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Easy Rider (New Waves #1)

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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).

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

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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.