The story told in Criterion’s The BBS Story box set is a major chapter in the output of producers Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner. These films were part of the New Hollywood era when a younger generation of filmmakers, influenced more by European cinema than their American predecessors in the studio system, rose to the cultural forefront. As the times were a-changin’ during the turbulent ’60s, not even Hollywood was immune from the rebellion that was sweeping the planet. The seven films included in this set, released between 1968 and 1972, showcase filmmakers that took risks in the stories they told and the way they told them.
Rafelson and Schneider headed Raybert Productions and struck gold with the multimedia success of The Monkees as the hit TV series about the fictional rock band spawned hit albums and singles. They parlayed that success into their first film, which not surprisingly starred the Monkees. However, rather than an extended TV episode of their goofy shenanigans, Head is more Monkees in Wonderland as the screenplay by director Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, and the band members, who received no screenwriting credit, present a collection of delightfully absurd vignettes that deconstruct the band, Hollywood, and the times.
The film’s not completely satisfying as a whole, but a number of the elements work. The songs and accompanying visuals are well done as expected and there’s a lot of humor. They also do a good job echoing the times. For example, frustration is a recurring theme throughout the film. It was something personal the actors/band felt as they clashed with the producers and network about the direction they wanted to go. Every member is seen experiencing it in the film. Mickey encounters a broken Coke machine out in the desert. Pete is upset about filming a scene where he’s shown hitting a woman. Mike doesn’t like the surprise party he’s thrown. Davy fights former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Frustration was also something their generation was experiencing, most notably the Vietnam War which is referenced throughout. It’s too bad they didn’t present footage from the film’s original 110-minute run time
As all the discs in the set, the movie is presented in a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer and is locked for Region A. Head is shown at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Colors are quite strong, especially the psychedelic solarization effect. Blacks are solid. Details and textures are good. Film grain is apparent but never overwhelming. Audio options are DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 1.0. Naturally, the music is best heard through the surround option, which allows it to make the most of its dynamics. Dialogue is clear and understandable throughout.
For the extras, there is a commentary track cobble together from individual session with The Monkees. Well worth hearing for fans. Rafelson is interviewed in “From The Monkees to Head” (HD, 28 min). “BBS: A Time For Change” (HD, 30 min) finds critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley talk about the studio and how it helped usher the youth generation into the film system. “Screen Tests” (HD, 19 min) are camera tests of the foursome and other actors. Nesmith and Jones’ tests were cut into the TV episode “Here Come the Monkees”. The Monkees on “The Hy Lit Show”, 1968 (1080i, 5 min) find the band promoting the movie. “Epherma” (7 min) includes shots paired with an audio collage, nine radio spots (7 min), trailers and TV spots.
Easy Rider is a Western updated for the ’60s, with horses replaced by motorcycles, as two young hippies, Wyatt and Billy (producer Peter Fonda and director Dennis Hopper who together co-wrote the script with Terry Southern) make their way across the United States from Los Angeles to New Orleans. It’s a landmark film that spoke to a generation who saw themselves accurately portrayed on screen. I previously reviewed Sony’s 2009 Blu-ray release for High Def Digest.
Like the Sony release, the video is shown at aspect ratio of 1.85:1, as is every other film in the set. Colors pop off the screen and flesh tones are consistent. Blacks suffer crush on occasion. During the Mardi Gras sequence, the crew shot on 16mm. All aspects of the picture suffer from the lower grade film stock, such as an increase of grain. Criterion offers three audio options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and English Dolby Digital 1.0. The tracks sound free of defect and wear. The songs benefit the most from the expanse of the surround track. Dialogue is clear and understandable, except when intended to be marred.
Criterion expands the extras from the Sony release. In addition to the Hopper commentary track, a second one recorded in 1995 finds him joined by Fonda and production manager Paul Lewis. The 1999 feature “Easy Rider: Shaking The Cage (1080i, 65 min) is joined by the BBC2 documentary “Born to Be Wild” (1080i, 29 min). These four extras cover similar information as there are only so many stories they have to tell about the film. There are also two interviews. “Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes” is an interview on French TV’s Pour le cinema that aired on 5/22/69 (1080i, 2 min) and Steve Blauner (HD, 19 minute), the “S” in BBS, talks about transitioning from a TV executive at Screen Gems to producing movies.
Rafelson returned to directing with Five Easy Pieces, starring Jack Nicholson as Robert Dupea, a California oil-rig worker in the midst of an existential crisis with a job and pregnant girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), neither of which he seems to care for. When word comes that his father is dying, it opens up a rich backstory he had kept hidden about who he is and where he comes from because he had runaway from that life.
Dupea is a very compelling character because he is his own worst enemy due to the choices he makes. His attempt to order toast at a restaurant that won’t do menu substitutions is classic Nicholson, who made a career out of playing defiant characters. He received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Colors are natural and consistent. The details are fine and distinct and the image retains the film’s grain. The picture is free of flaws. Audio has one option: LPCM 1.0. The dialogue is consistently understandable and balances well with the limited dynamics of the music and effects.
The commentary is by director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson. Bob also discusses the making of the film, including screenwriter Carole Eastman’s work, in “Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces” (HD, 9 min) and in an audio interview (49 min) at AFI in 1976. Some footage from the video interview is reused in the documentary that follows. “BBStory” (HD, 47 min) gets the whole gang together, actors, directors and producers, to talk about the company’s history.
After Five Easy Pieces, Steve Blauner joined Rafelson and Schneider and they became BBS Productions. Their first film was Nicholson’s directorial debut Drive, He Said, a look at college life he adapted from the novel with its author Jeremy Larner. Hector Bloom (William Tepper) is the star of his college basketball team but his affair with a professor’s wife (Karen Black) complicates his life. A second storyline focuses on his roommate Gabriel (Michael Margotta), a theater major/revolutionary whose defiance leads to his demise. The film isn’t very engaging as the characters and their situations don’t resonate. They all create their problems but no clear reason why and especially frustrating is how easy they can correct them.
The natural color scheme is well rendered and there is good shadow delineation. The camera is active during the basketball sequences yet the image retains its clarity. Some minor flaws occur as the grain can get excessive at times and a flicker occurs when Bloom takes a fall. The audio is an LPCM 1.0 track. It is clean and reliably delivers the dialogue. “A Cautionary Tale” (HD, 11 min) presents Nicholson, actor Bruce Dern, co-producer Harry Gittes, and associate producer Fred Roos discussing the making of the film and some of the guerilla tactics they used.
On the same disc is Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place. Based on his play, Jaglom experiments with the medium to tell the story of a woman (Tuesday Weld), who goes by the name Noah and Susan. As Noah, she seems to be a young girl who interacts with a Jewish magician (Orson Welles). As Susan, she starts dating Fred (Phil Proctor) and watching their relationship play out feels like being trapped next to an annoying couple at a restaurant. Not sure why Fred stays around other than she’s so pretty and he got into bed with her so easily. Nicholson plays her former flame Mitch, who comes over to their apartment at 4 a.m. to hook up with Susan and she thinks she’s going to be able to pull this off under Fred’s nose.
Jaglom repeats segments of the film and lines of dialogue in different setting, giving a sense that the audience is experiencing memories and fantasies, but it’s never clear what’s going on, which can be frustrating. Susan comes off like a bit of a nut, getting upset over inconsequential things that have the forced feeling that they are speaking to something larger. The ending is ambiguous but feels more like the storyteller couldn’t commit to an idea and leaves it all up to the viewer to decide.
The bright colors are vivid among the New York City locations while the darker ones have rich hues. Some of the rooms are cluttered with things but the objects and textures have solid lines and edges. The audio is an LPCM 1.0 track, presenting clear understandable dialogue.
Jaglom delivers a commentary track that helps explain his ideas and direction, which aren’t readily apparent on first view. “Henry Jaglom Finds A Safe Place” (HD, 7 min) covers some of the same information from the commentary. Karen Black, who was a third of the inspiration for Susan and dated Jaglom, appears briefly. Notes on the New York Film Festival, (1080i, 29 min) is a 1971 program with Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich, who were the only two American directors at the festival that year, talking to Village Voice reviewer Molly Haskell about A Safe Place and The Last Picture Show. She’s not a great interviewer and oddly tries to stir up trouble between them and about them working with Welles. “Outtakes and Screen Tests” (1080i, 25 min) are as advertised. Four different screen tests show Jaglom trying out different combinations of actors in the lead roles.
Based on Larry McMurtry’s novel about growing up in a small Texas town, Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show is a fantastic film, a classic coming-of-age story about two friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges) during their senior year of high school and entry into the world of adults, which isn’t all it appears behind closed doors. Coming between them is Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd in her acting debut), the prettiest girl in town who tries to use that fact to her advantage whenever she can. The peek into all the characters’ lives is compelling, and the film is filled with powerful performances of raw emotions, earning two Academy Awards out of four acting nominations, although the entire cast is impressive and deserves recognition.
The black and white photography looks gorgeous as it exhibits many shades across the gray scale. Contrast is strong and consistent. Details are sharp. The LPCM 1.0 audio track is delivered cleanly with dialogue that is always understandable. The music has limited dynamics but emulates the sound AM radio would have delivered at the time.
There are quite a number of extras that lead to many anecdotes getting repeated. The disc has two commentaries. One is a group piece from 1991 with Bogdanovich and actors Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Cloris Leachman, and Frank Marshall. The other is Bogdanovich from 2009, although not sure why they bothered with the second. Two extensive features are Laurent Bouzereau’s “The Last Picture Show: A Look Back” (1080i, 65 min) from 1999 and George Hinkelooper’s “Picture This” (42 min) made in 1990 during the making of the sequel Texasville. “A Discussion with Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich”(1080i, 13 min) from 2009 uses a silly effect where it looks like the interview is damaged b&w footage and then transitions into color, but for what reason other than they can do it is beyond me since it looks ridiculous. “Screen Tests (1080i, 3 min) shows 16mm footage of numerous actors set to Hank Williams “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?” “Location Footage” (10801, 6 min) is silent location scouting footage of Archer City, TX where Larry McMurty grew up shot by Bogdanovich. “Truffaut on the New Hollywood” (1080, 5 min) finds French director Francois Truffaut interviewed on Vive le cinema on 2/13/72.
The box set closes out with Bob Rafelson back behind the camera for The King of Marvin Gardens. Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern play estranged brothers David and Jason Stabler. Nicholson is off-type as the nerdy David, who hosts a late-night radio program and takes care of his grandfather. He is called to Atlantic City where Jason needs his help with a real estate deal that seems to good to be true. He wants to buy a Hawaiian island and build a casino there. Jason also keeps the company of Sally (Ellen Burstyn), a woman his age, and the younger Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). The film has very good performances and some memorable moments, not enough to generate an enthusiastic recommendation yet enough not to dissuade anyone who wants to see it.
This transfer is treated as well as all the others in the set. The colors are strong, particularly the reds and blues. Blacks are solid and the opening scene with David in a darkened room reveals good shadow delineation. Great texture and details as seen in the buildings along the Atlantic City boardwalk. The dialogue is presented clean and clear on the LPCM 1.0 audio track. Extras are commentary by Rafelson on certain scenes (61 min) and two interview pieces: “Reflections on a Philosopher King” (HD, 10 min) with Rafelson and Burstyn recorded in 2009 and “After Thoughts” (1080i, 11 min) with Rafelson, Dern, and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs recorded in 2002.
Film history buffs and fans of the era will want surely want to get the entire six-disc, seven-film set that comprises The BBS Story. Four of the films are well worth owning. The three I have issues with are somewhat interesting because the directors were trying to do something, earning points with me, regardless of their execution and may work better with others. The extras and the high quality of the Blu-ray technical aspects add to the set’s value.
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: America Lost and Found: The BBS Story – The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.