When Easy Rider vroomed across movie screens in 1969, it blazed a maverick trail for American cinema—encouraging a fresh generation of filmmakers to challenge the Hollywood status quo with an independent, anarchic, European-influenced aesthetic. Its director, co-writer and star, Dennis Hopper, became at once the spark of this celluloid renaissance, a biker icon and the counterculture’s spirit animal.
Along for the Ride, the feature-length documentary debut of writer/filmmaker Nick Ebeling (creator of the cult manga-style comic book Gunwolf and co-founder of Dirt Bike Press), is a fittingly freewheeling and eventful real-life continuation of Hopper’s Easy Rider road trip. It picks up after that film’s release and massive success, when its maker was high on his own creative juices—not merely the substances he notoriously enjoyed—and every movie company in town wanted a piece of his action and youth market appeal.
“…a fittingly freewheeling and eventful real-life continuation of Hopper’s Easy Rider road trip.”
The guide and narrator of this journey is Satya de la Manitou, who met Hopper in New Mexico in the 1960s and became his right hand, wingman and confidant. A colorful, introspective and self-deprecating personality in his own right (“I’m a minor character in my own life story”), Satya throws open a storage locker of mementoes and memories from the tumultuous middle and latter sections of Hopper’s life.
The documentary is strongest in its first half, where it pays a riveting revisit to the Western film-within-a-film drama The Last Movie, a long-in-development passion project for Hopper and his first after Easy Rider. Universal Pictures successfully wooed him with a million-dollar budget and highly coveted final cut. What followed was a magical, though indulgent, shoot in the Peruvian back country that begat 48 hours of footage and sent Hopper on a drug-fueled, party-filled, deadline-busting editing marathon at his Taos spread. The 1971 end product was a pricey “underground movie” lauded by the Venice Film Festival and lambasted by the Universal brass, who initially opened the picture in only one New York City theater to the bad reviews they predicted.
The Last Movie, indeed: Hopper’s fall from Hollywood grace was immediate and shocking. It didn’t help that, when the studio pressured him to recut his work, he told powerful studio boss Lew Wasserman to go f—k himself.
For its remainder, Along for the Ride whips effectively through several decades, moving from its subject’s badassery to a gathering storyline of loyalty and legacy. It is rewarding to watch Hopper surmount alcoholism and drug use and redeem his artistry through a return to acting (Mad Dog Morgan, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet) and, eventually, directing (Out of the Blue, Colors), as well as photography and painting. Oddly absent is a closer look at how Hopper’s move to the cultural wellspring of Venice, CA, rejuvenated his spirit. And if this isn’t a definitive Hopper bio in the IMDB credit-listing sense—his key supporting work in River’s Edge and Speed, among others, is noticeably bypassed—there will never be a more nuanced exploration of the Hopper enigma.
“It is rewarding to watch Hopper surmount alcoholism and drug use and redeem his artistry…”
Along for the Ride, completed in 2016 and now in limited theatrical release after some festival dates, beautifully interweaves personal and archival footage and rare photos with commentary from an array of Hopper associates and friends, including Mike Medavoy, Russ Tamblyn, Julie Adams, Dean Stockwell, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Frank Gehry and Julian Schnabel. Michael Madsen weighs in with a remarkable Hopper-inspired poem, and Hopper’s brother, David, provides some welcome familial insight (and a resemblance to Dennis).
James Dean, with whom Hopper appeared in the mid-1950s classics Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, and whose friendship and on-the-set photography motivated Hopper to venture behind the lens, makes a vintage appearance here—cueing Satya to offer his best partner-in-crime observation: “If James Dean put his key in the door of rebellion, Dennis Hopper kicked it in.”
The scuff marks he left on Hollywood’s threshold are permanent.
Along for the Ride (2017) Directed by Nick Ebeling. Written by Nick Ebeling and A.P. Menzies. Featuring Satya de la Manitou, David Hopper, Danny Selznick, Mike Medavoy, Michael Gruskoff, Russ Tamblyn, Julie Adams, Ed Ruscha, Dean Stockwell, Wim Wenders, Frank Gehry, David Lynch, Dwight Yoakum, Julian Schnabel, Mark Mothersbaugh, Michael Madsen
8 out of 10
Along for the Ride from Significant Productions/MNM Creative, in association with Hat & Beard Films, opens December 8th, 2017 in Los Angeles.