Peter Biskind's 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood was a trashy, gossip-ridden page-turner that delved into the last great era of American film. As much about who was snorting what and was banging whom, Biskind's book became a must-read among serious film fans. But despite all the salacious details about Hollywood's movers and shakers of the 1970s, Easy Riders also offered great insights into how some of the most important films of the era came to be, and how filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese rose to power.
Based on Biskind's book, Kenneth Bowser's documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls attempts to capture much of the magic of the tome from which it draws inspiration. On some levels, Bowser's film succeeds, acting almost like a brief, CliffsNotes version of the book. But like a vast majority of movies based on books, there is much that never makes it to the screen. Bowser focuses more on the creative and business side of the '70s, and while the sex and drugs are present they don't share center stage as they did in the book. It's almost as if the filmmaker was worried--and rightfully so--that he wouldn't be able to get people to admit to their debauched behavior.
The other problem the film has are the interview participants. Most of the real stars of Biskind's book--Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, etc.--are noticeably absent. Instead, you get many of the supporting players like Margot Kidder and Karen Black, or filmmakers like John Milius and Peter Bogdanovich. In Biskind's book, the author basically implies that Bogdanovich was not responsible for the genius of The Last Picture Show as much as his wife, Polly Platt. That implication never makes it to the screen, and all we really get is an image of Bogdanovich--a self-important hack--as a gifted filmmaker who seduced his leading actress (Cybill Shepherd) while his wife was on the set.
Recently released on DVD, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls features a second bonus disc with several "mini-docs." Basically, these bonus docs are culled bits of interviews that didn't make it into the final film. Some of the material works better than the actual film. And the bonus footage of Bogdanovich serves as proof that he really is an asshole.
Despite some of its weaknesses, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a good documentary. If you're unfamiliar with this era in Hollywood--and haven't read the book--it's an even better film. If you were to watch this film, along with IFC Films' similar documentary A Decade Under the Influence, and the brilliant The Kid Stays in the Picture, you're going to get a pretty decent crash-course in '70s cinema.