Before the Flood

REVIEW: ‘Rock Me on the Water: 1974, The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics’

Rock Me on the Water /
July 11, 2021

It's been 30 years since the publication of The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection, by Ronald Brownstein, a commentator for CNN and, more prestigiously, a colleague of mine (at the Atlantic). Even now Brownstein's book stands as the definitive history of one of the more unsavory aspects of contemporary public life: the sluttish commingling of professional show people and politicians—the pols groveling before the show people, the show people struggling to look cerebral while keeping their hair in place.

You could argue that the modern phase of this codependency, which no amount of mockery or embarrassment can kill, began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Brownstein has necessarily revisited some of the earlier material in his new book, Rock Me on the Water: 1974, The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics. Here are the Eagles and Jackson Browne, Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, Norman Lear and Alan Alda—all of them Angelenos, all of them paragons of the 1970s, all of them wealthy and talented people who refused to mind their own business, leave well enough alone, and stick with what they were good at.

Like The P and the G, Brownstein's new book is handsomely written and full of high-end gossip. One problem is that it can't quite deliver on the promise of its subtitle, which insists that it was the year 1974, and no other, when forces "came together in Los Angeles to form a historic constellation of inspiration, collaboration, and achievement." Los Angeles did indeed produce some cultural landmarks in 1974. Brown (Jerry, not Jackson) was elected to his first term as governor of California, launching a political career that didn't end for nearly a half century. The Godfather Part II and Chinatown, two of the best movies ever made, were brought to the silver screen. Several enduring pop stars—Ronstadt, Browne (Jackson, not Jerry), and Joni Mitchell—released career-defining albums. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunited for what was to that date the most elaborate and successful rock concert tour ever, success being measured here not only in box office receipts but also in the consumption of cocaine and groupies.

But landmarks in politics and pop culture happen all the time; an entire industry of journalistic gasbags exists to discover them, certify them, and write about them on their anniversaries. My guess, for what it's worth, is that the book's 1974 conceit is part of a fad in the marketing of history books. Publishers assume that readers interested in history require strict specificity in their reading, the narrower the focus the better. It probably began 20 years ago with the success of April 1865: The Month That Saved America, and has continued with 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History and 1968: The Year That Rocked the World and 1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America and Five Days in London: May 1940, and on and on.

Fortunately, Brownstein doesn't take himself or his subtitle literally. His narrative travels freely in time, tracing the trends that crested in his chosen year back to the mid-'60s and forward through the end of the '70s. This broader range leads him to several unexpected insights, debunking some popular myths that baby boomers like to tell about themselves. We really weren't quite as revolutionary as some of us like to think we were.

For instance: The much-studied transformation of Hollywood filmmaking in the early 1970s—when decades-old standards of taste and morality were discarded in favor of movies suffused with cynicism, violence, sex, radical politics, and (I shudder to write the word) relevance—wasn't the work of boomers. It was instead undertaken by their elders, members of the Greatest Generation who were supposedly, in popular telling, the bulwark of rectitude that the boomers went on to rebel against.

"In Hollywood during the early 1970s," Brownstein writes, "the boldest statements about America, the most piercing social critiques, came from a large group of other directors who were, like [Robert] Altman, born decades before the boomers." Aside from Altman, director of M*A*S*H and Nashville, he mentions Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), and Hal Ashby (Coming Home), among others. Indeed, the reactionaries of Brownstein's account, creating much more traditional, resolutely apolitical movies, were most of them boomers, or close to it: George Lucas (American Graffiti), Peter Bogdanovich (Paper Moon), and above all Steven Spielberg (Jaws et seq.). Spielberg didn't succumb to the infection of relevance until The Color Purple in 1985, and even then he spent the rest of the year producing The Goonies.

By the way, Brownstein's line about "the most piercing social critiques" and "bold statements about America" is just how liberals talk about other liberals; the rest of us are free to translate "piercing social critiques" as "leftwing cant." Brownstein isn't an ideologue, though, and he's too smart to be completely suckered by boomer nostalgia and self-aggrandizement. He knows what's hard to ignore: Most of the supposed idealism of the '60s and '70s turned to dross. At book's end he tells the revolting tale of Roman Polanski, director of 1974's best movie, Chinatown, and his conviction a few years later for raping a child. The arc of 1974 is long, and it bends toward pedophilia, at least in Polanski's case.

Even so, for my money, Brownstein is too forgiving in his treatment of Jane Fonda, who used the '70s to abandon her previous career as a Hollywood "sex kitten" to lead a life devoted to the success of America's enemies. Some dare call it treason—me, for instance. Fonda gave Brownstein a helpful and revealing interview for the book, so as a scribbler I understand his forbearance. And to his credit he does go on to quote many of her most disgusting pronouncements from the time. Nowadays they might earn her a spot on the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Keep them in mind the next time you're tempted to chortle over an episode of Grace and Frankie.

To cite one example among many: As American prisoners of war were returning from North Vietnam after years of abuse from their captors, Fonda gave Newsweek her own assessment. Only "guys who misbehaved and treated their guards in a racist fashion or tried to escape were tortured," she announced. "And the guys are hypocrites. They're trying to make themselves look self-righteous, but they are war criminals according to law."

Any decade that transforms a sex kitten into a Maoist cannot be counted a success.

Rock Me on the Water: 1974, The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics
by Ronald Brownstein
Harper, 448 pp., $29.99

Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.