The New Hollywood ’70s ended, famously, with a film that was both a bang and a whimper: Michael Cimino’s insanely grandiose, ravishing-at-times, narratively threadbare “Heaven’s Gate,” a legendary debacle that some critics now call an underappreciated masterpiece. (Curious to know if they’re right? Just try sitting through it. I dare you.) It’s a little less famous that the era also began with a celebrated filmmaker’s overreaching folly, one that shares more than a few traits with “Heaven’s Gate”: Dennis Hopper’s insanely grandiose, ravishing-at-times, narratively threadbare “The Last Movie” (1971), which didn’t have to wait years to be hailed, in some quarters, as a staggering out-of-the-box meta Hollywood yada yada.
The elegantly shot and revealing documentary “Along for the Ride” kicks off with a close-up look at the making of “The Last Movie,” then goes on to chronicle the remainder of Hopper’s career as a dissolute aging bad boy: his exile from Hollywood, the lost weekends that stretched into lost years, his hard-won comeback as a director (“Out of the Blue,” “Colors”), his classic and mesmerizing performance in “Blue Velvet.”
As it turns out, the myth that “The Last Movie” was too fearless and visionary for the Hollywood system to accept — that it was exactly the movie, in other words, Hopper thought he was making — casts a stubborn shadow; maybe it’s no surprise that “Along for the Ride” falls under it. Hopper died in 2010, and the documentary filters his life through the eyes of his right-hand man, Satya de la Manitou, a burly, benign counterculture renegade who met Hopper in the early ’70s and rarely left his side after that, becoming his assistant, driver, and drug buddy. Satya speaks of Hopper with a reverent gleam that never undercuts his grasp of just how crazy Hopper could be. The thing is, Satya dug the craziness. (You don’t become Dennis Hopper’s assistant for 40 years unless you do.)
Nick Ebeling, the director of “Along for the Ride,” grounds his own admiration for Hopper in a high-minded and aestheticized clarity. The film is shot in beautiful design-school black-and-white (the only thing in color is the home movies, newsreels, and film clips), and it includes tasty interviews with such film-world heavies as Mike Medavoy and Daniel Selznick. The story of how Hopper made “The Last Movie” was already told in Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson’s verité period piece “The American Dreamer” (a movie nearly as rambling as “The Last Movie”), and it’s still a wildly compelling Hollywood cautionary tale, with Hopper as its hero and holy fool.
He was flying high, fresh off the success of “Easy Rider” (1969), the youth-culture hit that more than “Bonnie and Clyde” or “The Graduate” kicked open to the door to a whole new way of making movies. (It was the first independent smash.) So Hopper was given carte blanche to head down to the misty mountains of Chincheru, Peru, and shoot a dreamy apocalyptic culture-clash art film, with himself as a cowboy messiah.
The story of a movie crew intruding into the mystic lives of South American natives, “The Last Movie” was like an early, thrown-together sketchbook version of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” crossed with Godard’s “Contempt” on some very bad drugs. All the ingredients for a director’s folly were in place: the remote location shoot, the ’60s hangover, the over-the-top sense of mission, the desire to say “f— you” to Hollywood, the loyal team of enablers — and, beyond all that, the central flaw captured by producer Paul Lewis when he says, “I loved the script. I’m sorry that in many ways, we didn’t shoot the script.”
Hopper emerged as a ragged wreck, then set up an editing suite inside a pueblo in the counterculture mecca of Taos, New Mexico, where he tried to carve 48 hours of raw footage into some sort of shape. (It didn’t help that he’d come under the slovenly psychedelic spell of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo.”) Hopper delivered a mad ramble of a movie, which Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal (and the most powerful man in Hollywood), ordered him to go back and recut. But Hopper had final cut and clung to it, going up against Wasserman and sealing his ostracization from Hollywood. “The Last Movie” became only the second American feature to win the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival, but it was all downhill after that. The movie was given a token release and savaged by critics in the U.S., where it quickly died.
The critics were right. “The Last Movie” is a gorgeous inert mess. Yet “Along for the Ride” is right to see that the spirit of out-there abandon that did Hopper in was also what lit the flame of his most memorable achievements. It was who he was.
A request: Can we please order up a Dennis Hopper biopic starring James Franco? When Franco flashes that crocodile grin of his, he looks remarkably like Hopper — blissed-out but gnarly — and he’s one of the only actors who could nail all the places and moods we see Hopper get to in “Along for the Ride.”
The haunted wastrel with the greasy beard, high on acid and booze and no sleep; the ballistics fiend who got off on firing machine guns; the renaissance freak who became an art collector and one of the great black-and-white photographers of the ’60s; the grandiloquent masochist obsessed with staging his own death on camera; the flake who showed up to shoot Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” without knowing his lines, to the point that his co-star, Bruno Ganz, punched him in the face (they scuffled and became the best of friends); the drunk who went into rehab and started screaming because he thought Satya was sealed into the wall of his recovery room; the sinister hipster whose so-out-it’s-in way of saying “Man!” in “Blue Velvet” brought saying “Man!” back into the culture; the survivor who aged into a poet of debauched grace.
Satya hails Hopper as one of the 10 greatest artists of the 20th century, and that, to put it mildly, is a bit much. Yet what’s ultimately moving about “Along for the Ride” is that it communicates how Dennis Hopper, by sticking true to his reckless muse, was an artist who changed things, and maybe changed everything. In Hollywood, he became the living spirit of going too far, and that turned out to be just far enough.