Has the 1970s fostered more after-the-fact memoir movies than any other decade? Here Cameron Crowe semi-fictionalizes the time he got to go on the road with major rock bands, as a teen journalist for Rolling Stone. As usual, the story meanders like a haphazard life, but everything—particularly the hot band in question, led by Jason Lee’s lanky front man and Billy Crudup’s guitar idol—takes you back.
On the face of it, Ang Lee’s thoroughly grown-up movie is a melancholy but bemused Mona Lisa portrait of a very particular time and place: wealthy Connecticut bedroom communities in the early 1970s, when polyester suits were in, Nixon haunted the airwaves, cocktails flowed like monsoon rainwater, and the sexual revolution began to sour the lives of restless suburbanites.
Another return to childhood, Spike Lee’s memoir film (co-written with two of his siblings) about the filmmaker’s youth growing up in 1970s Brooklyn amid five kids, a proud jazz musician father (Delroy Lindo), a no-bullshit mom (Alfre Woodard), and an atmosphere thick with infectious pop songs, Norman Lear sitcoms, urban street games, and a sense of a day and age in which many urban neighborhoods were communities instead of war zones.
In 1973, PBS ran a documentary series called An American Family, about a real upper-middle-class nuclear unit, shot in the family’s home. But how could that have been “reality,” asks comic Albert Brooks in his first film, which duplicates the scenario to wicked, double-edged-sword effect. As usual, Brooks is the ogre-ish primary target, but the era’s relationship to TV and fame are also bludgeoned into pulp.
This Paddy Chayefsky–written barn burner is such a brilliantly incisive dismantling of the way network television worked in the 1970s that it has become something like a prophecy in the years since—what was true then is five times as true today. Television goes from being a semi-whorehouse to an out-and-out freak circus in the quest for higher ratings; Sidney Lumet’s fastidiously realistic direction and the hair-raising performances of Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch, et al make it all tangible and undeniable. Were Hollywood films ever really this sophisticated, this caustic, this ethical?
Middle America was cool in the 1970s—or at least cool enough to be satirized up and down for its cheesy, oblivious silliness in films like this Michael Ritchie interrogation, which tears apart a second-rate California beauty pageant, from recruitment to training to the final face-off. Everyone—contestants, parents, organizers, judges, choreographers, peeping toms, ad infinitum—gets a vicious lashing, but Ritchie never strains or caricatures. This is how it was, and probably in many ways still is, and it’s hilarious and dismaying because you believe every frame.
Robert Altman, in his inimitable style, updates this Raymond Chandler mystery yarn, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, to 1970s L.A., a sour maze of aging hippies, blithe crime, loneliness, and a certain lack of moral rectitude—something Elliott Gould’s singularly schlubby private eye decides to correct on his own by story’s end. The case itself involves a friend (baseball star Jim Bouton) who’s accused of killing his wife, but various SoCal lunatics are roped in as well, and the film becomes a tapestry of genre jokes, cultural satire, and Altmanesque texture.
The quintessential 1970s film—which is to say, it embodies the cynical death of 1960s idealism while establishing another high bar for the new American New Wave’s focus on working-class life in all of its dead-ended frustration. Jack Nicholson made himself a star as the rebel son of a family of concert pianists who tries working on an oil rig, but can’t settle anywhere. The film’s most famous scene, set in a diner and concerning a chicken salad sandwich, sums up an entire generation’s dashed hopes and rising rage at a complacent America.