Hollywood brass had discovered bikers long before the hippies (see Brando in The Wild One, 1953) but they really got their motors runnin’ once everyone started growing their hair down to their shoulders in the 1960s. Toss in some bad acid, messianic commune leaders, youthful street riots, great rock ‘n’ roll and hints of group sex, and you have a cornucopia of cool one mouse-click away. Jim Allen has sifted through the legacy to provide the expert commentary once again for PKM
In the first half of How Hollywood Handled the Hippies, we looked at the late ‘60s/early ‘70s cinematic slant on acid trips, hippie chicks, the generation gap, and the campus scene. This time we’ll hone in on psych-sploitation, motorcycle madness, journeys of discovery, and more.
When Bob Dylan depicted symbolic “straight” dude Mr. Jones confronting a changing world he couldn’t comprehend on 1965’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” (“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is”), he was characteristically ahead of his time. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that the old guard really started grappling with America’s exploding counterculture in a major way, enough for the reckoning to warrant weird, often deliciously distorted reflections on the silver screen.
By that time, both major movie studios and indie filmmakers were trying to capture the hippie heyday in all its paisley-patterned glory. Some were out for a quick cash-in, and some really wanted to make a statement about the way the times they were a-changin’, but for lovers of psychedelic cinema there are different kinds of fun to be found on both ends of that spectrum.
Just as there were bikers long before the hippies ambled onto the scene, there were biker movies going all the way back to the ‘50s, even before rock ‘n’ roll made rebellion fashionable. Most famously, Brando’s turn as the iconic antihero of The Wild One (1953) gave American pop culture its first great nihilistic catchphrase (“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Brando: “Whaddaya got?”).
But by the ‘60s a different breed of bikers were on the move. Their overlap with hippies on a Venn diagram would have included a deep-seated, anti-authoritarian streak, a distinct tendency towards the hirsute, a love of loud rock ‘n’ roll, and a dedication to denim. In the music world there was plenty of crossover between the two camps — The Grateful Dead, for example, were known for hanging with Hell’s Angels, and of course the Angels’ presence at Altamont notoriously led to the fatality that’s widely cited as a symbol of the Aquarian Age’s end.
But at heart, the hippies and the bikers were in opposite camps. The former were, at least nominally, all about peace and love, while the latter could be way too comfortable with violence and destruction. The fractious dynamic between the two naturally became fertile loam for filmmakers, both the sensationalists and the serious auteurs.
The big bang of hippie-era biker films was Roger Corman’s 1966 flick for American International Pictures, The Wild Angels. In the first half of this piece, we looked at AIP’s status as a quintessential source of exploitation classics and talked about The Trip, which Corman made for AIP in 1967. That film’s star, Peter Fonda, heads The Wild Angels’ cast of hedonistic bikers. At the time, there may have never been two less obvious biker-gang casting choices than Fonda and co-star Nancy Sinatra, but the film nevertheless established the precedent for Fonda’s far more pacific biker in the most important hippie movie of all, Easy Rider (more on that in a minute).
The Wild Angels (Trailer)
Probably the most famous moment in the entire biker movie canon is Fonda’s raffish declaration of his motley crew’s mission statement that starts with “We want to be free.” Hippies weren’t even on the mainstream radar yet, but his speech sounds like it could have spoken for them too, apart from the bike reference. It worked its way into pop culture so inextricably that it was sampled 24 years later in Primal Scream’s breakout hit “Loaded.”
In Two Wheels on Two Reels: A History of Biker Movies, Mike Seate quotes AIP co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff described the template the company created for their biker films in order to capitalize on the era’s youthful disenfranchisement: “We made a rule: no parents, no church, or authorities in our films.” Sure enough, when hippies and bikers clash in later movies, even outside of AIP, they’re pretty much left to hash it out themselves by any means necessary.
The big bang of hippie-era biker films was Roger Corman’s 1966 flick for American International Pictures, The Wild Angels.
In AIP’s Angel Unchained (1970), Don Stroud plays a disillusioned biker who quits his gang and ventures off alone, eventually coming upon a hippie commune where he falls in love with a young Tyne Daly and goes native. But when he’s forced to call upon his old gang to help protect his peaceful new flock from being terrorized by a bunch of local knuckle-draggers, things just get messier. The leader of the commune is portrayed by Luke Askew, who also turns up as a commune dweller in Easy Rider.
Angel Unchained 1970 Theatrical Trailer
The Peace Killers (1971) makes AIP’s biker output look like a Bergman festival. Another peace-loving hippie commune is threatened when a particularly unsavory biker gang learns that their leader’s main squeeze has defected there. The head hippie counsels nonviolence at all costs, but eventually the price of pacifism becomes too high even for him. Gloriously ham-fisted philosophical statements about the conflict between the peace-minded commune dwellers and the carnage-loving bikers (small, metal peace symbols are literally fashioned into weapons, and at one point the commune leader is bound to a big one, crucifixion-style) are really just an excuse for depicting the mounting mayhem.
“We made a rule: no parents, no church, or authorities in our films.”
The previous Bergman joke notwithstanding, Easy Rider (1969) actually did take the biker film into the realm of art. Influenced by avant-garde European cinema, it’s probably the greatest, and certainly the most impactful “serious” hippie movie of all.
Nobody watching Dennis Hopper play a sociopathic gang leader in the 1968 biker exploitation flick The Glory Stompers could have guessed that he was about to become the mad genius behind a countercultural milestone. With Hopper directing, Fonda producing, and both of them starring in Easy Rider, the film flipped the script on biker flicks. Instead of rampaging gang members, Fonda and Hopper played thoughtful, gentle hippies who happened to be making a cross-country motorcycle trek.
Easy Rider (1969) – Original Trailer
There isn’t enough space here to detail Easy Rider’s virtues. Suffice to say that it solidified the idea of hitting the open road in a search not only for oneself but for the spirit of America, two preoccupations of paramount importance in the late ‘60s. And with many accounts suggesting that the drug-addled Hopper was pretty much criminally insane at the time, it’s a miracle that the film even reached completion, let alone turning out to be an artful, era-defining masterpiece.
You couldn’t swing a set of love beads without banging into a wayward youth on a journey of discovery in the films of the hippie era. A lot of it had to do with the inspiration of Easy Rider but it was also just the tenor of the times.
In his 1970 film debut, 20-year-old Don Johnson played a disaffected Columbia student who immerses himself in free love, drugs, and psychedelic happenings in The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart. A dark, gritty slice of life, it resonates with reality more than most hippie flicks, mostly ditching traditional plot devices in favor of just following Stanley’s erratic path as he fumbles around trying find himself in a New York City that looks and feels more like a Velvet Underground song than a love-in. In fact, Warhol’s Factory crew was tangentially involved — Candy Darling (most famous for being a subject of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”) makes a cameo, and Joe Dallesandro (the “Little Joe” of the same song) was initially supposed to have a role. Even Warhol himself would later speak highly of the film. Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel LeGrand wrote a powerhouse tune for the opening credits, soulfully sung by Richie Havens but for some reason performed on the soundtrack album by Bill Medley instead.
The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart -1970
Changes stars another first-time actor: show-biz kid Kent Lane (his stepfather was producer Ted Mann and his mother was ‘40s/’50s film star Rhonda Fleming) fronts a cast full of newbies. Future Chico and the Man co-star Jack Albertson’s nearly the only cast member without an “introducing” credit.
The 1969 film was praised in the press, but today it’s mainly remembered (if at all) for containing a bunch of Tim Buckley tunes, including some Buckley never released on record. As perhaps the purest of the period’s “searcher” stories, its resolute avoidance of conventional narrative makes Stanley Sweetheart seem densely plotted, as a college dropout roams across some undeniably beautiful Pacific coast scenery to find himself and keeps coming up empty.
Small-screen cineastes got their licks in too. Most of the U.S. never knew how close it came to having a weekly TV series called In Search of America. In 1971, ABC aired a made-for-TV movie intended as a pilot for a show in which Jeff Bridges drops out of college (presumably prepping for his future as The Dude) and improbably convinces his straight parents and grandmother to join him on a cross-country trip to discover America and learn to understand themselves and each other better. Clumsily constructed as it is, in retrospect it’s actually kind of sweet, and unusual in giving equal time to the concerns of the older generation. Their first port of call? A Woodstock-esque rock festival, of course! Look out for Tyne Daly as a flower child yet again. Who knew she’d have a famous future with the fuzz?
Jeff Bridges-In Search Of America 1971
Speaking of TV, Sally Field had already shimmied and soared into America’s heart as Gidget and The Flying Nun by the time she starred in the 1971 TV movie Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring. It must have been a bit shocking to see the avatar of purity as a panhandling street hippie indulging in psychedelics, and free love. A soundtrack strewn with bespoke tunes by Linda Ronstadt that were never released anywhere else probably made it go down easier. The movie starts with her return to the suburban family life she ran away from, and most of her countercultural adventures are seen in flashback, with a suitably shaggy David Carradine as her mantra-chanting boyfriend. Over-the-top melodrama, but admirably even-handed nevertheless.
“Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring”
When the Love Generation’s arrival was splashed across America’s tabloids in as lurid a manner as possible, Hollywood quick-buck artists drooled in recognition of an exploitation filmmaker’s dream come true. The sex, the drugs, the music, the clothes — it must have been like the three little pigs showing up at the wolf’s door and asking to use his oven as a sauna.
Legions of sleazy movie makers would answer the call, creating a canon that rivals the Blaxploitation world in its size and spectacular shamelessness. But in 1967, two old-schoolers who had been in film since the ‘30s became the Batman and Robin of the blossoming Psychsploitation realm.
Producer Sam Katzman seemingly never encountered a trashy idea he didn’t embrace; from Jungle Moon Men to Teen-Age Crime Wave, he worked fast and cheap. He could crank out a dozen or more films a year. When the notorious Sunset Strip riots of November and December 1966 pitted hippies against cops (as famously depicted in Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”), Katzman sprang into action, getting Riot on Sunset Strip out by March 1967. His old crony Arthur Dreifuss’s directorial “skills” helped create a ripped-from-the-headlines story of teens on the strip getting in over their heads with LSD, violence, and sex. Performances by The Standells and The Chocolate Watch Band almost make up for expository voiceovers that sound like they came from an elementary school filmstrip. But Mimsy Farmer’s epic acid-enhanced freakout/dance transcends all.
Riot On Sunset Strip (1967) – Mimsy Farmer’s Trip
Just four months later, the indefatigable Katzman and Dreifuss gave the world The Love-Ins. Making Riot on Sunset Strip seem subtle by comparison, the movie is nothing if not true to its title, doling out generous helpings of Haight-Ashbury “happenings” and love-ins with all the trimmings. We get another dose of The Chocolate Watch Band, along with The New Age. The latter was led by psych-folk pioneer Pat Kilroy, who released an unrecognized milestone LP the previous year. He tragically died of cancer at the end of ‘67, and until an archival release 40 years later, this film was the world’s only glimpse of The New Age.
The hippies ultimately get the short end of the joss stick in The Love-Ins, as a rising, Timothy Leary-like hero becomes corrupted. But once again the psychedelic scenery is enough to make you forgive anything. Nothing if not a fast mover, Dreifuss even delivered an extended Alice in Wonderland-themed acid trip for Susan Oliver just five months after the release of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”
“THE LOVE-INS” trailer (1967)
Oliver was playing about 15 years younger than her actual age in The Love-Ins. But the World’s Oldest Teenager himself, Dick Clark, was the producer pushing Psych-Out (1968) into the world through good old American International. Director Richard Rush had just come off Hell’s Angels on Wheels, and he brought along that flick’s star, Jack Nicholson, and its cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs. Nicholson plays Stoney, the frontman for a psychedelic L.A. band who becomes involved with deaf runaway Susan Strasberg, who is in search of her LSD-addled brother Bruce Dern, a self-styled messianic figure known as The Seeker.
Psych-Out may not be any more enlightened than the Katzman/Dreifuss movies, but thanks to Kovacs it’s the Lawrence of Arabia of Psychsploitation flicks — from the clubs to the crash pads, everything is rendered so beautifully you just want to dive into the screen and live there, so go all the way in with the director’s cut if you can. A year later, Kovacs and Nicholson would be changing the world with Easy Rider, but only Psych-Out boasts a scene with The Seeds performing in a forest at a hippie funeral.
Psych-Out (1968) trailer
The Sunset Strip was also one of the settings for The Sweet Ride (1968), along with the main characters’ Malibu hippie crash pad. Not one to leave anything unexploited, Old Hollywood producer Joe Pasternak, whose credits went all the way back to the silent era, made sure all the boxes were checked off. Surfers, bikers, psychedelic rockers, jazz hepcats, porn actresses — this one squeezes them all into a storyline that can’t decide whether it’s a hippiefied beach party movie or a crime drama, and it ultimately goes for both.
A 20th Century Fox release, The Sweet Ride seemingly had a bigger budget than a lot of its competition, at least judging by the presence of real actors. In one of his first post-Gilligan roles, Bob Denver picks up where his immortal TV beatnik Maynard G. Krebs from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis left off, playing uber-hip, shades-wearing jazz piano man Choo Choo. Romantic leads Michael Sarrazin and Jacqueline Bisset began a long, real-life romance after meeting on this set. There’s some top-shelf music too — Dusty Springfield sings the title tune and we get a groovy Sunset Strip club scene with Moby Grape playing a song that only appeared on the soundtrack LP.
The Sweet Ride (1968) Trailer
PIERCING THE VEIL
Released in late ‘68 after America had really started going to hell in a handbasket, The Monkees’ movie Head was concocted by some of the same crew (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, Jack Nicholson) who’d soon give us Easy Rider. On one level, it could be seen as a two-hour Monkees episode on acid. But it also blows a big hole in the image of The Monkees as an innocuous corporate creation and stands as one of the most visually sumptuous examples of psychedelic filmmaking you’ll ever see.
Arriving in theaters just a few months after The Monkees ended their TV run, Head lobs a lysergic grenade at the group’s recent past, while picking up the surrealist thread running through the show and blowing it up to the size of the big screen. So, you get no shortage of anti-Vietnam statements and satirical skewering of the cynical side of the series’ marketing. But you also get a color-negative Mickey Dolenz being rescued in the ocean by a mermaid, Frank Zappa leading a talking cow across a film lot, and countless other trippy turns that let you revel in heady chaos (not to mention some of the band’s finest tracks) before you even start to think about what it all means.
The Porpoise Song – The Monkees – Head
Arlo Guthrie’s 18 ½ minute talking blues “Alice’s Restaurant” became an American classic with its wry, homespun tale of epic littering and Vietnam era draft evasion. The 1967 tune inspired Bonnie & Clyde director Arthur Penn to write and direct a film adaptation. The song was based on a true story, and in some ways the 1970 movie made things as realistic as possible. Guthrie and some others played themselves, and filming was done on location in Stockbridge, Mass., where the real deal had gone down. But most of the subplots appended to the story were strictly fictional.
Dramatic contrivances aside, there’s nothing exploitative about the way Penn depicts the loose-knit hippie cabal gathered around den mother Alice. But with the advantage of a couple of years of hindsight, Penn pulls the tale to a close as a kind of requiem for the Love Generation’s utopian dream, with Arlo quietly pulling out of town after the deaths of both a troubled friend and his iconic dad, Woody. Had the movie been made closer to the time of its inspiration, it might have had a more upbeat air, but it’s hard not to interpret the “Closed on account of a lot of death” sign on Alice’s door towards the end as a more all-encompassing casualty count.
Cinematographic sultan Laszlo Kovacs popped up again to help Paul Mazursky turn 1970’s Alex in Wonderland into hippie Hollywood’s ultimate funhouse mirror. Mazursky had just finished realigning America’s ideas about monogamy with his hit directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. He and partner Larry Tucker apparently had carte blanche from MGM, and used the big studio bucks for a film that looks askance at movie-making itself. Struggling for a theme for their next project, they decided to go meta by making a film about a director struggling for a theme. Realizing they were borrowing from Fellini’s 8 ½, they embraced the connection, bringing the legendary director himself in for a cameo, and staging a scene where protagonist Donald Sutherland voices concern about his own fictional film’s 8 ½ similarities.
Alex In Wonderland (1970) Trailer
Alex in Wonderland itself is sort of 8 ½ on acid. Sutherland is a late-blooming flower child whose life alternates between oceanside psychedelic trips, surreal fantasies, and prosaic scenes with his wife and kids that keep the whole thing just grounded enough. Mazursky himself plays the studio head tossing “heavy” ideas at Sutherland. The real game-changer is that by this point, with the success of movies like Easy Rider (which Sutherland wryly references in one scene), the hippies were starting to become the real-life Hollywood insiders, and Alex in Wonderland captures that process in all its Through the Looking Glass glory until you’re not sure which side of the mirror you’re seeing. The opening credits even include a quote from Lewis Carroll’s famously far-out fable.
Cisco Pike doesn’t set out to be a hippie movie at all. It just works out that way, with an end-of-the-road feel that mirrors the last gasp of the quickly disintegrating counterculture. Kris Kristofferson kicks off (not counting a tiny part in Dennis Hopper’s 1971’s The Last Movie) a film career that would be as long and rewarding as his musical work, playing a singer/songwriter turned drug dealer struggling to go straight again and recapture his ‘60s success. Gene Hackman is a crooked narc who complicates Kris’s life, and the ubiquitous Karen Black is the troubled troubadour’s long-suffering girlfriend. The ‘72 film’s soundtrack features some of the best tunes from Kristofferson’s recent album The Silver Tongued Devil and I, plus an appearance by a characteristically kooky Doug Sahm kicking out some killer Tex-Mex grooves with his band.
Cisco Pike (1972) Trailer
Kris Kristofferson – The pilgrim, Chapter 33 (Cisco Pike, 1971)
The disillusioned, downer vibe that turned off the film’s critics was right in line with the imminent end of hippie culture as both a movement and a viable movie milieu. The mood of the country was turning from Day-Glo rainbows to shades of grey. But just as psychedelic cinema was dying out, a different subcultural zeitgeist was starting to bring vibrant styles and sounds back to the movie screen, as the indefatigable opportunists at companies like American International started turning their attention from freak power to the bountiful possibilities of Blaxploitation.
The End…or was it? (Cue “Theme from Shaft”)