R.I.P. Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

“Somewhere in my strange career, someone has liked something.” – Dennis Hopper

Sadly, iconic actor/director Dennis Hopper lost his battle with prostate cancer Saturday morning. Every obituary will understandably point to his breakthrough milestone EASY RIDER (1969), but I’m sure most people who would read this blog know he had a ginormous crazy career spanning almost 6 decades.

Impressively IMDb lists over 200 film and television appearances in nearly every genre. In 1986 alone he appeared in HOOSIERS, BLUE VELVET, RIVER’S EDGE, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, and from the looks of it that was a typical year for the man as he worked constantly until his illness got the best of him – 6 movies in 2008, 26 episodes of Crash 2008-09, and a couple of upcoming projects (THE LAST FILM FESTIVAL, ALPHA AND OMEGA) set for later this year.

A career so vast is difficult to cherry pick from, especially since he had so many bit parts in major movies – his roles in friend James Dean’s movies REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) for example – and also because a few films he directed are unavailable on DVD these days – THE LAST MOVIE (1971) and OUT OF THE BLUE (1980). That said these are my picks for:

10 Essential (And Available) Dennis Hopper Performances


1. EASY RIDER (Dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969)


When I said every obit would highlight this as Hopper’s most acclaimed achievement I wasn‘t saying I wouldn’t also. It’s inescapable as a classic counterculture event of a movie that helped kick off the “New Hollywood” movement of the late ’60s/early ’70s. It also solidified the long-haired mustached hippie wiseacre persona that Hopper would return to a number of times throughout his acting career.

Concerning a couple of drug dealers (Hopper and Peter Fonda) who make a huge score and set out on their motorcycles to go, in the words of the film’s tagline, “looking for America”, EASY RIDER is very dated with clumsy artistic cuts, redneck stereotypes, and a cringe-inducing psychedelic trip sequence, but Hopper’s glee while riding through Monument Valley out over the sunset on his chopper is infectious. In those moments, which were innovative in their use of rock song scoring, the film’s theme of freedom lets its freak flag fly the highest.

2. BLUE VELVET (Dir. David Lynch, 1986)


Frank Booth, a Nitrous Oxide inhaling sexual deviant, was considered a comeback role for Hopper who had gone through more than one wilderness period in the years since EASY RIDER and the failure of its follow-up THE LAST MOVIE. Booth was scary and a bit funny at the same time; the manner in which he menaces nice boy Kyle MacLachlan being a twisted yet beautiful example: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” The part won Hopper a few Critics’ Association awards and in 2008 was voted #54 in Premiere Magazine’s list of “The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time”.

3. APOCALYPSE NOW
(Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) Credited as “Photojournalist” and only given a small amount of screen-time in the final reel, Hopper is one of the most memorable elements of Coppola’s seminal sprawling Vietnam epic. His cryptic speeches like this one still resonate 30 years later:

“This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out in space without, like, you know, with fractions – what are you gonna land on, one quarter, three eighths – what are you gonna do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics, okay? Dialectic logic is there’s only love or hate, you either love somebody or you hate them.”

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz then angrily hurls a book at Hopper in a moment that doesn’t feel scripted.

4. HOOSIERS (Dir. David Anspaugh, 1986) As I mentioned earlier, 1986 was a banner year for Hopper. His roles in BLUE VELVET, RIVER’S EDGE, and this Oscar nominated turn as the basketball supporting town drunk had him unstoppably on the comeback trail. It’s a folksy formulaic sports film about underdogs triumphing against all odds, but Hopper’s gutsy edge is no small part of the film’s abundant charms.

5. TRUE ROMANCE (Dir. Tony Scott, 1993)

Another small but juicy part as the ex cop father of Christian Slater who has a scene stealing showdown with mobster Christopher Walken. You can watch the scene, scripted by Quentin Tarantino, in all its almost 10 minute glory entitled “Sicilians” here on YouTube.

6. CARRIED AWAY (Dir. Bruno Barreto, 1996) It’s a LOLITA-ish tale of forbidden love in which timeworn clichés litter the landscape, but Hopper’s layered performance as a bored small town schoolteacher who has an extended fling with one of his students (Amy Locane) is one of his finest. His measured thoughtful presence comes through in scene after scene facing off with Locane, Amy Irving, Hal Holbrook, and Gary Busey. Maybe not an overlooked gem, but Hopper’s solid work makes it well worth watching. Be warned though, it may contain more Hopper than you want to see – mind you, I’m talking full frontal nudity.

7. RIVER’S EDGE (Dir. Tim Hunter, 1986)

Another from 1986, this harrowing teen drama had Hopper as Feck, a drug-dealing one-legged hermit who, like many of his characters, hijacks the movie from its stars every time he appears. For Hopper though, it wasn’t hard with lines like: “I killed a girl, it was no accident. Put a gun to the back of her head and blew her brains right out the front. I was in love.”

8. FLASHBACK (Dir. Franco Amurri, 1990) Some may scoff at Hopper’s self mocking role in a fairly lightweight comedy being given a spot on this list, but I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for his work here since I saw the film in the theaters 20 years ago. As a once famous aging hippie radical who turns the tables on a Federal Agent played by Keifer Sutherland, Hopper seems to be having a lot of fun with the familiar material that heavily references EASY RIDER.

The pair would square off a decade later on the popular TV series 24 with Sutherland playing a very different kind of FBI agent and Hopper as a Ukrainian mastermind behind the deadly scenes of season 1. Flashing back to FLASHBACK – Hopper tells Sutherland that: “The 90’s are going to make the ’60s look like the ’50s.” Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but as an idealistic art student at a theater in Atlanta back in 1990 I remember believing, or at least wishing, it would be. Watch the trailer here.

9. The Twilight Zone“He’s Alive”
(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1963)
In an hour long episode of the classic sci fi/fantasy anthology that isn’t rerun as much as the half hour ones, Hopper plays a street corner neo Nazi who starts to get winning advice from a mysterious stranger in the shadows. We can guess a long time before the reveal (one of the main minuses of the hour long format) that this stranger is Hitler, but it still displays that the young Hopper had talent to burn. And burn it up he did. Here’s a 10 minute edit of the episode somebody made and put up on YouTube.


10. SPEED (Dir. Jan de Bont, 1994) I figured this list wouldn’t be complete without one of Hopper’s late period makeover roles as a mainstream action movie villain. As the evil extortionist that rigs a bus to explode if it drops below 50 MPH, Hopper’s scenery chewing is a thing of unhinged bug-eyed beauty. He played very similar bad guy roles in SUPER MARIO BROS. and WATERWORLD, but SPEED wins out simply because a lot more people have seen it.

Hardly a definitive list, but a solid one that I stand by. Even with his large filmography that will take a lifetime to catch up with, Hopper will be sorely missed.

R.I.P. Dennis Hopper.

More later…

10 Movie Soundtracks That Think Outside Of The Box Office

Welcome to Soundtrack September! All month long, with the help of some special guest bloggers and readers, I’m going to be celebrating the world of original motion picture soundtrack recordings. There will still be the usual array of reviews of current movies and other whatnot but they will be surrounded by soundtrack centered posts.


I’m kicking off Soundtrack September with this list of soundtracks that weren’t content to just be simple collections of score selections or pop song tracks. They featured dialogue excerpts as tracks – sometimes full chucks of audio from the composite track of the film instead of the standard isolated music track. Often these albums contain material that’s not in the movie they represent – different versions of songs, cut lines from post production, and new voice-overs. In their reshaping of the movie material they became works of art in their own right. Here are my 10 favorites from the many soundtracks out there that think outside the box office:


1. THE MONKEES: HEAD (Colgems Records 1968/Rhino 1994) The Monkees only theatrical release was a critical and commercial flop on original release but it’s picked up a well deserved cult following over the years in no small thanks to its psychedelic soundtrack. It’s a merry mishmash in which 7 songs (including “The Porpoise Song”, “As We Go Along”, and “Can You Dig It”) emerge out of the chaos of sound effects, repeated out-of-context lines (as if there’s a context in the film) and assorted trippy effects reportedly under the influence of Frank Zappa (who has a cameo in the movie and the album). The original album did not feature Mike Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” performed live in the film – it substituted an inferior studio take of the song. Happily, a 90’s Rhino re-release restored the ferocious live version as well as a nice handful of bonus tracks (including a cool radio spot).


The icing on the cake? The Original Album Coordinator who did the bulk of the vigorous editing on this project: Jack Nicholson (co-screenwriter and producer of HEAD seen above with the Monkees).



2. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: THE MOVIE ON RECORD (Columbia Records, 1981)


In the late ’70s and early ’80s a lot of “story of” albums were produced of the STAR WARS films, Disney features, Muppet movies, etc. that feature audio excerpts with a ’40s style narrator guiding listeners through. For the first Indiana Jones adventure a soundtrack was released separate from the one of the score by composer John Williams. Billed “The Movie On Record”, it was an album of “Actual Dialogue, Music, and Sound Effects” but most importantly – no narration. 4 time Academy Award winner Sound Designer Ben Burtt (creator of the voice of WALL-E among other iconic work) admitted in an interview that much of this album was made from little of the original soundtrack; he recorded new effects and recreated the dialogue with the film’s cast as voice actors much like old radio shows. The album won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word LP in 1982.


3. THE ALBUM OF THE SOUNDTRACK OF THE TRAILER OF THE FILM OF MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (Arista, 1975) This is only a soundtrack in the loosest sense – approximately 40% of it is movie material; the other 60% has the Pythons bogusly broadcasting from a fictional theater (The Classic Silbury Hill) for the “premiere” of the film. John Cleese plays a reporter who talks over the opening scene with patrons telling him to shut up, the production is halted while the projectionist fights a grizzly bear for the next reel, an announcer (Graham Chapman) repeatedly tells us that this is the “Executive Version” of the record, and so on. The records of the Monty Python films that followedLIFE OF BRIAN and THE MEANING OF LIFE had a bit of this embellishing but not with the whole team and to the extreme of this supremely silly yet essential soundtrack.


4. APOCALYPSE NOW (Warner Brothers, 1979) This soundtrack is pretty much the full composite track of the motion picture spread over 2 records. It’s a trippy absorbing listen that’s worth seeking out. The soundtrack for the REDUX version (2001) removes the dialogue bits and presents composer Carmine Coppola’s score, along with The Doors “The End” and Flash Cadillac’s “Suzy Q”, but I prefer the original recording. It reminds me of the days before home video when a soundtrack was all one had to invoke the mood of one’s favorite movie. Removed from the imagery, Martin Sheen’s voice over narration works just as well on record as it does in the film, the jungle sounds surround the listener, and Marlon Brando’s haunting “the horror…the horror” evocation echo in the psyche. Or maybe that’s the Thai sticks talking…


5. NATURAL BORN KILLERS: A SOUNDTRACK FOR AN OLIVER STONE FILM (Interscope Records 1994)


“I suggested to Oliver (Stone) to try to turn the soundtrack into a collage-of-sound, kind of the way the movie used music: make edits, add dialogue, and make it something interesting, rather than a bunch of previously released music.”

– Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor in an interview with MTV.


As producer/compiler Reznor provides another absorbing listen and one that introduced many to Leonard Cohen via 2 stellar songs off of his 1992 album “The Future”. My only complaint is Reznor mixing a bit of Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis dialogue on top of Bob Dylan’s cover of the ’50s standard “You Belong To Me”. Such a thing just should not be done.

6. THE ADVENTURES OF BOB & DOUG McKENZIE IN STRANGE BREW (Polygram Records, 1983) The album cover denotes “Excerpts From The Original Sountrack” so much like the MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL album this functions as a comedy record in its own right. The success of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’s “Great White North” record paved the way for the SCTV characters of Canadian descent to enter the world of movies, so it’s kind of funny to have Moranis stress more than once that this that this is not their second album – it’s the soundtrack album. Funny because they never made another album and with all the additional material here they might as well consider it their second album. As a comedy record it’s a good one – some bits from the movie work better disembodied from the visuals and the track “Shakespeare Horked Our Script” amusingly calls attention to the fact they stole the basic narrative from “Hamlet”. It’s never been released officially on CD but like much on this list it can be found on the internets.

7. PULP FICTION (MCA Records, 1994)


From RESERVOIR DOGS to DEATH PROOF, Tarantino’s soundtracks have featured dialogue tracks (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the first that doesn’t) but PULP FICTION is by far the most popular – it seems everyone I knew had this in their CD collection in the ’90s. It’s a hip movie mix; tracks by Urge Overkill, Dusty Springfield, and Kool & The Gang rub shoulders with John Travolta’s “Royale with cheese” bit, Bruce Willis’s immortal “Zed’s dead, baby”, and Samuel L. Jackson’s “Ezekiel 25:17”. 15 years after the movie, these tracks are still effective – program them into an iPod shuffle and see for yourself.


8. GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM (A & M Records, 1988) Sure, the comedy of Robin Williams is far from hip these days but back in the day (the late ’80s) his routines were quoted ad nauseum. The rapid fire lines from his starring turn in Barry Levinson’s Vietnam-set dramedy were no exception. The dominance of James Brown’s “I Feel Good (I Got You)” in family feel-good comedies (or at least their trailers) can be traced to this film but don’t hold that against it. Era songs by Louis Armstrong, The Marvelettes, and the Beach Boys make up the playlist of Williams as Armed Forces Radio Services DJ Adrian Cronauer. Incidentally the weekly NPR program “Sound Opinions” uses the sound bite of Williams’ “This is not a test, this is rock ‘n roll!” in their opening to this day.

9. UHF: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK AND OTHER STUFF (Warner Brothers, 1989) Nobody would expect a soundtrack from a Weird Al Yankovic movie (his only movie) to play by soundtrack rules and this hodgepodge sure doesn’t. It makes this list because of tracks directly from the film like the commercial parody “Spatula City” and the phony trailer for “Gandhi II” which make great compilation fillers or fodder for college DJs. However the non movie related tracks like a spoof of R.E.M.’s “Stand” called “Spam” and “Generic Blues” are just throw-away Weird Al but they still don’t disqualify it.

10. BONNIE AND CLYDE (Collector’s Choice, 2009) Though it’s not the first soundtrack album to feature dialogue – that would be THE GREAT ESCAPEBONNIE AND CLYDE provides the template for the composite movie mix that Reznor and Tarantino would run with. The dialogue tracks offer cushioning and punctuation for the musical score – as spare as they are. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s exchanges are enhanced by the then very innovative presentation on vinyl. It’s a hard to come by record nowadays but again, one worth seeking out.

Okay! There are many more soundtracks that feature dialogue in an inventive mix (PATTON, ANIMAL HOUSE, BLADE RUNNER, etc.) so if you have a favorite – please send it on. Also if you have soundtrack favorites of any kind (classical scores, pop songs, musicals, etc.) please email me (filmbabbleblog@gmail.com) your favorites (instead of leaving them as comments on this post please) and I may include them this month during Soundtrack September! Hope to hear from you.

More later…