Five Easy Pieces
Following Jack Nicholson’s breakout supporting turn in Easy Rider, director Bob Rafelson devised a powerful leading role for the new star in the searing character study Five Easy Pieces. Nicholson plays the now iconic cad Bobby Dupea, a shiftless thirtysomething oil rigger and former piano prodigy immune to any sense of responsibility, who returns to his upper-middle-class childhood home, blue-collar girlfriend (Karen Black, in an Oscar-nominated role) in tow, to see his estranged, ailing father. Moving in its simplicity and gritty in its textures, Five Easy Pieces is a lasting example of early 1970s American alienation.
Previously only available in Criterion’s box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, Criterion now presents Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces in its own individual Blu-ray edition, again presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on a dual layer disc. Like the previous version the 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation was sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative.
This edition is technically not the same as what was found in the box set since it does feature what are different supplements but as far as I can see (short of doing a grab by grab comparisons) the presentation looks the same as the previous Blu-ray available in the box set. Detail is very strong, impressive particularly in many of the long shots of the oil fields, and textures are adequately rendered. Film grain is present and looks quite natural and clean. I thought I detected halos in some of the opening shots but this could be a byproduct of the lighting since nothing like it appears to happen again in the film. Colours are also quite impressive, with some vibrant oranges and reds, something that has always surprised me with this Blu-ray since I’m used to older home video releases where I always thought colours looked dull.
Restoration work has been exceptional and there isn’t much in the way of damage left, just a few very minor specs. Otherwise it’s the cleanest I’ve ever seen it. Overall, it’s still an exceptional presentation, though I didn’t detect any different between this release and the one found in the BBS box set.
Audio again sounds the same between this edition and the one found in previous BBS box set release. It again comes with a linear PCM mono track that is fairly average but the film, which is very low key, doesn’t call for much. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the music, whether it be Nicholson’s character playing the piano or Tammy Wynette on the soundtrack, has some range and the volume levels are decent. Suiting but still a product of its age.
Criterion splits out Five Easy Pieces from their rather impressive BBS box set and they interestingly do add one feature, though it’s from another disc in the set, leading some to believe that the box set may be going out of print sometime in the future. The box set was originally a Sony production that was eventually abandoned by them (I’m guessing because of a decline in the home video market) and picked up by Criterion. Because of that most of the supplements found in the set were assembled by Sony, with Criterion including a few of their own.
The audio commentary included here features director Bob Rafelson and interior designer Toby Rafelson (Bob’s ex-wife) who were both recorded separately in 2009. Together the two deliver a very involving and thorough track, covering the production of the film. They both offer plenty of praise for screenwriter Carole Eastman, cinematographer László Kovács, and of course Jack Nicholson, and then offer anecdotes from the set. Bob probably has the bulk of the track, talking specifically about certain sequences and recalling how they came about, even offering up information on alternate scenes that originally appeared in the script. Toby talks about setting up some of the scenes, but also has some recollections about how certain scenes came about or their inspirations. And also, for those still unsure, Bob does offer an explanation for the title. In the end I was incredibly surprised by it and in my opinion was probably the strongest commentary found in the BBS set.
Next up is a short, obviously Sony produced featurette called Soul Searching in Five Easy Pieces, which runs about 9-minutes. Despite some decent comments from Rafelson and Nicholson (the former recalling the initial mood on the set, and both on the famous diner scene) this is an incredibly fluffy piece that doesn’t offer much insight into the film. Jack is at least an engaging interviewee, and it’s a shame he wasn’t more involved in the supplements on the set.
The next supplement is new to this release but was previously included on the Blu-ray for Head, also found in the BBS box set. BBS: A Time for Change is a 28-minute featurette featuring interviews with critic David Thomson and historian Douglas Brinkley. The two talk about Hollywood’s state during the 50s and 60s, losing audiences to television and churning the same types of tired movies out. They talk about the counterculture in America and the rage building up from the frustrations many were feeling about what was going on in America at the time (the election of Nixon being a big thorn in the sides of many) and how it led to Hopper and Fonda writing what would become Easy Rider, funded by what would become BBS productions. And an audience was apparently there for it because the film became a surprise hit, making names of its cast and crew, and causing Hollywood to drastically change its direction. The segment in all deals not only with the impact Easy Rider and BBS had on Hollywood and its studios (which included a more “auteur” driven way of filmmaking, where director’s picked their material instead of studios picking directors) but also the career launch many saw, specifically Jack Nicholson, who, with the one-two punch of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces became a huge star.
Next up is another Sony produced feature called BBStory, a 47-minute documentary on BBS, its short history, and its impact on Hollywood. Some of this material is of course covered in the previous supplement (and throughout the old box set) but it’s nice to have this all-encompassing one, even if it still does come off too brief and makes its way through its material too quickly.
It starts with how the production company was formed (again, Hollywood losing its audience) and then their success of Easy Rider (after the failed Monkess movie Head, which meant they couldn’t use the tagline “from the producers who gave you Head” for the advertising of Easy Rider) and then the doc goes through each film from the production company. The documentary features interviews with Rafelson, Henry Jaglom, Nicholson, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, and many others involved with the production company and its films in one way or another, and they recount each film quickly, unfortunately only spending a few minutes on each one (almost completely skipping over Drive, He Said and A Safe Place, the latter of which is a blip.) Though a decent documentary about the production company (which contains a lot of spoilers, so make sure you’ve seen each film before watching this) it really does move very quickly through its material.
The final big supplement on here (and I’m sure Criterion’s addition to the disc) is Bob Rafelson at AFI, a 49-minute Q&A with the director performed in 1976. Audio quality is questionable and low, and at times it’s hard to make out everything being said, but Rafelson covers his career from his early days at Shochiku Studios while in Japan to what would have been his newest film at the time, Stay Hungry. In between he of course talks about his other films and the state of Hollywood when BBS came to the scene. Rafelson’s an incredibly engaging speaker and can be frank, but despite the interesting material covered here he does actually drone on a bit. But it’s a strong interview with him overall and I’d least recommend using the index (with 8 chapters) to jump to what would be the most interesting material for you.
The disc then closes with two teaser trailers (though one feels like a full trailer) and then a 3-minute theatrical trailer. Interestingly one of the trailers bleeps out the word “crap,” though I suspect it’s to make it sound like Bob Dupea (Nicholson) said something worse. The release then ports over the essay on the film by Kent Jones, which was originally included in the box set’s booklet. It offers a nice examination of the film and its impact.
And that closes it. We get a nice smattering of supplements, though it leaves a little to be desired. The analysis of the film itself is pretty thin and some more scholarly material would have been welcome. But as it offers a nice examination of the production company, even if it does hurry over the subject a bit.
Because this edition features a supplement that was previously only on Criterion’s Blu-ray for Head—which is currently only found in their BBS box set—it’s suspected (i.e. not known for sure but highly probable) that Criterion may be losing the rights to that film and in turn will discontinue the box set. If you haven’t picked up that box set, are fond of this film, and at least one other film in the set, I would direct you towards that release. It’s certainly pricier but is really a hell of a bargain with seven films and a wealth of supplements, even if some of it is repetitive—heck, some of it is even repetitive here.
But if you’re really only game for Five Easy Pieces then this edition is a no-brainer. It presents a stellar transfer and some great supplements on the BBS production company.