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Ronald Brownstein Celebrates and Elegizes LA’s ’70s-Era Cultural Dominance

Ronald Brownstein’s ode to ’70s Los Angeles is, like so many California stories, less about a sustained moment than a bright and briefly thrilling mirage.

Rock Me on the Water: 1974 The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics
Ronald Brownstein
March 2021

Near the end of the twice-nominated Pulitzer Prize author Ronald Brownstein’s mildly tendentious and gossipy Rock Me on the Water: 1974 The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics, he comes close to giving the whole game away. After spending 300-odd pages walking readers month-by-month through 1974 and ticking off cultural and political milestones—All in the Family to the Eagles and the Black Panthers—Brownstein explains that in fact:

Cultural eras don’t precisely follow the calendar. The creative renaissance in Los Angeles did not begin on January 1, 1974 (or even January 1, 1967). It did not abruptly end on December 31, 1974.

Now he tells us.

There’s always a weakness built into the editorial conceit of “X was the year everything changed”. Regardless of the year or the subject being argued (history, culture, politics, or sometimes all of it mushed together), holes are easily poked. Take films like Roman Polanski‘s Chinatown and Hal Ashby‘s Shampoo, whose 1974 productions Brownstein covers in well-reported detail. Each is a clear example of an industry shifting from industrial mass production to a more wide-open auteurist perspective.

But the previous year had seen the release of The Exorcist, Badlands, Mean Streets, Serpico, and American Graffiti. Each film had already helped redefine what was possible in American cinema. By 1974, the revolution was already well underway. But still, Brownstein needed something to peg this book on. Otherwise, given the amoeba-like ooze of shifting cultural norms at the time, his thesis could have sprawled as uncontrollably as the plot of Robert Altman’s Nashville, whose era-appropriate symphonic chaos and politically haunted randomness is brightly rendered. (“Watergate sluiced around the movie and seeped into its bones,” he writes.)

Brownstein’s style veers mostly to the briskly authoritative Beltway tone he uses for his political coverage in publications like The Atlantic. His scene-setting depiction of post-hippie pre-disco Los Angeles, however, alternates sweep and pinpoint detail so dramatically it feels like it should come courtesy of Cinemascope. He describes a city “poised between its parochial past and its global future.” (Recent East Coast transplant Anjelica Huston, who provides some good anecdotes later on about Jack Nicholson, called it “both incredibly glamorous and a little provincial.”) The social circuit was limited to a few restaurants, clubs, and private house parties on the Westside.

Politically, the old cabal of conservative monied interests (the Los Angeles Times, the LAPD, the Catholic Church) was starting to lose its grip on the booming and increasingly diverse sprawl. The Hollywood money machines were still there, but the studios had a haunted mausoleum feel. The lumbering epics of the 1960s were no longer drawing crowds. Even though Arthur Penn‘s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Dennis Hopper‘s Easy Rider (1969) had created the template for a new direction with creatively nimble zeitgeist-hunting antihero stories, their promise had not yet been fully realized.

By 1974, however, Los Angeles was wresting the mantle of cultural dominance away from New York. The city’s close and clubby feel, not to mention the post-hippie haze of friendly experimentation and the boozy musicians’ camaraderie at clubs like the Troubadour, engendered supportive networks for cross-pollination. Sunny California beckoned just as New York seemed to be collapsing under grime, rats, and crime. (The East would have its revenge, of course, with punk rock and the Soho art scene, after the Southland scene had imploded in drugged self-indulgence well before the decade was out.)

Brownstein kicks off on a high note. His January chapter centers on a trio of movie-mad buddies—Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and Robert Towne—who would redraw much of what was possible in Hollywood. In that month, Nicholson was finishing the shoot for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (written by Towne, inspired by a magazine article about old Los Angeles he read several years before). Meanwhile, Beatty was getting ready to shoot Shampoo (also written by Towne). Both films—the first a seemingly straight detective story seeded with an echt-Watergate conspiratorial vibe about the corruption of the old guard and the second a hazy free-form riff on the disillusionment of hedonism—wouldn’t have gotten a second glance five years before. But now Hollywood was desperate. The industry was willing to give the kids a chance.

We have had a lot of books about this era in cinema, particularly Peter Biskind’s 1998 book, which would become a 2003 documentary, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and Mark HarrisPictures at a Revolution (2008). But another batch of stories about ambitious long-haired upstarts scrapping with the industry’s stodgy old bulls is generally worth reading. As Brownstein quotes Beatty on what the 1960s’ aftermath meant about possibilities in Hollywood: “You could get away with more, and it was more entertaining, and everybody, older, younger, said, ‘Hey, this is more fun’.”