This is an edited excerpt from Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper, a new book by Stephen Lee Naish published by Amsterdam University Press.
One may not consider actor and director Dennis Hopper to be a savvy musical genius. Apart from his early associations with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Phil Spector, Hopper rarely traversed the road of musical performance, and unlike his friend and Easy Rider co-star Peter Fonda – who recorded a version of the Gram Parsons-penned ‘November Nights’ in 1968 – never recorded an album of musical compositions. However, what he lacked in accomplishment he more than made up for in knowledge and the use of music as a means of cultural signposting in his films. It was this knowledge and appreciation of rock and folk music that, alongside other aspects, made his directorial milestone Easy Rider (1969) such a counter-cultural classic. The film’s achingly beautiful cinematography, courtesy of Lazlo Kovacs, matched with Hopper’s choice cuts of Sixties rock and folk classics for the film’s soundtrack, were a pair made in heaven, a music video before the advent of MTV. Hopper chose instantly recognisable radio hits such as Steppenwolf’s brooding ‘The Pusher’ and the band’s more full throttle ‘Born to be Wild’, The Byrds’ dreamy psychedelic version of ‘I Wasn’t Born to Follow’, the distinct axe work of Jimi Hendrix in ‘If 6 Was 9’, and Dylan’s desolate ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Crying)’. However, alongside these familiar hits, Hopper also used many Sixties oddities that said even more about the decade’s triumphs and failures. ‘If You Want to Be a Bird’ by The Holy Modal Rounders was abstract weirdness modeled on Captain Beefheart’s majestic style, whilst ‘Don’t Bogart Me’ by Fraternity of Man was a country ballad about the need for weed. The Electric Prunes’ instrumental ‘Kyrie Eleison / Mardi Gras (When the Saints)’ beautifully, and also frightfully, illustrated the freewheeling escapades of Hopper and Fonda’s characters as they explored the New Orleans Mardi Gras under the influence of acid and accompanied by two prostitutes (played by Karen Black and Toni Basil). Hopper made each track correspond and add further weight to each scene. For example, the imagery of ‘I Wasn’t Born to Follow’ shows Hopper and Fonda gliding through a rugged sunlit forest, where a deep valley runs into the far distance and an overshadowing mountain lingers over the landscape, the sunlight hitting the camera creating wonderful prisms of lens flare that burn and absorb the frame. The lyrics of ‘I Wasn’t Born to Follow’ begin:
Journey where the diamond crescent’s glowing/and run across the valley/beneath the sacred mountain/and wander through the forest/where the trees have leaves of prisms/and break the light in colors/that no one knows the name of.
Originally, the soundtrack for Easy Rider was to be composed by folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, and Nash. However, upon witnessing firsthand the band’s lavish lifestyle of chauffeur driven limousines, Hopper screamed at Stephen Stills, “anyone who drives around town in a limo can’t understand my movie! Fuck off!” And indeed the ethos of the group’s extravagant means of transportation didn’t correspond with Easy Rider‘s custom-built rambling motorcycles. This dramatic disagreement led Easy Rider to become a milestone in film sound-tracking. Before Easy Rider it was virtually unheard of for a movie to use previously recorded and released music by popular bands and singers on a soundtrack. Prior to Easy Rider, the norm was for a film soundtrack to be scored by composers or session musicians after an initial edit of the movie was made available. As the Sixties progressed, films such as The Graduate (1967) featured original folk rock scores recorded predominantly by one artist — in the case of The Graduate, folk duo Simon and Garfunkel provided an entire record of original material. And as the Sixties bled into the Seventies, filmmakers wanting to make political statements used previously recorded songs as a means to add further weight to their criticism. Easy Rider’s soundtrack was perfect for the proposed gentle revolution of peace and love. Hopper may not have included the more famous radical songs of the era — Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ for example — but the association was there. And in fact by not including these obvious compositions, Easy Rider is less dated for it. Easy Rider showed Hopper’s capability in expertly sound-tracking, but it doesn’t end there.
Hopper’s next directorial effort was the art film The Last Movie (1971) — a prophetic title, as it would be his last directorial effort for nearly a decade. The success of Easy Rider gave Hopper free reign on his next film, including final cut. Despite the film’s artistic merits the audience who had embraced Easy Rider’s more straightforward narrative were not convinced by The Last Movie’s non-linear structure, the off kilter performances from Hopper and his cast, and the jagged and destabilising editing. If the film’s approach was less than traditional, the soundtrack harked back to the pre-Easy Rider method of movie soundtracks. Hopper recruited singer songwriter Kris Kristofferson to record some original compositions as well as add some of his own already released and popular songs to the soundtrack. The key song in The Last Movie is Kristofferson’s woeful ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. However, binding the folksy Kristofferson compositions is a mosaic of sound art featuring bell chimes, clips of muted conversation, and strummed, and discordant, acoustic guitar. In many ways this soundtrack is reminiscent of the drug trip scene in Easy Rider, which blends a rhythmic thumping machine with bells and whistles from the distant Mardi Gras parade, and clipped improvised dialogue from the actors. The soundtrack to The Last Movie as a whole becomes more an experiment in audio than a traditional soundtrack.
The accompanying ‘making of’ documentary The American Dreamer (1972) was a project in mythologizing an independent American film hero. And what better way to portray a hero than the traditional American folk song. The American Dreamer’s soundtrack was a ramshackle collection of rambling folk songs ‘inspired by’ Hopper and his excursion to Peru to film The Last Movie. Songs such as ‘Screaming Metaphysical Blues’ by singer/songwriter John Buck Wilkin reference Hopper’s adventures in hilariously banal lines, such as:
Here’s to Mr. Hopper/who has traded in his chopper/for a gamble in the South American sun./He got some heads from Hollywood/who think things might be pretty good/if they can figure out what thing he’s done.
A perfect summing up of the film Hopper had produced, and also how Universal Pictures reacted when Hopper delivered the finished product. The Last Movie did not fare well with audiences and critics. It had a limited run in New York, won the critics’ prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, and then faded, or more likely was buried, from view. With his reputation in tatters, Hopper descended into a decade of well documented drug and drink dependency, and was faced with exile from Hollywood.
Nonetheless, the 1970s were actually a creatively potent time for Hopper. Films such as Tracks (1976), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The American Friend (1977), and Apocalypse Now (1977) are among the most diverse, absorbing, and madcap roles of his career. Directorial roles dried up, but there are still intriguing artifacts of this period imprinted to celluloid. By chance, and with some good fortune, Hopper was given the reigns of a small independent Canadian film originally titled The Case of Cindy Barnes and set to star Raymond Barr. Hopper was originally cast in the melodramatic film as the abusive father who returns from prison, content on starting afresh, but ultimately falls back into his old destructive habits. Two weeks into filming the director, Leonard Yakir, jumped ship leaving behind no useable footage. Hopper convinced the financial backers to let him re-write the screenplay and direct the film from scratch. The film’s backers agreed as long as Hopper could bring the project in on time and under budget. Hopper completely overhauled the screenplay, dropping Barr’s role to nothing but a mere cameo and giving the film a nihilistic overtone, changing the title to Out of the Blue. He also incorporated the era’s burgeoning punk rock scene with live performances by Canadian punk band The Pointed Sticks, but the most prominent music was Neil Young’s brooding ‘My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)’.
Young’s poignant lyrics about how “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” perfectly echo the dramatic and nihilistic end of the film, where protagonist CeeBee (Linda Manz), after murdering her abusive father, kills herself and her mother by blowing up her father’s truck with dynamite. Hopper captures the darkness that lies at the heart of Young’s song. After the failings of the utopian vision of the Sixties, punk’s reaction was blunt, with the aim to destroy society instead of remaking it in an enlightened manner. The triumph of Out of the Blue is the trajectory from Sixties music, and the ideals of that era, to punk rock and its reaction to those ideals. The countercultural ethos that had originated in the Sixties had morphed into a critical backlash in the late 1970s. Punk, although anti-authoritarian and anti-consumerism, was also anti-hippy. The long hair, flared pants, flowery shirts, and peaceful disposition had become short spiky hair, tight pants, pins, studs, and an aggressive and abrasive posture. The audience of Easy Rider, who had embraced peace and understanding, were now in the firing line of punk rock’s nihilism.
Hopper returned in 1986 with a run of lauded performances in Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, and River’s Edge. Whilst in the past he had been difficult to work with, Hopper had a renewed work ethic which allowed him to work with, rather than against, his fellow actors and directors. Hopper finally got his next chance to direct again with the 1988 Los Angeles-based gang film Colors, possibly Hopper’s most commercially and critically successful film after Easy Rider. Colors deals with the long-running feud between the two Los Angeles posses The Bloods and The Crips, the Hispanic gangs, and the police’s attempts to mediate the tensions. It’s hard to picture a middle-aged Hollywood pro like Hopper directing a modern, urban, and very real story of gang warfare, yet Hopper, an L.A. resident at the time, pulled it off with gusto, producing a film that is sympathetic, action-packed, and ultimately realistic.
Colors declines to demonise the gang members, instead painting them as moralistic people intent on survival and the protection of their kin. The soundtrack perfectly captures the emerging rap and hip hop music scene, with influential hip hop artists such as MC Shan, Ice T, 7A3, Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shante, and Eric B. and Rakim contributing tracks. Chuck D of Public Enemy described rap music as “the television of black America,” a portal into the “events and environments described by the rapper.” The use of sampled gun shots, news feeds, police sirens, and musical hooks from past songs creates a visual image that relates back to television. One of the stand-out tracks is MC Shan’s ‘A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste’. This track illustrates the reality of life in a gang:
Always watchin’ your back with your hand on your weapon/ You blink for a minute and get brutally beaten/Every time you diss the colors it will keep on repeatin’/When you say you knew somebody that was a gang member/You can’t say you know him, you can only remember/ You have to live life all nervous and worried/ But joinin’ a gang means you want to be buried.
MC Shan’s lyrical statements reflect the lives and circumstances of the film’s gang members from their own perspective, becoming a gang member for personal safety and status. It also mirrors the experience of black urban youth in America. Ice T’s signature song ‘Colors’ provides a more social statement and forewarns the police that if they “…wanna get rid of the gangs/It’s gonna take a lot of work/This is no joke man/this is real.” Indeed, the gang warfare within L.A. is still raging to this day. Two months after the release of the Colors soundtrack it was certified gold in the United States, bringing rap and hip hop music to a much wider audience. Hip hop had taken the cultural cues, urgency, and DIY aesthetics from punk rock, and made it reflect the Black-American experience.
What’s interesting about Hopper’s choice of music within his first four films is that he not only uses the most distinct and seismic music of the four decades, but that this music represents the protest music of the distinct eras. The folk music of the Sixties and Seventies allowed for gentle reflection and a call to arms that corresponded with the hippy ideal of peace and love and change through calm and collective means. For example The Youngbloods’ 1967 hit ‘Get Together’, an anthem of the Summer of Love, requested: “Come on people now / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together / Try to love one another/ Right now.” The failure of this process to fully transpire into any meaningful change was reflected in the angry and aggressive front laid out by the punks. Like the folk movement, the music was still anti-authoritarian, but used confrontation and a provocative stance to make its voice heard. The hippies had failed with their pact of nonaggression, now the punks wanted to take to the streets as Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols boldly proclaimed in 1977s ‘Anarchy in the UK’: “I wanna destroy passers by”. With hip hop becoming a commercial and critical commodity by the late 1980s the subject of protest was directed towards the authorities in a far more urgent and upfront manner. The rap crew Public Enemy proclaimed that “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We got to fight the powers that be,” in ‘Fight the Power’, whilst N.W.A were even more forthright in ‘Fuck the Police’.
In a 1971 appearance on The Merv Griffin Show Hopper, then promoting The Last Movie, stated that he saw himself as a social critic, and that Easy Rider and The Last Movie offered direct commentary on America’s social ills. Hopper had to become a staunch defender of his own work, but also realised his vision was far ahead of the majority of mainstream American film audiences. Towards the end of the interview Hopper commented that The Last Movie is essentially “…a social protest film.” He goes on to add, “but I’m going to have to simplify and romanticize my work so I can identify with an audience.” In his role as a social and cultural critic, the music of protest and discontent reflected the images Hopper directed, and reflected the hopes and frustrations of his intended audiences. The soundtrack to a Dennis Hopper film is a crucial element to the overall experience and adds further weight to films that already had plenty to say about the explosive times in which they were made.
Words by Stephen Lee Naish
Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper is out now, and you can listen to a playlist inspired by Hopper’s films below: