Audiobook Review: LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM: RIVER PHOENIX AND THE HOLLYWOOD HE LEFT BEHIND by Gavin Edwards

LastNightViperRoom
Format: Audio; 8 hrs, 26 mins
Narrator: Luke Daniels
Publisher: Harper Audio
Released: October 22, 2013
Source: Borrowed from the Library

Hollywood was built on beautiful and complicated matinee idols: James Dean and Marlon Brando are classic examples, but in the 1990s, the actor who embodied that archetype was River Phoenix. As the brightly colored 1980s wound down, a new crew of leading men began to appear on movie screens. Hailed for their acting prowess and admired for choosing meaty roles, actors such as Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, Keanu Reeves, and Brad Pitt were soon rocketing toward stardom while an unknown Leonardo DiCaprio prepared to make his acting debut. River Phoenix, however, stood in front of the pack. Blessed with natural talent and fueled by integrity, Phoenix was admired by his peers and adored by his fans. More than just a pinup on teenage girls’ walls, Phoenix was also a fervent defender of the environment and a vocal proponent of a vegan lifestyle—well on his way to becoming a symbol of his generation. At age 18, he received his first Oscar nomination. But behind his beautiful public face, there was a young man who had been raised in a cult by nonconformist parents, who was burdened with supporting his family from a young age, and who eventually succumbed to addiction, escaping into a maelstrom of drink and drugs.

And then he was gone. After a dozen films, including Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho, and with a seemingly limitless future, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose. He was 23 years old.

In Last Night at the Viper Room, best-selling author and journalist Gavin Edwards toggles between the tragic events at the Viper Room in West Hollywood on Halloween 1993 and the story of an extraordinary life. Last Night at the Viper Room is part biography, part cultural history of the 1990s, and part celebration of River Phoenix, a Hollywood icon gone too soon. Full of interviews from his fellow actors, directors, friends, and family, Last Night at the Viper Room shows the role he played in creating the place of the actor in our modern culture and the impact his work still makes today.

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I enjoyed listening to this biography of River Phoenix. I was in the mood for something different, and LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM fit the bill perfectly. This book was released just a few days shy of the 20th anniversary of his death. A night out at a club. Drugs. A bad decision. A promising young actor dead at age 23.

This was more than just a recap of what happened on October 31, 1993. It spans River’s life from his unconventional childhood in South America (his hippie parents were members of a cult) to his rise to stardom and beyond. Learning about what went on during River’s childhood was surprising. I can see how his experiences shaped the troubled young man he became. The book also talks a lot about “Young Hollywood” at the time, which included Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Keanu Reeves, and Winona Ryder. Hearing about what the other actors where doing helped put River’s career in perspective.

The audiobook was performed by Luke Daniels, and overall I was pleased with his narration. He had a strong, interesting voice and good pacing. When quoting people he would change his voice, and most of his impressions were spot on (at least for the people I’m familiar with).

LAST NIGHT AT THE VIPER ROOM is a well-written story of a life cut short. It didn’t glamorize drug abuse at all – it told it like it was. Sad. The author also poses “what if” questions and the possible answers which were very interesting to think about. This book might appeal to film buffs and and fans of Gen X biographies.

Rating: 4 Stars

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