“The Last Movie,” Dennis Hopper’s infamous directorial follow-up to “Easy Rider,” is a counterculture touchstone in its own right, even though it wasn’t given a national release for decades after its short-lived 1971 bow. Even longer in coming: a soundtrack album. This Saturday, nearly five decades after the movie first touched screens, a companion LP is arriving. The vinyl on the label Earth Recordings, distributed by Light in the Attic in the U.S., will be released for Record Store Day on August 29, in a limited edition of 1000. A CD version will be forthcoming.
Variety invited the album’s two producers to weigh in on “The Last Movie” and its music, then and now. Jessica Hundley, who knew Hopper, shares firsthand memories of the filmmaker and how the movie’s shelving affected him. Pat Thomas, one of the music industry’s foremost archival producers, tells what to expect from a soundtrack album that’s nearly as unusual as the film it aurally recreates.
Jessica Hundley: In 1970, Dennis Hopper was one of the most famous men in the world. Careening off the unprecedented, completely unexpected success of “Easy Rider,” Hopper had become the embodiment of post-hippie disaffection — a rag-bearded poster child for all that was excessive and outlaw. “Easy Rider” had thrust him into a mega-stardom that vividly reflected the youth culture’s clear disdain for anyone old and anything established, whether it was the Hollywood studio system or the United States government. This fame (and “Easy Rider’s” lucrative profits) had allowed Hopper to wield enough sway over uptight studio suits to raise significant capital for his sophomore effort, an experimental meta-Western shot in Peru entitled “The Last Movie.”
On set, high in Andes in a tiny, stone village blasted by wind, the production was a cathartic, mystical adventure, Hopper at the helm with his ragtag cast and crew, among them Peter Fonda, Michelle Phillips, Kris Kristofferson, and the legendary director Sam Fuller. Also onboard were Sylvia Miles (known for her memorable appearance two years before in “Midnight Cowboy” and the following year in Andy Warhol’s “Heat”) and singer, dancer and actress Toni Basil, who had partnered with Hopper in “Easy Rider.”
“The Last Movie,” when finally completed, would premiere at the Venice Film Festival and win the prestigious Golden Lion. Hopper would return, victorious, to the States, only to have Universal — which saw no commercial viability in his passionate cinematic experiment — shelve it. Frustrated by the renegade experimentation of both the film and of Hopper himself, The Man would ultimately have his say. “The Last Movie” would never be nationally released in Hopper’s lifetime.
Following his passing in 2010, the Hopper Trust put their energy behind a full restoration of the film, a global theatrical release and a Blu-Ray box set, all in collaboration with the L.A.-based production company Arbelos. And now, finally, there is a proper soundtrack too. Designed by Thunderwing Studio, the LP package was created in homage to Hopper’s original vision. Mixed and produced straight from tapes restored by Arbelos, it features the sounds of the original analog reels, the same ones that Hopper brought back down from the Peruvian mountains. With “Easy Rider,” Hopper had set a precedent by creating a soundtrack culled from hits of the era. But with “The Last Movie,” every song included was recorded originally on the set of the film, and the result is an immediate sonic intimacy.
Pat Thomas: It’s hard to believe there’s never been a soundtrack to “The Last Movie” until now. This is an old-school soundtrack, when soundtracks didn’t contain the original full-length “recorded in the studio” versions of songs, but songs as they appeared in the movie, along with healthy chunks of dialogue. In this case, we’ve gone one better, giving the listener the ambient sounds of rural mountainous Peru. Church bells, street musicians, drunken parties and sublime nature itself all make an appearance. At times, it’s nearly (Brian) Eno-esque.
Parts of “The Last Movie” are actually a movie within a movie. so amongst the charms committed to disc on this release is the fabled director Sam Fuller playing himself on screen, barking out directions to actors including Hopper himself (who appears in the movie as well as directing it).
Perhaps the most sublime tracks on the record are the young Kris Kristofferson playing varied heart-breaking versions of his now iconic “Me and Bobby McGee,” including an ethereal duet with Michelle Phillips by the side of a high mountain waterfall. Janis Joplin would posthumously have a hit single with “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Kristofferson would put it on his own 1970 self-titled debut album. But legend has it that it was on the set of “The Last Movie” that the song was first played to tape.
“The Last Movie” might be the only movie from that era to have had a contemporary documentary made about it: Lawrence Shiller and Kit Carson’s “The American Dreamer,” also released in 1971. “The American Dreamer” did briefly have a soundtrack release, and I’m proud to have helped reissue it on CD and LP decades later. One of the highlights of that release were the plaintive folk sounds of Nashville session player John Buck Wilkin, who is heavily featured in “The Last Movie.” In one great moment in Hopper’s film, Wilkin strums guitar in a raucous party scene, while someone in another room chants out a mantra.
Hundley: In 2008, I was sitting in Dennis Hopper’s home in Venice, California. We had been working together for nearly a year, digging through piles of contact sheets of Hopper’s own spectacular photography, specifically the hundreds of incredible images he had captured between 1961 and 1967. We had almost completed the book I was editing with him, a massive monograph from Taschen that would offer an overview of Hopper’s work as an artist and feature the cultural and political moments he had miraculously caught on black and white film.
The photos were a document of the world he had inhabited, the people he knew, the people he admired and the people he loved. It was the 1960s through Hopper’s eyes, a document of the experiences he had that would ultimately lead to him putting the still camera down for the movie camera, for moving from acting into directing. The process of making the photography book was, in a way, a process of reliving the moments that had led to “Easy Rider.” Hopper, who had been relatively ambivalent about the book project at the start had become more and more involved, discovering lost boxes of slides and prints and granting me countless hours of interviews about the work and about himself.
Eventually, inevitably, the conversation turned to what happened after Hopper put down his Nikon, to what happened after “Easy Rider” broke all box office records and blew countless minds. Hopper began to talk about his lost film, the one he had made in Peru, the one that he still considered his masterwork, the one into which he had poured his soul and the one that had ripped out his heart. He began to tell me about the piece of art that was meant to take him to the top and instead had sunk him… had swallowed him whole. In making a personal statement, Hopper had spent too much of the studio’s money on his art, too much of their time on his edit. After the Venice Film Festival, Hopper came home grinning, but Universal promptly slapped the grin off his face, quickly taking “The Last Movie” out of theaters.
In an interview at the time, Hopper furiously lambasted Universal, “I thought it would be a classic. When the people at Universal saw the movie, they were horrified. One of the Universal executives said to me, ‘Art is only worth something if you’re dead. We’ll only make money on this picture if you die.’ I had worked so long and so hard and, suddenly, the movie was gone. It was in Universal’s hands, and their hands were full of blood. Corporate blood.”
It wasn’t until the 2000s that Hopper would get the rights back to “The Last Movie.” By 2008, he had finally fought his way through a nearly 40-year legal, bureaucratic and bulls—filled maze, hitting the wall and turning around … and hitting the wall and turning around again. He was scarred and dazed, but he had ultimately emerged victorious. He finally had “The Last Movie” back and he knew that this time he world just might be ready for it.
And then, just after his Taschen monograph was released and just before the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art opened a full retrospective of his photography and artwork, Hopper passed on to the other side. It took a minute for the dust to settle. Maybe more than a minute. But eventually, the Hopper Trust put its energy behind a full restoration, global theatrical release and Blu-Ray box set, and now there is the soundtrack, too, straight from the original restored sound tapes that Hopper brought back down from the Peruvian mountains and installed in his Taos editing room.
Thomas: Although his role in the film was minor, another decades-long friend of Hopper’s, actor Russ Tamblyn, details in his forthcoming autobiography, “Dance on the Edge” (which I’m honored to be co-editing), his experiences during “The Last Movie” — which I’ll succinctly summarize as: “Thank God I was allergic to cocaine.” He also remembers watching the first cut of the film, which “lasted for six or seven hours,” including countless versions of Kristofferson performing “Bobby McGee.” For those wondering what those hours of editing and re-editing entailed, you really need to dive into the aforementioned “The American Dreamer” documentary. Other friends on set included Peter Fonda, Dean Stockwell and Michelle Phillips, whom Hopper was infamously married to for just eight days. She claimed a few of those days she was chained to a radiator; he said that after he proclaimed his love for her, she suggested he commit suicide.
As author Nick Dawson has pointed out, “In the two years between ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘The Last Movie,’ Hopper went from messiah to pariah.” “Rider” had made the movie industry millions (enough that executive producer Bert Schneider channeled some of the profits to fund the Black Panther Party’s fight against J. Edgar Hoover, as well as pay for Yippie Abbie Hoffman’s plastic surgery when he went underground to escape prison). Legend has it that Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who co-produced the Monkees’ infamous 1968 movie “Head” (which briefly featured Hopper and Basil). wanted to announce “Easy Rider” in theatrical trailers as “from the producers who gave you head!”
Despite winning in Venice in 1971, “The Last Movie” tanked so badly in America (although arguably it was never given a proper chance) that Hopper was persona non grata in Hollywood for the better part of a decade. Yet it really was a “foreign film” in spirit. having more in common with the bizarre, non-linear work of Jodorowsky and Godard. Supposedly, the original edit of “The Last Movie” was linear … until Alejandro encouraged him to f— it up.
Hundley: Despite his wild-eyed reputation, Hopper was the consummate professional when it came to his art. Following the implosion of “The Last Movie,” he carefully archived and documented both his directorial and editorial process, and the paperwork he left behind eventually guided the production of the soundtrack, nearly 50 years later. With full access to Hopper’s papers, clues left stashed in boxes full of mimeographs, telegrams and hand-written notes, as well as the original script for the movie, the album ultimately follows the film’s own narrative arc. Hours were spent simply listening to (rather than watching) the film, and choices for the mix were made by what excited aurally, rather than visually. The complexity of the film’s plot strangely took on a straightforward narrative resonance when heard, rather than seen. The process was rewarding, but arduous, particularly due to the maze of legalities surrounding the project. Hopper, after years of effort, had finally wrenched back the rights to the project in 2008. But with his death, locating the original paperwork and the right attorney to interpret decades old contracts proved difficult. Finding a record company sympathetic to the journey also took time and effort. But in the end, it was worth it.
Despite the purported decadence both on set and in the editing room, Hopper ultimately created what is essentially both a love letter and a raised middle finger to old Hollywood. And although a soundtrack was never released for the film, Hopper had always intended that there be one. And so our hope is that we created the score that never was, but that Hopper always wanted. The “Last Movie” LP, like Hopper’s great lost (now found) film, is a weird, experimental, abstract document of a time and place that existed only for a brief and magical moment. It is the sound of Dennis Hopper’s world in the 1970s, the beautiful, fearless, reckless, deeply felt poetry of a lost era.
Thomas: The soundtrack is an interesting listen because without the images to go with it (which by the way, look incredible because of the recent restoration), listeners are forced to listen closer, filling in some of the gaps using their own imagination. And frankly, after just listening to the album, you should rewatch the film —and it will make more sense. Trust us.