Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Kenneth Bowser's 2003 adaptation of Peter Biskind's deliciously trashy account of Hollywood's '70s-era golden age, had the misfortune of appearing around the same time as A Decade Under The Influence, Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme's oppressively reverent take on the same subject. The overlapping documentaries essentially negated each other commercially, though Influence enjoys the better reputation, due to its high-minded tone and its more prestigious assortment of filmmaking heavyweights. But high-mindedness isn't always a virtue: Easy Riders is far livelier and more entertaining. Where Influence plays like the sort of wholesome, educational fare shown to idealistic students in Intro To Film courses, Easy Riders feels like it should be stumbled upon at 2 in the morning by stoned film majors.
The film documents how the death of the studio system and the rise of both the counterculture and a generation of ambitious film brats combined to create a seismic shift in American filmmaking. In the late '60s and '70s, a fateful alignment of talent, opportunity, and resources created a surplus of challenging, unconventional films that plugged into the cultural zeitgeist, but before long, the hubris of the decade's superstar filmmakers prompted a retreat into the safety and predictability of blockbusters and escapist fare. As Biskind's page-turner illustrated, American film in the '70s overflowed with tragic heroes whose Falstaffian appetites seemed inextricably linked to their outsized gifts. Though burdened by clunky narration, Easy Riders captures the liberating, conspiratorial solidarity among filmmakers living out their gaudiest show-biz fantasies together, as well as the chemical and creative excess that proved a generation's undoing.
The double-disc DVD set's supplements include almost an entire film's worth of interviews focusing on some of the era's most important figures. Revealing moments abound, as when Richard Dreyfuss presciently recounts the absurdity of reacting with shock to special effects to be added later—first in Jaws, then in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Even more compelling is Peter Bogdanovich discussing his convoluted soap opera of a career with characteristic deadpan understatement. He's like Ben Stein cast as the tragic hero of a sweeping backstage melodrama. The second disc ends with an interview with Biskind himself, and he gives his critics ample ammunition by detailing his weasely attempts to avoid the many directors he'd alienated with Easy Riders. Biskind may not be much of a movie historian, but the book and film versions of Easy Riders both qualify as first-rate gossip.