Dennis Hopper, Soundtrack Savant: The Unacknowledged Music Savvy Behind Easy Rider, Out of the Blue, and Colors


In the aftermath of Dennis Hopper’s death this past Saturday (J. Hoberman’s obit is here), tributes to the actor didn’t even try to construct an easy narrative out of his chaotic life. How could they? Hopper was many things at once: the actor who pushed the “method” style way past its breaking point; the ’60s icon turned rightwinger who publicly voted for Obama; the sensitive art photographer and abstract expressionist; and the nut who, threatened ex-wives and co-stars with guns and once attempted to blow himself up with dynamite in front of live crowd. He was far out in every role, from art-house classics to chintzy afternoon HBO staples like Spacetruckers, but was nominated only once by the Academy for his onscreen work–Best Supporting Actor, for Hoosiers.

The only constants in Hopper’s career were chaos (even his final months of life were wrapped up in a divorce) and his outre acting style, but there’s a narrative in Hopper’s career that’s been mostly ignored–his fluency with pop culture, especially in his work as a director. Particularly, three films he directed between the late ’60s to the late ’80s: The ’60s movie Easy Rider (1969), the grimy punk tragedy Out of the Blue (1980), and the proto-gangsta rap police procedural Colors (1988). Together they form a trilogy of music-tinged mini-masterpieces, showing Hopper to be a guy with his finger on the pulse of an ever-shifting pop music landscape for three decades–way longer than someone like Dennis Hopper really needed to have his finger on the pulse of pop music.

Like a mash-up artist or genre-spanning DJ, Hopper employed pop music in his films to make unexpected, sympathetic connections between generations–charting changes in youth culture, then putting them in conversation with one another, establishing a continuum of cool. Though he’ll be best remembered for his acting and vivid–maybe a little too vivid–personality, Hopper’s prescient, pop music trilogy is an integral if forgotten part of the actor/director’s legacy. A brief sampling:

Easy Rider employed a then innovative use of contemporary rock and a sloppy, improvisational style that forever changed Hollywood–it’s the Nevermind of American cinema. The film’s soundtrack includes hip, FM radio staples like Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” and “The Weight” by the Band, relatively obscure stuff like The Holy Modal Rounders’ “If You Want To Be a Baird”, and two career-making cuts from Steppenwolf. It’s more like an idiosyncratic mixtape–all the songs Hopper and pals were digging on when they shot the movie–than a well-constructed, collection of decade-defining acid rock. And that’s why Easy Rider remains a weird, loopy historical document: By simply capturing moments, quasi-home movie style, Hopper articulated an entire movement.

Running parallel to this immediacy however, is a thoughtful and oddly skeptical view of the sixties–the movie’s infamous ending (“We blew it”) all but confirms this. It didn’t take Altamont–which happened six months after Easy Rider‘s release–for Hopper to get a sense that something was indeed off about ’60s idealism. Though hardly as revered and really, barely even talked about, this anthropological mix of in-the-moment documentation and wizened distance continues in Hopper’s later approaches to punk rock and hip-hop.

Between Hopper’s inspired, late-’70s work (Tracks (1976), American Friend (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and his full-fledged, ’80s “comeback” (Blue Velvet, River’s Edge, and every Dad’s favorite movie Hoosiers), Hopper directed Out of the Blue, a vehicle for Linda Manz of Days of Heaven fame.

Cebe, Manz’s character in Out of the Blue, is a cynical, “Disco sucks, kill all hippies”-chanting teen lamenting the deaths of Sid Vicious and Elvis Presley. She finds relief from her irreparable home life–her mom’s an addict; her dad, played by Hopper, is a sexually abusive alcoholic; both are ’60s burnouts–in the local punk community. In perhaps the movie’s only happy scene–and one that Hopper calls “the biggest moment of [Cebe’s] life” on Out of the Blue‘s DVD audio commentary–she’s given a chance to drum on-stage with Vancouver punk group The Pointed Sticks.

Hopper not only documented punk before it was even quasi-mainstream–the movie was shot at approximately the same time as The Decline of Western Civilization, and it came out a year or so before Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains–but also conflated punk attitude with the raucous fifties rock of Elvis and others, placing both in direct opposition to the ideals of ’60s rock. The film’s horrifying end–Cebe murders her dad and blows herself and mom up and calls it “a punk gesture”–suggests that while punk’s nihilism may be less bullshit than hippie-dom, it’s no more valid.

Off the momentum of his early ’80s sobriety and return to Hollywood, Hopper made Colors. A rough, humane drama about L.A gang violence, Colors goes out of its way to avoid simple answers–in perhaps the film’s best scene, veteran cop Robert Duvall tells sadist rookie Sean Penn “You’re just like them…you’re a gangster”–and is particularly innovative in its use of hip-hop for atmosphere. The Ice-T title track serves as the angry but self-aware voice of the movie’s gang member characters: “Tell me what have you left me, what’ve I got?/Last night in cold blood my young brother got shot.”

The score, by Herbie Hancock, is all electronic rumble, skittering like L.A electro, referencing Hancock’s own “Rockit” and giving hip-hop an image beyond big, scary beats. There’s nearly always someone popping and locking or mumbling along to a rap beat in Hopper’s decidedly unglamorous scenes of gang members just hanging out. Paralleling Cebe’s punk drumming joy, a Mexican gang’s bittersweet house party is scored to a vibrant, break-ready Hancock composition: Rap as the voice of those without a voice but also, communal party music.

At the same time, like Hopper’s own goofball dreamer character in Easy Rider and Cebe’s punk rock mantras in Out of the Blue, Colors‘s gang members spout the kind of rhetoric that’ll doom them. The music speaks to their pleasures and their pains, and remains loaded but incidental–Hopper avoids a reductive cause-effect thesis between rap and violence. That’s a rarity even today.