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Publisher's Summary

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 seeminily 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.

©2013 Gavin Edwards (P)2013 HarperCollins Publishers

What listeners say about Last Night at the Viper Room

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Story A, Gossip B+, Performance/Story Cohesion D+

On the plus side, River Phoenix's life story is fascinating, from his extremely unique childhood to his development on movie sets and his young adult life. Also has some fun Hollywood gossip, as it draws quite a bit of the story from quotes from celebs like Johnny Depp, Ethan Hawke, and Martha Plimpton (who was his girlfriend for a few years).

On the negative side, there are some major issues.
1) Bad Narration: the narrator sounds too old and proper when he's reading the 3rd person narration but at least it's clear. All quotes, and there are a LOT, sound terrible. He makes almost every character sound the same way: creepy. Worse, the quotes are significantly quieter than the regular narration. I had to rewind many times because I couldn't make out what had been said, even when I had the volume up high. This was very frustrating.

2) Lack of Coherent Storyline. The fact that the story bounces between the Viper Room and River's life story isn't the problem. The author seems to have bit off more than he could chew in trying to also provide back stories for certain other people, like Johnny Depp. Other times, he will just namecheck a bunch of people at once and move on. He will also approach something that feels important and not dig in further for the real story, maybe out of respect for Phoenix's memory. So there will be a description of some odd behavior Phoenix exhibited where you expect to hear more. Instead you get a non-sequitur about how sweet everyone always thought Phoenix was, and the story moves on. It feels more like the author compiled quotes found elsewhere than that he actually interviewed these people and was able to ask questions.

Overall, a life story like this one is so interesting it ultimately is worth the experience despite the negatives, but I think the credit goes to the man's life, not to this telling of it.

10 people found this helpful

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Oddly frustrating listen

Any additional comments?

I feel like there were two researchers at work here, or at least an author with an unclear goal. The historical information, setting the Phoenix family's travels in the context of greater social changes within the US was really interesting and whether intentionally or not made the family a metaphor for the larger societal changes. For me, where the book fell down was the constant name checking of the famous. Yes, these are the people River Phoenix hung around with, but it added nothing more than a tabloid gloss. I felt like this book could have been something more, and maybe peered into why so many young people in Hollywood are from troubled backgrounds, and why nothing is done to stop their obvious decline. Or had some focus other than reciting the names of the famous young of the 90s. Instead it felt like it recited headlines from a magazine.

5 people found this helpful

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Fascinating and sad.

I can vividly recall the meteoric rise of River Phoenix as a different kind of teen icon. After Stand By Me, there was no one my age who did not at least subconsciously know what River Phoenix was doing and what movies he was appearing in. Unlike others in Hollywood who embodied the 80's zeitgeist of selfishness and excess, River Phoenix was promoting animal rights and making quirky choices (mostly) in his film choices that steered many of his fans to see thought-provoking films that they might never have considered if he had not been in them.

This book provides a pretty complete picture of River Phoenix's family, from their transition between hippie nomads to Children of God cult members to unlikely Hollywood royalty. What was particularly amazing about this was how the unconventional worldview and the naive way they looked at River's acting career was tolerated by Hollywood, illustrating that it may not be as necessary as many stage parents seem to think to sacrifice your child's well being to the gods of fame in order to accomplish stardom. However admirable the Phoenix parents' commitment to their ideals may be, it becomes pretty clear that they unfairly placed the burden of providing for the family on the children and especially on River. You can see the adolescent River coming to terms with hypocrisy in them, as well as chafing (however mildly) under the burden at times.

More than anything, this story really makes me wonder what sort of man and what sort of actor River Phoenix might have been if he had not died. Phoenix was not any more of a drug abuser than his contemporaries, he was just unlucky enough that he never got a chance to make the decision to leave drugs behind. It becomes obvious that this is the main difference between River and other stars like Anthony Kiedis, Johnny Depp, Corey Feldman, etc.: they got lucky and River did not.

I have read some reviews that were negative about the narrator'a performance or the author's inclusion of so many perspectives from famous contemporaries of River. I disagree. I thought that 1) the narrator did a fairly amazing job of mimicking the voices of River's famous contemporaries, which was very entertaining, and 2) it would have been impossible to actually capture the times without including all these famous people River knew and how he affected them.

4 people found this helpful

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Awful Narration

I couldn't get past the narrator's creepy attempts to imitate all the different voices. It was over acted and strange. It's too bad because I think the story might have been very interesting. Maybe I'll read the book.

9 people found this helpful

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I cried...

I feel like I know River so much more than I did. I loved it.

3 people found this helpful

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It was a different world back then.

I was very much a teenybopper when he passed away. This took me back. I cant help but wonder what a horrible circus would’ve been made in today’s 24/7 social media world. There's a lot of timehopping; so if that bothers you; you're warned. The only thing I found slightly disappointing in the performance was the 911 call. I can vividly remember it because it was played on the news repeatedly. The urgency in his voice was lacking. But really, it's only a few sentences out of the whole book.

2 people found this helpful

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Interesting snapshot of history

Where does Last Night at the Viper Room rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

I don't agree with some of the negative reviews around this; I thought the context around young Hollywood at the time was interesting and gave context for Phoenix's life, a sense of comparison about where Phoenix may have ended up had he lived. Didn't find the narration irritating. This book is definitely worth a listen.

2 people found this helpful

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Not sure if the narrator flubbed or the author.

Overall, a decent view into what his life had been like. I did not care for the narration because as he changed voices he changed volume drastically so you couldn't hear what he was saying, especially when doing a female voice. Now, the thing that bugged me the most is he said Rosie O'Donnell was in Hocus Pocus with Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker.... huh? Idk if that was a narrator snafu or an error in the book itself, but it made me doubt facts portrayed in the book because of it.

1 person found this helpful

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Quite possibly the worst narration ever!

Before listening to this book, I read the negative reviews of the narration. I thought that it couldn't be that bad because I had recently listened to a book narrated by the same guy that was good. But it was THAT BAD! I almost stopped listening several times, it was so bad. However, River Phoenix's story is so compelling that I stuck it out. What an amazing
life, and such a tragedy!

1 person found this helpful

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Unhappy Boy

What a sad life story. So many people had an influence on what he became. An interesting history of Hollywood actors during the period that River Phoenix was acting.

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  • Zara
  • 02-08-15

Fantastic book. highly recommemded!

A great insight into not only River Phoenix but the whole LA scene of the 90s.

4 people found this helpful

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  • booklover
  • 09-02-20

Listening in one sitting

Very well read. What a tragedy the loss of Phoenix was and still is. Excellent book.

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  • Anonymouse
  • 08-29-20

Deeply engaging

I was a 14 year old grunge kid who adored River Phoenix so I was very excited to stumble across this book. I knew River had died of drugs but I was unaware he’d had so many problems with them. Fast forward to today and my innocent image of him is now tarnished as I learned just how much of a druggie he was and how easily led and naive and vulnerable he was too. Half his life seems a strange mix of much love but much sadness with an extraordinary beginning in a cult. And the realisation that he could have been saved from death by his siblings but wasn’t is terribly unfortunate. The book details lots of interesting and first-hand accounts of life on and off film sets and his relationships with his own self worth, his family and friends and others who influenced him. Stories about other huge celebrities like Johnny Depp, Leo DiCaprio, Flea and Michael Stipe and their rise to fame and connections are equally as fascinating and knit the story together well. These are bonus sub-narratives and all in all the author inspires you to want to explore all the movies and bands mentioned. This is an easy and engrossing listen. The only thing I hated was the narrator insisting on mimicking voices which all sounded like a mickey taking school girl and was completely unnecessary, distracting and extremely annoying! This girly voice was used for men and women alike! Luke Daniels mumbles at times too and his voice is fairly monotone for the most part. In conclusion, the subject matter and writing are great and I’ll happily read more Gavin Edwards work. And the audiobook is a nice, straightforward listen with no interfering music or dramatic interludes. I highly recommend.

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  • Graham G.
  • 01-11-20

A very worthy listen

looked the book and narrator but it is almost as if River Phoenix is secondary to the plot. The subtitle is appropriate: It seems more about the Hollywood of the time, using RP as the CA the catalyst of the story. would easily recommend.

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  • marie
  • 11-27-17

exceptional

Brilliant book well worth the money you will not be disappointed well read and a great insight into his short life

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  • M. N. Baker
  • 11-15-16

A young talented life lost too soon

Last night at the viper room is a compelling, level headed exploration of the short life and career of River Phoenix. The book does not shy away from examining many of the issues and challenges of young Hollywood in the 80s and 90s or the structures of Rivers childhood which were often nomadic and shrouded in secrecy and religious indoctrination. The book does not pedal to the pop culture image of River but gives an honest and often heart rendering account of an extremely talented but also deeply complex young man who given time may have become one of the finest actors of his generation. A sad loss that could have so easily been prevented through meaningful intervention, but within a Hollywood bubble where drugs and alcohol were the norm, meaningful interventions appeared to come second to career and public image. RIP River xx