By Jeff Labrecque
June 06, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Dazed and Confused, with its dueling themes of rebellion and conformity and its timeless aura of cool, has at last achieved DVD knighthood. Two years after Universal killed the buzz of loyal fans with a lackluster Flashback Edition, Criterion brings us this redeeming trip back to 1976 — and to the early ’90s, when independents temporarily broke through at the major studios (well, almost) and Matthew McConaughey was a far cry from People‘s Sexiest Man Alive.

In his refreshingly frank commentary, director Richard Linklater compares his studio baptism to the brutal hazing forced upon Dazed‘s freshmen. His bosses favored gratuitous sex but less vulgar language. They demanded rising stars, like Brendan Fraser, but wanted to skimp on the classic-rock tunes. In order to secure the likes of Aerosmith’s tone-setting ”Sweet Emotion” — which alone cost $100,000, roughly four times the entire budget for Linklater’s previous outing, Slacker — the director had to forfeit his financial stake in the film’s soundtrack. ”I got out alive with the film I wanted,” he recalls, even though test audiences’ negative reactions prompted the studio to bury the film in a limited release.

At least Linklater’s fresh-faced talent — Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich — had fun. ”After work…you can see people sort of subconsciously slip into their characters,” says Ben Affleck in one of an assortment of on-set clips. So…was everyone stoned? Linklater believed that his young cast was just smoking oregano until a 2003 reunion (included here), where Adams admits that the gang did actually blaze up for the movie’s last scene.

Their grainy audition tapes, meanwhile, are as awkwardly amusing as high school yearbook candids. Michelle Burke (Jodi) stays in character as she flirts shamelessly with Linklater. Cochrane starts head-bobbing and seamlessly transforms into the stoner Slater. And McConaughey delivers those two seemingly throwaway lines (”That’s what I love about these high school girls…” and ”It’d be a lot cooler if you did”) that became pop-culture catchphrases and helped propel him to stardom. ”There’s a lot of license that comes with those two lines,” explains McConaughey, who soon found his wolfish character’s signature strut: ”It ain’t chin forward, it ain’t heart forward. This [motioning to his crotch] is forward.”

Linklater’s vision was vindicated when the film caught on as an American Graffiti of its time. Its quirky characters achieved iconic stature, making Dazed essential viewing for teens who weren’t even alive for the Bicentennial. Criterion’s fine edition grants this enduring cult classic the DVD treatment it deserves. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.