vintage interviews with Warren Beatty and Scorsese, and set footage from Rafelson’s Monkees movie “Head.”

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

  • Production: A Trio presentation of a Freemantle Corp., Submarine Entertainment production. Produced by Rachel Talbot, Kenneth Bowser. Executive producer, Josh Braun. Executive producer for Trio, Andrew Cohen. Executive producer for BBC, Nick Wave. Supervising producer for Trio, Samuel J. Paul. Directed, written by Kenneth Bowser, based on the book by Peter Biskind.
  • Crew: Camera (color, video), Paul Mailman; editors, Paskal Akesson, Mike Lahaie; sound, Scott Petitclerc, Pierrot Colonna, Steve Robinson, Mia Barker; associate producers, Teddy Champion, Susan Williamson. Reviewed at Slamdance Film Festival (noncompeting), Jan. 18, 2003. Running time: 119 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Dede Allen, Peter Bart, Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Ellen Burstyn, Roger Corman, Micky Dolenz, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Carl Gottlieb, Jerome Hellman, Monte Hellman, Dennis Hopper, Willard Huyck, Stanley Jaffe, Henry Jaglom, Gloria Katz, Margot Kidder, Laszlo Kovacs, Kris Kristofferson, Mardik Martin, Mike Medavoy, Sylvia Miles, John Milius, Charles Mulvehill, David Newman, Arthur Penn, Michael Phillips, David Picker, Polly Platt, Albert S. Ruddy, Jennifer Salt, Andrew Sarris, Paul Schrader, Cybill Shepherd, Jonathon Taplin, Joan Tewkesbury, Fred Weintraub, Gordon Willis, Rudy Wurlitzer, Vilmos Zsigmond. Narrator: William H. Macy.