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review added: 5/12/04



Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
2003 (2004) - Shout! Factory

review by Bradford R. Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Film Rating: C-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B-

Specs and Features

118 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, keep case packaging, bonus interview footage not included in the film, film-themed menu screens, scene access (12 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none


"A galloping chronicle of this generation's revolutionary assault on Hollywood..."

To judge Easy Riders, Raging Bulls just by its cover, you'd think it was a seminal exploration of a cinematic golden age in Hollywood, a heroic tale of the crazy and drugged out storming the proverbial gates to save their art form. You know what they say about judging things by their covers.

The truth is, Easy Riders is less a seminal exploration and more a flighty gossip-fest. It's important to note that by gossip-fest, I'm not maligning the focus of either the documentary or the book it's adapted from. Many have criticized the salacious descriptions of personal in-fighting and excessive indulgence that are found in Peter Biskind's book, and subsequently in the film, but I'm not one of those critics. The young and innovative filmmakers who emerged in the 1970s to help redefine American cinema are remarkable in their talent, but the resurgence of mass produced blockbuster schlock and the loss of so much artistic power is due in large part to the excesses of these auteurs.

But where the book had ample room to dish dirt and criticize excess while still exploring the films created in that milieu, the documentary has a far smaller canvas to play with - about two hours, to be exact. In the hands of a more capable director, such a daunting challenge could be overcome. A narrative arc could have been constructed, and the fat could've been left on the cutting room floor. The result might have been a tightly woven and insightful journey into the filmmakers of the 1970s, a cogent explanation for how they changed Hollywood and where their influence lived on or faded away.

Instead, we get Kenneth Bowser. If Easy Riders is any measure (and his filmography suggests that it is), Bowser is utterly inept at sifting through such massive material to create a film. The subject matter is broad enough on its own. There's a host of directors, producers, writers, and other figures who conspired by accident to create the cinematic achievement that ranges from Hopper's drug-induced films to Spielberg's bar-lifting blockbusters. Bowser only manages to make it seem even more confusing than it is.

As the film bounces from a mass of interviews with the likes of Dennis Hopper, John Milius, Peter Fonda, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Bogdanovich, and others, we're treated to interspersed home video reels and archival interview footage. The result is neither rock n' roll nor particularly sexy. The juice of these people is absent almost entirely.

Nevertheless, the lack of aesthetic energy is a pale complaint next to the film's cardinal sin: a total lack of focus. Given the choice between discussing Bogdanovich's cinematic impact and arrogant fall from grace or his affair with Cybill Shepherd, the film goes with the gossip. The book has the liberty to explore both. The film has a time limit to keep. We get much on The Monkees. We get paltry discussions of Apocalypse Now. Again and again, the film makes the worst possible use of its running time. In the end, if you didn't already know the subject matter, its unlikely you would've been able to piece it all together. Apparently Bowser hasn't fully grasped the meaning of editing.

On the technical side of things, the DVD presentation is a mixed bag. The anamorphic video looks good for those elements shot exclusively for the film. That essentially amounts to interviews against a black background, so don't expect much in the way of a workout. The darks are even, so it's not a problem there. The older source material, archival footage from the 1960s and 1970s, is more of a problem. It's not that we should expect much from such material, but it's clear they used what they could get. The aspect ratios don't always match, and the quality ranges all over the chart. The audio is similarly unburdened, since the film consists mainly of a music track and talking heads. Presented in Dolby 2.0, it sounds fine for what it is.

The second disc offers up the one and only extra: bonus interview footage. There's around an hour and a half of interviews here, and they serve to enhance the amount of knowledge on this release. The truly appalling aspect to these interviews is that by watching them, you get a feel for just how much more substance never made it into the film. It's also worth noting that we might have been better off they'd never made the film at all, and just released hours of interviews with some essays by film historians.

What is there to say about Easy Riders, other than it takes a fascinating subject and thoroughly disservices it? If you already know this era, and you'd like to hear some of the principals (emphasis on SOME) dish in their own words, feel free to pick it up. Otherwise, grab the book and buy A Decade Under the Influence, an infinitely better documentary in both form and substance.

Brad Pilcher
bradpilcher@thedigitalbits.com


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