Dazed and Confused: The Oral History

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (Harper) by Mellissa Maerz

The template for successful oral histories was set by Jean Stein’s Edie: American Girl, about the doomed Warhol superstar Edie Sedgewick. Norman Mailer said at the time it was released in 1982, “This is the book of the ‘60s that we have been waiting for.”

It’s tempting to say, then, that Alright, Alright, Alright is the book about the ‘70s that we’ve all been waiting for—but that’s not quite it. This is the book that tells the story of the movie that best defines that era, or at least a small part of it. Dazed and Confused was set on the last day of high school, 1976, in a Texas town. The kids get high, they hook up, they bond, they say goodbye. It’s a microcosm, but one with broad application to other towns, and other years.

There’s a formula to making oral history work, and Maerz put the right chemicals together. Alright is a work that’s full of emotion, as these stories always are, but it’s built on a very sturdy and methodically planned base. We get the prelude to the movie (filmmaker Richard Linkater maxing out his credit cards to make his debut, Slacker, with a bunch of misfits in his beloved Austin), the financing (via Universal, a step up to studio filmmaking), the casting (including a bunch of future stars—Renée Zellweger, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey), the filming (bonding ensued), the sad parting, the editing and music rights (replete with studio interference), the release (Dazed bombed initially), the reunion, and even a section on the film attaining cult status and the significance of it all.

There are sidebars, there are lists, there are (black and white) photographs, there are “where they are now” epilogues. If that’s an Entertainment Weekly approach to writing books, I don’t see an issue.

A few things stand out. One is Linklater’s iron determination to make the movie he was unspooling in his head. He wanted to keep it true to his own 1970s Texas high school experience, and he largely succeeded. Sure, some great material had to be cut, but what’s on the screen is mostly what the filmmaker—a football star for a time—actually experienced or saw around him at Huntsville High School. Even the names are preserved (which led to a lawsuit later). Ricky “Pink” Floyd really existed.

The film has a large, ensemble cast, and Linklater encouraged his actors to bond, and to create new scenes for their characters. Those who took advantage of that freedom—principally Posey and McConaughey—ended up with larger roles in the finished film and a boost for their careers. That iconic “alright, alright, alright” was McConaghey quoting The Doors’ Jim Morrison from the Boston Arena in 1970, though it could have come from “Cat’s Squirrel” on the first Cream album.

Those who didn’t get into the proper spirit, with the full-of-himself actor Shawn Andrews being the most glaring example, not only saw their screen time cut to almost nothing, but went nowhere later.

The great thing about Alright, Alright, Alright—and the oral history format—is that it gives you everything that happened in the making of Dazed from multiple points of view. (No, I’m not going to invoke Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashamon.) Cast and crew contradict each other, argue it out, and try to arrive at what actually happened during the 1992 shoot.

The author got great material from her subjects, and just about everyone (no Jovovich or Andrews) gave interviews. McConaghey plays an older guy still hanging around the high school parking lot. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man,” he tells his buddies. “I get older; they stay the same age.” Looking at that today, the actor muses, “Who not only thinks that, but believes that? That’s this guy’s DNA….It’s a mantra. It’s a philosophy.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Most of the people involved went on to other projects, but few had experiences that were more affirming and life-changing. “There is no movie that has affected me more, or stayed with me longer, or shaped me as a filmmaker more,” says Affleck. “It’s my favorite movie I’ve ever worked on,” says Anthony Rapp.

It would be possible to do a book like this on almost any movie, but Dazed and Confused is a perfect choice. Actors sometimes barely remember film shoots—it was just six weeks out of their lives. But nobody ever forgot working on Dazed and Confused. Melissa Maerz does right by the film—and the people who made it.

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