DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (7 Films) Head / Easy Rider / Five Easy Pieces / Drive, He Said / The Last Picture Show / The King of Marvin Gardens / A Safe Place – Blu-ray (1968-1972/2010)

What a film-lover’s Blu-ray package!

Published on December 8, 2010

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (7 Films) Head / Easy Rider / Five Easy Pieces / Drive, He Said / The Last Picture Show / The King of Marvin Gardens / A Safe Place – Blu-ray (1968-1972/2010)

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (7 Films): Head / Easy Rider / Five Easy Pieces / Drive, He Said / The Last Picture Show / The King of Marvin Gardens / A Safe Place – Blu-ray (1968-1972/2010)

Starring: The Monkees, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Tuesday Weld, Orson Welles, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Philip Proctor, more
Directors: Bob Rafelson, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich
Studio: BBS (Bob Rafelson/Bert Schneider/Steve Blauner)/Columbia Pictures /The Criterion Collection [11/23/10]
Video: All 1.85:1 for 16:9 1080p HD except Head is 1.78:1
Audio: English, All PCM mono, although Easy Rider also has DTS-HD MA 5.1
Extras: Printed 114-page booklet on all seven films with essays by six writers and many photos: “America Lost and Found – The BBS Story,”  Audio commentaries (sometimes choice of two) for all but Drive He Said (King of Marvin Gardens is just select scenes), Hours of old and new interviews and documentaries, Outtakes, screen tests, TV & radio spots, Still galleries, Trailers
Length & Date of Each: Head 1968 85 min.; Easy Rider 1969 95 min.; Five Easy Pieces 1970 98 min.; Drive, He Said 1970 90 min.; A Safe Place 1971 92 min.; The Last Picture Show 1971 1971 126 min.; The King of Marvin Gardens 1972 104 min. (691 min. total)
Rating: From *** to *****

What a film-lover’s Blu-ray package! Instead of a big expensive set of the original and all the sequels of some big franchise, or all the seasons of some forgettable TV show, we have here an eclectic set of seven films from a little somewhat-independent studio active between 1968 and 1972, which challenged all standard Hollywood films of that period.  As a result of the work of the founders of BBS, a filmic revolution occurred that fostered younger directors and actors and created a whole new counterculture audience of younger and more hip film goers.

It’s ironic to think that the whole project owes its existence to the fact that Rafelson, Schneider and Blauner had loads of money to spend resulting from the success of their invention of the thoroughly-planned superstar rock group the Monkees and their TV and record series. While they were shooting The Monkees feature film Head – seen correctly here for the first time in widescreen format with 5.1 surround – they were talked by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper into financing the budget motorcycle film to which Terry Southern eventually gave the name Easy Rider. In the process they founded BBS and turned out a series of innovative films presenting a realistic portrait of their era rather than a false, Hollywoodized world. Except for Head, the general theme seems to be disaffected younger people, with happy endings not in the cards. Today, independent cinema – especially with the advent of super-economy production using HD video – continues to follow much the same reasons for being.

OK, a quick run-thru of the individual films. I guess Monkees fans are elated to have a decent Blu-ray of Head, but I fast-forwarded thru most of its crazyness. I must say I did love the giant Coke machine in the desert which was Head’s answer to the monolith in 2001.  They tried far too hard to be The Beatles, and didn’t come even close. But it certainly made a lot of money which financed BBS and its other films.

Easy Rider was a watershed film in so many ways. Since most of us have seen it before, I suggest starting with the second hour-long documentary from 1999.  It repeats much of what was in the earlier 1995 documentary and is 16:9. Hopper was still claiming he not only directed but wrote every word of the script, while Fonda and others disagree strongly. I thought the documentary was a better option than using either one of the two continuous commentary tracks during the movie. One is entirely by Hopper – I would think that would become trying.

Knowing some of the details about Easy Rider from the documentary makes it so much enjoyable to watch the actual feature again. Like Casablanca, nobody knew while shooting it what a huge success the film would be in the theaters and ever since. Karen Black says she was very embarrassed having played one of the hookers in the New Orleans scenes, but when she learned what a smash success Easy Rider had been at Cannes and with critics she changed her impression of it. By the way, the New Orleans portion was shot first, in only 16mm, with the warning to Hopper that if it didn’t seem to work out there would be no 35mm feature.  It did, and the grainy low-quality images seem to fit the stoned/hallucinatory feeling of this portion.  Part of the realism of the production was due to Hopper nearly always using ordinary people in the places where they were shooting, rather than trained actors. This was true of the commune they visit, the Louisiana cafe, and even the men in the fatal truck at the end. Hopper originally had a four-hour cut of the film and Fonda and others worked to cut it down to 95 minutes. Amazingly, when they showed the result to Hopper, he loved it.

The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack of the Blu-ray doesn’t sound that different from the PCM stereo option, but it’s a kick to have these great rock tunes of the late 60s in superb stereo rather than the original mono soundtrack.  Crosby, Stills & Nash were supposed to create an original score for the film, but when they viewed it with the current rock music that Fonda and Hopper had selected, they agreed they couldn’t even come close. The extras footage of Fonda and Hopper at Cannes and the interview with Steve Blauner are also worth watching.

Five Easy Pieces cemented Jack Nicholson’s acting reputation which he had started with Easy Rider. He plays the alienated Bobby, who had been a piano prodigy but now worked in the oil fields. It continued the gritty texture of Easy Rider.  Nicholson then got to direct the next BBS film, Drive, He Said, about an alienated college basketball player and his radicalized roommate.  

Jaglom’s A Safe Place is a rather strange introspective story of a young woman losing herself in a fantasy world, partly courtesy of a magician friend who performs in Central Park, played by Orson Welles. The Last Picture Show of 1971 has in its own way become as much of a watershed film as Easy Rider. Over two hours long and in black & white, it zeros in on a small town in Texas in the early 50s, following three struggling teenagers who don’t have much of a chance there.  Finally, The King of Marvin Gardens is a sort of sequel to Five Easy Pieces, with director Rafelson exploring the impossible dreams of two estranged brothers in Atlantic City – one a depressed talk-show host on radio, and the other a pushy con man.

– John Sunier 




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