They say that Captain America (AKA Wyatt, Peter Fonda) was based somehow on Roger McGuinn and Billy (Dennis Hopper) was based on our friend David Crosby, both from the original Byrds group. I can see that Croz at that time and Hopper had a certain resemblance. They also say that Wyatt was a play on Wyatt Earp, and Billy was William Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid. They say (and I believe) that when they smoked a doobie in the movie, it really was that old Devil Weed that leads to harder stuff, mary-ja-wanna. They say (probably true) that most of the crew was high all the time, too, and sometimes they would just hand the camera to whoever was around. They say that most of the dialogue was improvised, that they had no real script, that they made it up as they went along. Terry Southern, listed as co-screenwriter, disputed that, and I don’t believe that Jack Nicholson’s UFO rap by the campfire was improvised.
My point is that “they” say a lot of things about this already legendary movie, and I’m not going to try to deal with even a fraction of them. What I wanted to know was, how well does it hold up? My feeling is that some of it is still pretty good, but a lot of it is showing its age.
You have to remember just how incredibly revolutionary it was at the time. And I feel that most of that was simply the music. This was the first movie that used the actual music of the time, performed by the actual artists. Before this, when Hollywood was making a movie about those wild young “hippies” they hired some 70-year-old hack who wouldn’t have known an electric guitar from a wringer washing machine to write some “groovy” music suitable for half-naked hippie chicks to dance to, like zombies, totally self-involved. (Case in point: Skidoo.) It was way worse than disco. To hear our music coming out of the big screen … well, that was groovy, man. (Half the sentences in this film end with “man.”)
But today … the music is as groovy as it ever was, but at least half the running time is these two (three, when Jack is briefly with them) truckin’ on down the road on those outlandish bikes, with music in the background. That got old for me about halfway through.
Another thing we liked is that the flower power movement, as shown in the commune they drop in on, was depicted without being sensationalized. I visited a commune in New Mexico that looked exactly like that. … well, maybe not quite so clean, but they weren’t vegetarians and when you raise free-range chickens and goats, you’re gonna get a little dirt. The people and their children were clean, that’s the important point. Those scenes are still good, though quite nostalgic for me, now. I’ll bet only one out of a thousand people who tried to “get back to the earth” managed to stick it out for longer than one year.
The third element was the hatred through what we now know as the Red States for longhairs. Hell, it was more than just there, but that’s where it was the most virulent. The scenes in the diner when all the rednecks were insulting the riders played very, very true. And the fact that their young daughters thought the riders were the coolest thing they’d ever seen, too! They say, and it’s been verified, that instead of bringing in some actors to play those parts, Hopper recruited some actual rednecks from their real-life habitat, guys who actually had been ragging the cast and crew. “Is that a boy or a girl, Jim-Bob?” “Don’t rightly know, Junior, but I’d fuck ‘em anyways!”
One thing they got very right was the bad acid trip in the above-ground New Orleans cemetery. I had two bad trips in my brief flirtation with LSD, one merely unpleasant, one apocalyptic. I can report that the world seemed washed-out, dirty, out of balance, twisted like a fish-eye lens, overexposed like film left out in the sun.
Nicholson is amazing here, and deserved this first Oscar nomination, out of twelve so far. Fonda and Hopper are good. There is a brief cameo of that murdering fuck Phil Spector, sitting in his Rolls-Royce buying cocaine off the guys.
Overall, it is not as good as I remembered it. There is an historical feel to it now, an artifact dug up from an earlier era. But the music still rocks.