Home

Super Fly (Soundtrack Sundays #7)

Leave a comment

Super Fly.jpg

I did think about going to see the remake of Super Fly last week before failing to muster up the necessary enthusiasm required to experience near inevitable disappointment.

Instead, I rewatched the original featuring a commanding performance by Ron O’Neal and gave the soundtrack album, my absolute favourite of the blaxploitation era, a spin.

Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr in 1972, Super Fly was a low-budget production, incorporating many elements that might now see it classed as ‘guerrilla filmmaking’. Some scenes in public areas were shot without official permission, others were shot in the homes of friends, the same friends also being regularly called upon to provide their services as extras.

Rather than hiring and modifying any car into the kind of eye-catching pimpmobile becoming an evermore common sight at the time, a suitably slick customized Cadillac Eldorado was borrowed from a local mack, who was also given a role – he’s the flashy player in the white suit and red fedora. This is the car that we see Priest sharking around the scuzzy streets of Harlem in.

Sometimes the camerawork is a little shaky and out of focus but that only adds a further edgy flavour to shots of a city on the verge of economic collapse, which was witnessing an unparalleled rise in crime, with narcotics awash across neighbourhoods and a spiralling homicide rate.

Super Fly is now one of the most lauded blaxploitation movies and was an instant hit on release. Armond White, later a film critic for the NY Press, has recalled the impact on the audience when he first saw it in St. Louis, describing a crowd leaping out their seats, stomping their feet and clapping their hands, ‘It connected psychically with people,’ he said of the climax where Priest takes on some cops in a fight before issuing a warning that they will inevitably have to heed.

Not everyone was so pleased to see a big screen portrayal of a black man who is both a mack and drug lord even if he’s a highly charismatic mack and drug lord capable of getting one over on ‘the man’.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People deplored the depiction of a black criminal prepared to flood the streets of his community with drugs in order to make enough money to get out of his lifestyle.

Priest is certainly more anti-hero than hero. We’re hardly into the action before he’s beaten a man in front of a mother and her children and threatened Freddie, one of his men who owes him money, telling him he’ll put his wife out on ‘whore row’ if Freddie fails to deliver the cash before the night is out.

Curtis Mayfield himself saw the film more as an anti-drugs statement than pro and his eloquent lyrics throughout were pointedly critical of the macho Pusherman Priest and the businesses that he chose to make his living from.

Partly as a riposte to some of the criticism levelled at Super Fly’s perceived glorification of crime, O’Neal went on to direct and star in a sequel Superfly T.N.T in 1973, which found Priest in Italy and then a fictional African state, where he attempts to rise above his former life by helping the locals in their fight against colonial rule. It was a critical and commercial failure, though. This time round Osibisa supplied the soundtrack but it wasn’t a patch of Mayfield’s.

Curtis Mayfield -Super Fly

Super Fly was the third studio album by the man with arguably the most distinctive voice in soul Curtis Mayfield.

The music is staggeringly good with insistent beats, fantastic wah wah guitar and some incredibly inventive percussion. Best of all is Mayfield’s honeyed falsetto coo.

The team behind the film were so impressed that after the songs were delivered they decided that Curtis’ band, billed here as The Curtis Mayfield Experience, should be given the chance to perform a song Pusherman during the film, in a small club where Priest goes to visit an older pusher known as Scatter.

Released at a time when soul soundtracks were still in their relative infancy, the album even managed to outgross the movie. It spent four weeks as America’s #1 album, earned four Grammy nominations, and two singles, Freddie’s Dead and Super Fly, both cracked the top ten of the Billboard singles chart, each selling over a million copies.

Even the Super Fly logo used on film and album promotional material is thought to have been a huge influence on the ever growing army of graffiti artists marking the streets and subways of NYC with their tags.

Curtis – and I have only just discovered this – might have articulated some very positive, socially conscious messages in his lyrics but sadly he would appear to be guilty of failing to abide by these ideas in his private life.

According to Traveling Soul, the recent biography penned by his son Todd, Curtis was a deeply insecure man often guilty of abusive behaviour, an often neglectful father and uncompromising partner in love who expected others to bend to his will. It really is unsettling to read about ‘a trembling, frenzied scream that only came out in fights with women’ that he would adopt when his temper flared.

Even as Super Fly made its way up the charts, Todd claims to have been woken during the night as a fight erupted between his father and the woman Toni, who Curtis called his ‘spiritual wife’. ‘I walked out to find a policeman hulking in the doorway and Toni with a black eye. Dad never did these things in front of us [his children], but we’d see the aftermath.’

Mayfield also appears to have been something of a control freak. Just one example: for the recording of the soundtrack, he invited the Impressions’ longtime arranger, Johnny Pate, to help out. Pate felt he definitely merited at least a couple of writing credits but Mayfield flat-out refused to give him any songwriting acknowledgements. They would never again work together, which was a shame, Pate’s arrangements on Super Fly were truly top notch.

Advertisements

Zombie Flesh Eaters & Zombi Holocaust (An Ian McCulloch Double Bill)

2 Comments

Zombie Flesh Eaters & Zombi Holocaust

21st century pop culture is saturated in tales of the living dead with the popularity of zombies as high as ever. TV series The Walking Dead is about to return in a couple of weeks for its ninth season and has proved a major ratings hit since it launched in 2010. Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide has retained its popularity ever since it first appeared on the New York Times Best Seller’s list fifteen years ago. Zombies are out there in websites, graphic novels and video games as well as movies like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Even a string of largely laugh-free duds like Zombies vs Strippers, Cockneys vs Zombies and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies has failed to dampen the public’s fascination with these nightmarish creatures with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.

Expect more of this kind of thing in the near future. There’s likely screenwriters out there as I type working on scripts along the lines of Rappers vs Zombies, Reality TV Stars vs Zombies (I know who I’d be cheering on in that one) and maybe even Weegees vs Zombies.

Ian_McCulloch

Glasgow stood in for Philadelphia for thr filming of World War Z but I would say that my hometown’s most valuable contribution to the whole living dead phenomenon were the two movies that Glasgow born actor Ian McCulloch starred in, Zombie Flesh Eaters from 1979 and Zombi Holocaust from 1980.

McCulloch is still likely best known for his role in Survivors, a much talked about BBC post-apocalyptic drama that ran for three seasons from 1975-77.

When the young actor was starting out his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and working with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench, or even at the height of his Survivors fame, I doubt he would have ever guessed that he’d end up playing lead roles in movies where he whacks the living dead on the head with shovels and where zombies fight sharks. Yes, zombies fight sharks!

His career took this very unexpected turn when Survivors proved to be a massive hit in Italy too. He was invited to star in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters aka Zombi 2, supposedly an Italian sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was released there under the title Zombi. As I’ve mentioned before on here, Italian copyright law at least around this time was, well, let’s just say a little lax.

In Fulci’s drama McCulloch plays Peter West; a New York based British investigative journalist who is tipped off about a news story involving a boat that’s been found stranded just off Staten Island, apparently abandoned. On this vessel one harbour officer has been devoured by a grotesque zombie, before a fellow officer shot him into the sea, an incident that the police want hushed up.

West teams up with the boat owner’s daughter, Anne Bowles (played by Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia) and the pair travel to the Caribbean where Anne’s father had been living to attempt to find out more. On their way they befriend some Americans, who are cruising the area on their boat. Despite reservations owing to local rumours, they agree to locate and take Peter and Anne to the uncharted island of Matoul. Cue several double entendres with McCulloch delivering lines like ‘We’ll find Matoul’. Think about it.

The movie then notches up several gears as one of the Americans Susan (Auretta Gay), decides to don some scuba gear and plunge underwater to take some snaps. How’s this for bad luck: first she encounters a shark – Jaws had been filmed five years before but its impact was still being felt onscreen – and then she is attacked by a zombie, who she fights off by slashing at his face with some coral.

Nope, I didn’t know that zombies could exist underwater either before I witnessed this.

In the moments after her escape, the recovered zombie then embarks on his legendary swedge with the still hungry shark. Stephen Thrower, author of Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci has called this scene ‘a triumph of the ridiculous’ and I absolutely agree.

Zombie vs Shark

On Matoul, there are even more zombies and West and the others will battle them fiercely. There will be gore. Bucketloads of it.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is a schlocky treat. It’s one of Anne Billson’s favourite zombie movies and when the Arrow’s restored blu-ray came out, the Guardian‘s Phelim O’Neill speculated that it is ‘perhaps the ultimate undead movie.’

I do prefer 28 Day Later and the original Dawn of the Dead myself but this is more fun. Fulci’s zombies look repulsive, with worms and maggots dangling out from their eye sockets and frequent Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi’s synthy score somehow conveys a sense that any attempt to take these zombies on will ultimately be futile.

intermission

Having just completed the shoot of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Ian McCulloch was soon at it again, starring in another Italian horror Zombi Holocaust, directed by Marino Girolami, who styled himself here as Frank Martin. Not the most inspired pseudonym it would have to be said

McCulloch plays Dr Peter Chandler, a character who obviously resembles Peter West. In fact, this film seldom strays from the template of Zombie Flesh Eaters – they even share a number of locations and, notably, both later made Britain’s infamous Video Nasties list.

Again this one opens in NYC, where some ghoul is carrying out a series of mutilations on cadavers stored in a hospital morgue. This, though, is being hushed up as any police involvement would give the hospital ‘a bad name’. And what about the consequences for the hospital authorities if it ever emerged that they had failed to disclose the fact that body parts were being regularly removed from the recently deceased on their premises?

Once again McCulloch teams up with an attractive female, in this case a New York based anthropology expert Lori Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli).

The trail of mutilated corpses points to a connection with a remote and primitive island in the Pacific called Maluku, where it is said that cannibalism is still practised and where Lori lived as a child. Peter organises an expedition there with Lori, his assistant George and George’s pushy journo girlfriend Susan.

Our intrepid outsiders will soon discover that not only is the cannibal hersay true but that the island is also home to a substantial population of zombies.

And not only that, Dr. Obrero, the scientist who Chandler’s team liaise with on their arrival in Maluku is of the demented Dr. Frankenstein type, who hopes to carry out a groundbreaking experiment on Chandler!

There’s nothing as outlandish here as a zombie fighting a shark but again there is gore galore. Chandler obliterating a zombie’s head with a revving motorboat propeller being one of the more gruesome examples of this.

Zombi Holocaust still

Nowadays McCulloch seems to have retired from acting although, being a natural raconteur, he’s always a popular choice for the convention circuit even though the horror genre holds little interest for him. The appeal of taking on his genre work, he’s always been happy to admit, having been more to do with a series of filming locations like New York, Rome and the Lesser Antilles, together with some very generous pay packets and perks.

McCulloch doesn’t appear remotely proud of the three genre horror movies he made – he also appeared in Contamination, an Italian rip-off of Alien – and he believes his acting is awful in them. Saying that, he is even more scathing about some of the lines he was asked to deliver.

If you’re looking for dialogue with the precision of David Mamet, go elsewhere. If characters being obviously dubbed annoys you, go elsewhere. If you require characters always behaving logically then guess what?

If, though, you enjoy seeing zombies and cannibals being bludgeoned to death in ever more inventive ways, then you really should seek out these two movies.

Ian McCulloch, we salute you.

The Boys from Fengkuei (New Waves #2)

Leave a comment

The Boys from Fengkuei

Around the time of the release of this film, I was following a similar route to the boys depicted. An ordinary teenager migrating hundreds of miles south with some pals to find work in my case. And personal independence.

Immediately on seeing The Boys from Fengkuei many years later for the first time, I was reminded of how universal great cinema can be. It might have been set on the other side of the world where everyone speaks a language I don’t understand a word of but the characters could have been me and my friends, acting daft, getting drunk, showing off in front of girls.

Hou Hsiao-hsien directed only four full-length works that are usually considered Taiwanese New Wave (or New Cinema as it is also known as). These are The Boys from Fengkuei (1983); A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984); The Time to Live, the Time to Die (1985) and Dust in the Wind (1986).

As James Udden put it in No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: ‘Collectively these films can be seen as the definitive works of the Taiwanese New Cinema before its semi-official end in early 1987, the year of his next film, Daughter of the Nile.’

As you can tell by the dates, Taiwan was later than most with its cinematic New Wave, a reaction in part to the slightly earlier Hong Kong New Wave, that by the beginning of the 1980s was meeting with much critical and commercial success, as well as generally outperforming home-grown efforts at the box office in Taiwan.

The 1982 Taiwanese anthology film In Our Time – with one segment helmed by Edward Yang – proved groundbreaking, departing radically from those home-grown martial arts flicks and sentimental dramas that young audiences in particularly were finding increasingly stale.

New and younger directors began pushing their way to the fore, and, as with previous New Waves, collaborations flourished. Hou, for instance, co-scripted Wan Ren’s Ah Fei in 1983 and played the lead role in Edward Yang’s excellent Taipei Story a year later, by which time he’d filmed The Boys from Fengkuei.

The_Boys_From_Fengkuei_-_still_2

Three of Hou’s earliest films were released earlier this year by Eureka, two of which I’d never seen before. These were like discovering that your favourite indie act had once been boy band wannabes. Indeed, Kenny B, a lightweight Hong Kong pop star starred in both Cute Girl (1980) and The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982). They’re both reasonably entertaining albeit fluffy. By the time of the latter film though, Hou is already demonstrating an amazing capacity for technically imaginative camerawork, and displaying a striking ability to coax some very fine performances from the (first time) child actors who play such a crucial part in the film.

His method for directing these youngsters was soon adopted for directing adults too. Rather than insisting on blocking scenes precisely and demanding lines be delivered exactly as written, he instead favoured the possibilities offered by improvisation, suggesting moods and atmospheres that scenes should be inspired by.

As plots go, The Boys from Fengkuei is slim. A group of teenagers from a small fishing village hang around shooting pool, scooting around on mopeds; they drink and stray into trouble with other local young men. Bored, they decide to try their luck elsewhere, moving to the bustling port city of Kaohsiung where one of their sister’s lives and works.

Once installed there and sharing an apartment, one of the boys develops a crush for a neighbour, although he doesn’t let on as she is living with – and presumably in love with – her nonchalant and reckless boyfriend, who’s employed together with her and the Fengkuei boys at a nearby electronics factory.

These characters are flawed although Hou has no interest in flagging up to an audience how they should be judged. They resort to violence too easily. They all struggle to express their emotions. They are naive. Moving to a thriving big city certainly doesn’t shield them from the harsh realities of life. In many ways it only adds an element of alienation into the emotional mix.

The Boys from Fengkuei still

At a time when Taiwan was transforming itself rapidly, with industrialization on the rise, movies like this were a big deal and far more realistic than what had gone before. As a comparison, think how fresh kitchen sink dramas in the late 1950s and early 1960s like A Taste of Honey and A Kind of Loving must have struck audiences when they first hit British cinemas.

Cinephiles soon took note too and considering the size of the island (its population at the time was only around 17,000,000), it managed to make a real impact globally with films by Hou, Edward Yang, Chen Kunhou and others and then with what became known as the Second Wave, when new directors like future Oscar winner Ang Lee emerged.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career has continued to flourish since his breakthrough film, inspiring many aspiring filmmakers along the way, Jim Jarmusch, for example, called Hou his ‘teacher’. Hou scooped the highly prestigious Golden Lion prize for best picture at the 1989 Venice Festival for A City of Sadness and is recognised today as one of the world’s greatest auteurs.

The BFI suggest the ideal introduction to Hou is 1985’s The Time to Live and the Time to Die but I would go for The Boys from Fengkuei.

Hou hsiao hsien - The Assassin

If you like The Boys from Fengkuei, you might also enjoy The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful wuxia drama that premiered at Cannes in 2015. Described as ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ by The Telegraph and voted best film of the year by Sight & Sound, The Assassin is a dazzling spectacle that lingers long in the memory. I’d guess that even Stanley Kubrick might be impressed by Hou’s attention to detail here. Just about every shot looks to be as carefully composed as a painting by an old master.

What else can I say? Well, I could admit that I also found it difficult to follow at times and if I’m being completely honest, I would have liked to have seen some more spectacular swordplay along the way but I would still absolutely recommend The Assassin.

 

American Animals

1 Comment

American Animals

A few weeks ago I received an invite to a screening of American Animals in Glasgow which would be accompanied afterwards by a Q&A with director Bart Layton. I already had something else planned for that evening, but this could easily be cancelled so I headed over to my favourite review site RogerEbert.com where I had a quick swatch to see what they had to say about the film.

The first paragraph of their review made the assertion that it was a rip-off of I, Tonya and awarded a two star rating. I decided against going. The next day an email from a friend who did attend informed me that he’d found it utterly compelling, so when American Animals opened officially in Britain today I was keen to judge it for myself.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) is a directionless though gifted art student who believes his life needs the drama and suffering experienced by his favourite painters like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Egon Schiele.

A visit to the special collections room of Transylvania University (which in case your wondering, is a real uni in Lexington, Kentucky) sows the seeds of an idea that will ultimately, if he is right, provide him with the kind of life altering drama required to push on his art.

American Animals tells the story of Reinhard and his pal Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), who hatch an audacious scheme to steal an original folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America – possibly the most valuable book in existence – which is guarded only by one senior librarian named Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd).

American_Animals_Rare_Books_Room

The conspirators’ plan will strike you as far fetched, even unbelievable if you didn’t know the events are based on a true story. This is not a team of experienced criminals. These are two students from what are routinely termed ‘good homes’ as their parents explain early on.

From the very start this is slickly shot and fast-paced. Layton, who had previously been best known for his documentary The Imposter, includes documentary-style inserts with the four actual perpetrators of the crime – Spencer and Warren are later joined by two more young middle class pals, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen, played by Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner.

These real-life characters really resemble older versions of the actors that play them and they give their versions of events which don’t always match up. Sometimes they even happily admit that their own memories can be hazy and one even wonders if Lipka has totally invented a trip abroad to meet some shady characters who might be able to punt their plunder on the black market.

This is a risky move by Layton, but it proves intriguing albeit it will might strike some as overly tricksy. At one point Evan Peters as Warren Lipka is joined by Warren Lipka to discuss the veracity of a scene. And I have to admit here, when the real Lipka was first introduced, with his toothy smile, showing off his Tyrannosaurus Rex tattoo, I assumed that he had to be an actor.

The score by Anne Nikitin is highly effective, especially as the action is cranked up and some of the existing tracks chosen are equally inspired although I’m Alive (a great track) by Johnny Thunder and New York Groove by Ace Frehley are just too on the nose for my tastes – and the original ‘Groove by British glamsters Hello is the better anyway.

Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man has been utilised in soundtracks before, such as when David Fincher chose it for the opening and closing of Zodiac and it works fantastically here with that frazzled guitar and curious vocal style. There’s also some unexpected gems like Crucify Your Mind by Rodriguez, Vitamin C by Can and Peace Frog by The Doors:

Calling American Animals a ‘rip-off of I, Tonya’ baffles me. Okay, we hear conflicting views of events in that film too, though via actors, rather than the real-life Tonya Harding, her mother and ex-husband. Would the team behind American Animals have even seen Craig Gillespie’s movie while making their own? I would guess it had already been shot before I, Tonya had achieved any release.

‘We’re supposed to feel sorry for the crooks,’ Odie Henderson, the Roger Ebert reviewer complained, although this is plainly nonsense. We’re obviously supposed to feel sorry for the impeccably polite librarian and are made aware in advance that the students realise that what they require to do to ‘neutralise’ her is utterly repulsive. You’re very odd if you can muster up much sympathy for anybody capable of tasering an older woman, tying her up and taping her mouth shut. The director even shows the consequences of their actions. The old lady pees herself.

And just think about that title. American Animals?

Henderson did give some credit for the fact the real Betty Jean Gooch was allowed to condemn the wannabe thieves and he also enjoyed a cameo from Udo Kier as one of the two shady fences who Lipka meets in what the reviewer mistakenly calls Holland despite the difference between Holland and the Netherlands being hinted at during a discussion between Lipka and Reinhard. He also wrote that ‘I wanted to run off with him to whatever heist he might be doing.’ Come on, fences only move on stolen goods, they don’t take part in the robberies themselves. I could go on.

American Animals never drags and is very enjoyable although not nearly as good as some of the movies like The Killing that Lipka and Reinhard watch in the run-up to their heist. The pair’s taste for crime dramas is demonstrated again when Lipka insists on giving each of the team names inspired by Reservoir Dogs, Chas Allen being branded Mr Pink ‘just to fuck with him.’

It made me think, it made me laugh – sometimes very uneasily – and it made me want to see whatever Layton decides to direct next. Hopefully, I can even get to see it along with a Q&A.

Easy Rider (New Waves #1)

3 Comments

Easy Rider Quad Poster

As I mentioned in my last post, The Wild Angels kickstarted an outlaw biker movie craze. Some were very enjoyable like Hell’s Angels on Wheels, which starred Jack Nicholson, but there was only one truly great biker film and that was Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper.

Hopper was a fascinating man. He arrived in Hollywood as a teenager believing he was the best young actor in the world. He landed a part in Rebel Without a Cause and changed his mind. James Dean was the best young actor in the world. Hopper also began an affair with Natalie Wood. He was hired again to work with Dean on Giant. When Elvis Presley branched into an acting career, making his debut in Love Me Tender in 1956, he sought out actors with a Dean connection including Hopper. The two hung around together, Hopper passing on some acting tips. Though maybe not enough of them.

On the downside Hopper also quickly earned a reputation for being a difficult actor. Influenced by Dean, on every set he stepped on to he would rail against ever becoming a ‘director’s puppet’. One argument with Henry Hathaway led to the director telling Hopper that he would never work again in Hollywood (although Hathaway did later employ him again).

The roles did begin to dry up, though, to the extent that Hopper had to earn money from his photography for many high-end magazines. He shot celebrities such as Jane Fonda (and her brother Peter), as well as a number of bands, most notably The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane.

Smiths fans will certainly recognise his Biker Couple from 1961.

Dennis Hopper, Biker Couple, 1961.jpg

Managing to secure some minor roles in films like Cool Hand Luke and The Sons of Katie Elder, didn’t stop Hopper from regularly launching into lengthy diatribes against the studio establishment, accusing the old order of being dinosaurs and claiming he would save Hollywood from big budget conservative family fare like Paint Your Wagon and Doctor Dolittle.

Significantly Hopper also acted in an AIP biker flick The Glory Stompers and together with another Hollywood rebel Peter Fonda, he attempted to get a project called The Last Movie off the ground.

He preached what he called a socialist model of filmmaking and envisaged a future for himself directing independently made features. When Fonda offered him the chance to helm a film about a couple of freewheeling bikers, that Fonda would produce and both would star in, Hopper was ecstatic.

So would Easy Rider usher in a revolutionary new era with a generation of young directors, producers, actors and crew all working in a spirit of co-operation, leaving their egos behind to concentrate on the bigger picture?

In a word: no.

With his long hair, headband and hippy threads, Dennis Hopper might have looked like his world revolved around the whole peace and love ethic of the day but in reality he was pugnacious and paranoid. More Raging Bull than Easy Rider.

‘I am Frank Booth,’ he later told David Lynch, after being sent the script for Blue Velvet.

He would guzzle alcohol by the gallon, smoke Cheech and Chong levels of pot and trip on peyote and acid as well as sniffing Amazonian tree frogs.

Okay, I made that last one up but it might just be true.

While filming, Hopper often went ballistic. He argued furiously with actors and even brandished a handgun at times.

Whatever his faults, he did go on to prove he was an inspired choice to direct Easy Rider.

In Easy Rider, Dennis is Billy (the Kid), while Fonda is Wyatt (Captain America). Billy in beads, fringed buckskin jacket and bushy tash; Wyatt in black leather and shades.

The plot of Easy Rider is simple.

Billy and Wyatt make a drug deal (cocaine) and head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure, riding from Mexico across America on a pair of Harleys, the coke cash stashed inside the fuel tank of Wyatt’s chopper. They intend to travel to Florida and retire on the profits made from the deal.

En route they smoke a load of dope (and of course the actors did inhale); dine with some poor ranchers; encounter a boozy but perceptive lawyer named George Hanson (a show-stealing Jack Nicholson); pick up a hippy hitch-hiker and visit a commune; get hassled by some rednecks who despise their non-conformity and drop some strong acid during the Mardi Gras with two high class hookers played by Karen Black and Toni Basil.

Easy Rider - New Orleans sequence

With its manic and murky out-of-focus camerawork often displaying lens flares, the New Orleans footage is especially remarkable. It includes a sequence where Fonda improvises a monologue, verbalizing his thoughts on his mother’s suicide to a statue of the Madonna in a graveyard. This was absolutely against his wishes, but he was forced into it by Hopper.

The pair argued throughout the shoot and the animosity continued afterwards as Easy Rider became an instant bonafide counterculture sensation, picking up a number of awards and ending 1969 as the third highest grossing film in the States.

Since then it has been called the definitive statement on the death of the 1960s and is generally credited, along with Bonnie and Clyde of 1967, as a vital part in heralding in the New Hollywood era or the American New Wave if you prefer,* a movement that would lead to the successes ofThe Godfather, The Exorcist and Taxi Driver during its heyday.

The soundtrack has often been called groundbreaking too, one of the first to extensively utilise found music (in the form of popular current rock and country rock acts like The Band, The Electric Prunes and Steppenwolf) rather than a orchestral score. The accompanying album made the Billboard top ten and by January 1970, it had been certified gold.

Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, here is one of those tracks, The Byrds and Wasn’t Born To Follow:

Since its release, much has been disputed about the making of Easy Rider. The initial idea is disputed. The budget. The length of the shoot. But it’s the screenwriting credit – officially shared by Terry Southern, Hopper and Fonda – that is the most contested.

Hopper has alleged Southern didn’t write a line of the screenplay while Southern maintained the only reason that Hopper and Fonda received credits was as a favour from him. Hopper liked to claim complete responsibility and asked Fonda and Southern to give up their claims to it though neither agreed to his demands. Since then, Hopper has occasionally been more magnanimous. On his director’s commentary, he even gave Fonda and Southern some credit.

So, did Hopper and Fonda ever kiss and make up?

Sadly, no. When Fonda discovered that Hopper was dying, he made several attempts to see him but Hopper always refused any request to meet. Fonda did fly in to Taos in New Mexico for the funeral but wasn’t allowed into the service.

IF YOU LIKE EASY RIDER THEN YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue from 1980 (this is where Primal Scream came across their ‘Kill All Hippies’ sample for the opening track on their XTRMNTR album) and River’s Edge, a 1986 cult hit that featured an uber-intense Hopper as Feck, a former biker who lives with an inflatable sex doll he calls Ellie. Possibly the bleakest teen film I’ve ever seen.

* When applied to music, the term New Wave takes on negative connotations for many – although Malcolm McLaren, for instance, favoured the term over ‘punk’. While discussing cinema, being labelled as New Wave is generally looked on much more positively (more on this in the coming months).

We Wanna Be Free! We Wanna Be Free To Do What We Wanna Do! (The Wild Angels 1966)

2 Comments

The Wild Angels 1966

Made at a time when the Hells Angels were creating a major moral panic across America, The Wild Angels opens with a preface: ‘The picture you are about to see will shock you and perhaps anger you. Although the events and characters are fictitious, the story is a reflection of our times.’

On its release, it was undeniably controversial, being banned in several countries. Newsweek branded it ‘an ugly piece of trash’ and other publications were equally scathing.

Would it prove contentious today in an age where shows like Game of Thrones (or even biker drama Sons of Anarchy) have gone out of their way to portray brutality like eye gouging and castration on a near weekly basis?

Certainly not for its violence, although plenty of other aspects might guarantee a slew of complaints if it were to be screened at any university film club. The male bikers are a highly misogynist bunch. There’s a rape and an attempted rape. There’s some casual racism and also a plethora of Nazi iconography on display throughout the movie – everything from a Swastika bedspread (honestly) to a coffin draped in a Nazi flag as Peter Fonda’s character Blues defines just exactly he wants to do during an extended – and spectacularly tasteless – funeral scene.

His speech may sound rousing when used in a sample – Mudhoney’s In ‘n’ Out of Grace was the first track to utilize it two years before Primal Screams’ Loaded – but in the context of the movie it comes across more as a selfish rant from a rebel without a coherent cause.

Despite this, The Wild Angels is compelling watch and very enjoyable too.

Aimed initially at the summer drive-in crowd, producer and director Roger Corman once again demonstrated his gift for giving a youthful audience the kind of subject matter that guaranteed they would flock to his films.

Peter Fonda plays Blues, the Prez of a Californian Angels chapter. He’s enigmatic and tough and to show how supercool he is, he doesn’t even take off his shades before wading into a fistfight with some Mexicans who have stolen his comrade’s chopper. Which inevitably he wins.

Blues is also the smartest of the bikers, although that wouldn’t be very difficult. He’s in a casual relationship with Mike (played rather woodenly by Nancy Sinatra). Yes, genuine American showbiz royalty here, folks. Corman must have heard the kerching sound of a cash register when he cast this pair.

Bruce Dern is Loser, Blue’s right hand man. He is married to Gaysh, played by Dianne Ladd, his real-life wife at the time and a dead ringer for her daughter Laura Dern round about the time of Wild At Heart.

There’s not much in the way of plot but, as per usual, Corman does a fantastic job of moving the action forward.

Unlike most biker flicks, Corman make it difficult to identify with the Angels. Early on when Blues is criticized by Loser’s war vet foreman for wearing an iron cross, Blues and Loser grapple him and threaten to take his teeth out with a wrench. Okay, the one percenter’s fascination with Nazi paraphernalia was nothing to do with Hitler’s ideology, rather a show of contempt towards straight society. As with some early punks in London it was more to do with shock tactics but was just plain wrong regardless.

Corman did speak with some local Angels along with writer Charles Griffith, and he claims that most of the major events in the film are based on true stories told to them by the outlaw bikers. He also made sure to employ a number of actual Angels from their Venice, California chapter on the project, treating them just like the professional actors. The bikers, though, later regretted their participation, which led to some highly dangerous consequences for the director as he discusses here:

Made on a budget of only $350,000 and shot in three weeks, The Wild Angels wasn’t the first biker movie, The Wild One was an obvious inspiration and even British kitchen sink drama The Leather Boys had been shot a couple of years beforehand.

It isn’t the best film of its kind either – Easy Rider, also starring Fonda, is far superior in just about every respect. The Wild Angels, though, did spawn the whole biker flick craze.

It was highly successful at the American box-office. According to Corman in the Corman’s World documentary, it made $16 million. Also remarkable is the fact that an independently made exploitation movie was chosen, along with classics like Fahrenheit 451, The War Game and The Battle of Algiers, to be screened at that year’s Venice Film Festival.

For more on Roger Corman click here.

It’s a Bikini World (Soundtrack Sundays #6)

Leave a comment

The Castaways: Liar, Liar (1965)
The Animals: We Gotta Get out of This Place (1965)

With its inspired combination of falsetto and Farfisa, The Castaways’ Liar, Liar is one of the great American garage band hits of its era. It also has a zingy guitar lick and one of the best screams in 1960s rock’n’roll.

I first came across the track on the Nuggets compilation that Lenny Kaye assembled in 1972 and since then it has also appeared on a number of soundtracks, including Animal House, Good Morning, Vietnam and the hugely over-rated Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Before all that, Liar, Liar was performed live (well, supposedly live) on It’s a Bikini World, where The Castaways play it for the audition of a potential new go-go dancer for nightclub owner Daddy’s club The Dungeon, Daddy being played by Sid Haig, who later appeared in both Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown, both of which I covered last week.

Did she get the job? You bet she did!

It's a Bikini World

It’s a Bikini World belongs in the category of the beach party movie – or beachploitation or surfploitation if you prefer. This kind of film is generally far too frothy and wholesome for my tastes with all that sunshine and all those Dennis Wilson lookalikes with six packs and tanned Californian girls with gleaming smiles.

All these decades later, it’s odd to think of young people excitedly queuing up to see It’s Bikini World, Beach Ball (Haig was in that one too), Beach Blanket Bingo or Surf Party. Then again the same could be said in 2018 for Ant-Man and The Wasp and all the other blockbuster garbage currently clogging up the country’s multiplexes.

Here beach queen Deborah Walley stars along with Tommy Kirk and Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett of Monster Mash fame. Tommy Kirk’s opinion of the film? Well, he admitted to Filmfax magazine: ‘It was one of the worst pieces of shit that I’ve ever been in my life.’

Yes, it’s about as much fun as a wet Thursday in Thurso but director Stephanie Rothman, a protege of Roger Corman, does at least inject a little feminism into its bad battle of the sexes sitcom plot with a female lead character who is far from the passive norm of the beach movie.

Clearly though the main reason for watching It’s a Bikini World is for the music. In addition to The Castaways, girl group The Toys perform Attack!, a minor hit in the States, while The Animals, play We Gotta Get Out of This Place with Eric Burdon looking like getting out of this place was exactly what he wanted to do while lip-synching to the track at the Dungeon. I use the term lip-synching loosely.

Although shot in 1965, It’s a Bikini World wasn’t released until 1967, by which time biker and hippie flicks had began to supersede all the lightweight beach related bunkum. Suddenly young people with long hair in denim and leather took centre-stage and, unlike the ‘clean teens’ they liked to smoke, drink and have sex, as well as tuning in, turning on and dropping out. Characters that wanted to be free. Free to do what they wanted to do. Who wanted to get loaded and have a good time.

Oh, I feel a review of The Wild Angels coming on sometime soon.

For the It’s a Bikini World trailer, click here.

Older Entries Newer Entries