'Along for the Ride': Venice Review
Filmmaker Nick Ebeling retraces the troubled birth of 'The Last Movie' and the professional exile and eventual re-emergence that followed for actor-director Dennis Hopper.
Whether or not you're already a passionate defender of Dennis Hopper's commercially doomed 1971 Easy Rider follow-up, The Last Movie, which long ago acquired cult status, first-time feature documentary-maker Nick Ebeling's Along for the Ride will surely make you curious. This rip-roaring tribute to a maverick artist trips along like a surreal odyssey, punctuated by lively reminiscences, choice clips and superb photographic material. The whole enterprise seems remarkably true to the spirit of an anarchic life often driven by booze, blow, women and guns.
How fitting also that Ebeling's salute to Hopper should premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where The Last Movie won the critics prize when it was first seen here 45 years ago. That film's all-too-accurate Italian title? Escape From Hollywood.
Along for the Ride is based around stories of Hopper told to Ebeling over coffee in Hollywood by Satya De La Manitou. A hulking figure with a biker-hippie look back in the day, he may not be the most reliable narrator in a conventional sense, but he's an infectious raconteur who served as Hopper's right-hand man — aka "El Hombre Invisible" — for 47 years. "Hollywood is the destroyer of relationships," says De La Manitou in his on-camera introduction, tracing the roots of his uncommonly durable bond with Hopper back to a New Year's Eve acid and tequila party in Taos, New Mexico.
Ebeling lets De La Manitou ask the questions in interviews with former studio executives, producers, directors and actors who worked with Hopper, as well as fellow artists, friends and his brother David Hopper. And the longtime personal assistant's prominence in the movie, while at times a tad intrusive, also serves as a salute to the thousands of under-the-radar aides-de-camp who keep Hollywood ticking.
The film's starting point comes after the phenomenal success of Hopper's directing debut, Easy Rider, the low-budget 1969 indie that not only generated astronomical profits but also left an indelible cultural imprint. That put Hopper in a position to get virtually anything he wanted greenlighted. He dusted off a pet project, Stewart Stern's script for The Last Movie, about the cultural collision of an American film production in Peru's back country, and took it to Universal with a planned $1 million budget.
Using footage from the film as well as from Lawrence Schiller's 1971 doc about Hopper and the production, The American Dreamer, Ebeling and De La Manitou recap the story of The Last Movie's location shoot in a remote place with no infrastructure and a director-star with a taste for plentifully available cocaine. But the real problems surfaced when Hopper returned with the film to New Mexico and began trying to shape 48 hours of footage into a coherent story, putting in irregular, undisciplined work days and tripping on LSD much of the time. While Hopper had final cut, Universal was unhappy with the film and basically dumped it after it was panned by New York critics.
Stung by that failure, Hopper also was more or less blackballed by Hollywood for a time. But he was put back to work on-camera by Australian director Philippe Mora, who gives an entertaining account of Hopper's Method-actor excesses while playing the rum-soaked Irish bushranger of the title in 1976's Mad Dog Morgan. Wim Wenders also pops in via Skype to recall how Hopper's drunken improvisation on The American Friend the following year initially threw co-star Bruno Ganz off his game. Then a fistfight and a boozy night together yielded a distinctive screen rapport in that coolly atmospheric Patricia Highsmith adaptation.
Ebeling doesn't make any claims to be comprehensive in his Hopper appreciation, which means some key films are mentioned only in passing and others not at all. But editor Danny Reams weaves together a more or less chronological wander through Hopper's life and work in the decades that followed, often evoking the idea of memories floating into consciousness from a haze of good times and bad, stoned and sober.
Blue Velvet gets its due as one of the films that revived Hopper's career as an actor, with David Lynch praising his work ethic while acknowledging that something inside Hopper made him spark to the character of sexually twisted sociopath Frank Booth: "Dennis was Frank. He knew all about Frank." But of the handful of later films Hopper made as director, only 1980's Out of the Blue receives much attention, via recollections from Linda Manz, who played his daughter.
Hopper's ambivalence toward playing by Hollywood rules as a director is suggested by views like the one his pal Dwight Yoakam, who worked with him on 1993's Red Rock West, recalls him expressing: "A script’s just a f—ing blueprint, man. That ain't a movie."
There also are plenty of interesting detours into Hopper's life beyond his movies, including his involvement with Native American communities in New Mexico; his discerning eye as an art collector; his accomplishments as a photographer; his emergence as something of a poetic intellectual through the 1998 Guggenheim exhibition and accompanying book, The Art of the Motorcycle; and his influence as a pop-cultural icon on everyone from Morrissey (a Best of the Smiths compilation features a moody Hopper shot on the cover) to Gorillaz cohorts Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, who used Hopper's voice on their Demon Days album.
Shot mostly in textured black and white, saving color chiefly for the film and TV clips, Along for the Ride incorporates sharp graphics and clever use of onscreen text, all of it wrapped in woozy, reverb-heavy guitar courtesy of Gemma Thompson from London-based post-post-punk outfit Savages.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics — Documentaries)
Production companies: Significant Productions, in association with MNM Creative
Director: Nick Ebeling
Screenwriters: Nick Ebeling, A.P. Menzies
Producers: Sheri Timmons, Nina Yang Bongiovi
Directors of photography: Danny Reams, Randy Wedick, Nick Ebeling
Music: Gemma Thompson
Editor: Danny Reams
Not rated, 94 minutes