I read a lot during the six months I was away from the blog, and when I couldn't find any promising books on rock&roll, I read a lot about movies.
I started with movie reviews written by Pauline Kael, who covered movies for THE NEW YORKER from the mid-'60s to the early '90s. I'd recommend all of her books, each of which features hundreds of in-depth reviews. Which one you should start with depends on what period you're interested in.
DEEPER INTO MOVIES, REELING, WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN and TAKING IT ALL IN cover movies from the early '70s to the early '80s. HOOKED and STATE OF THE ART cover the mid-'80s, when there wasn't much exciting going on. MOVIE LOVE covers the early '90s as Kael's career wound down. 5,001 NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES has thousands of capsule-reviews of older films. And Kael wrote half a dozen more books I haven't gotten to yet.
If you've ever wondered how a particular effect worked on the screen, or how some movies worked and others definitely didn't, or if you're just a big movie fan, Pauline Kael's your critic. She'll tell you How and Why, as well as How Good -- and she even has a great time writing-up some truly awful turkeys.
Nobody ever wrote in as much depth and detail about movies as Kael. Only Roger Ebert came close.
It's too bad she's not around today. I bet she'd be stunned at how much MORE money is wasted on movies now -- and how sometimes even big-budget movies only play in theaters for a week or two before they vanish in the blink of an eye and then they're out two or three months later on Cable and Dish and DVD and Blu-ray.
She probably wouldn't be surprised at the amount of weak, lame trash that's out there. Or at how most movies these days seem to be sci-fi action-hero fantasies and zombie invasions and stupid comedies. There were plenty of bad movies back in her day, too.
Rock&roll could use a history like Peter Biskind's EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS: HOW THE SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK AND ROLL GENERATION SAVED HOLLYWOOD (1998). This long, densely detailed book follows the movie careers of the wave of young writer-directors who hit Hollywood in the late '60s and did their best work into the early '80s -- guys like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne and Paul Schrader.
These are the guys who put together movies like THE GODFATHER, JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, STAR WARS, THE EXORCIST, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, TAXI DRIVER, NASHVILLE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, APOCALYPSE NOW, E.T. -- films that made it interesting to go to the movies for about a decade.
Brian DePalma appears several times in this book, but I think he gets kind of short-changed. He was a big mover and shaker in this period, and he's not followed in as much detail as the others. There's rather too much about Schrader, I thought -- and I could have lived without all the detail on the careers of Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson, but they helped get the ball rolling. There is also a lot of material on Warren Beatty, who was a big deal at the time.
But here's the thing all of them had in common: Nearly every single one of them had a personal-life that was a train wreck. There's some truly appalling behavior outlined in this book, and I'm not even talking about the heavy drinking and drug abuse and infidelity. Friedkin, Bogdanovich, Hopper and Coppola especially treated their Significant Others like shit. Friedkin apparently treated everyone badly. Much of the book reads like a relationship nightmare. Was it worth it, just to get a few good movies made?
Some of these guys are still at it. Scorsese is still crankin' out good stuff, after a few tough years here and there in the '80s and '90s. Spielberg is still doing Academy-Award-nominated films, but even he had his flops and setbacks along the way.
But some of them sank -- Friedkin and Bogdanovich were basically done by the early '80s. Hal Ashby (SHAMPOO, COMING HOME) lost his grip, dropped out, got cancer and died. Lucas's marriage fell apart. Spielberg got divorced then re-married.
I wish this book had followed these guys on through the '80s, because it ends at a real down point for most of them. Some of them survived to do more solid work, like Scorsese's GOOD FELLAS, Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, Lucas with the Star Wars sequels and the Indiana Jones movies (with Spielberg). Maybe they were never quite as great again, but they're hangin' in there, most of 'em.
God knows I'm no expert on movies, especially CURRENT movies -- I think the last movie I saw in a theater was TITANIC -- but you could learn a lot about how movies and movie people work from this book and any of Pauline Kael's.
Reporting as solid, detailed and open as Biskind's could do "rock journalism" a lot of good. Not to mention rock and roll memoirs....