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Dennis Hopper's Weird Musical World

How the late actor and director was a pop culture savant.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dennis Hopper wrote, directed, and starred in 'The Last Movie.' Dennis Hopper wrote, directed, and starred in 'The Last Movie.' (CAMERA PRESS - Cecil Beaton)

The late actor and director Dennis Hopper, who died in 2010 at the age of 74, had a tendency to play strange, often deranged characters -- like the manic photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now, and the psychopath Frank Booth in David Lynch’s 1989 psychological thriller, Blue Velvet.

As the saying goes, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and Hopper’s life seemed immersed in the chaotic and bizarre (and narcotic). But it was more than just a succession of weird stories: He was a multi-talented actor, writer, and director who pioneered the use of pop culture and music in film.

Journalist Tom Folsom has made a study out of the screen star’s life in his new book, Hopper: A Journey Into The American Dream. Folsom tells us about a trilogy of Hopper's films that go deep with music: Easy Rider (1969), Out of the Blue (1980) and Colors (1988). 


On getting closer to Hopper's "weird world":

I stormed the gates of Hopper and spent a lot of time getting close to his weird world…. I had a great sort of three hour tequila sit-down at the Beverly Wilshire with Peter Fonda, in which he literally at the end played air guitar to 'Hotel California.'

On Hopper’s photojournalism career:

Hopper was also a photographer. He was on the rock and roll scene shooting the swingin’ sixties for Vogue. He was taking picture of Brain Jones holding a sitar. He’s very hooked into the L.A. scene, so he’s taking pictures of Buffalo Springfield. He ended up actually marrying Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas…. As Hopper [described the marriage], “’Well, the first seven days were pretty good.’

On Hopper's finger being on the pulse of American pop culture:

We’re talking about a guy who was a pop culture savant. He literally bought one of the first five Andy Warhol soup cans in 1961, before anyone knew who this guy Warhol was, when he was just a commercial illustrator.

On Hopper’s pioneering use of music in film:

Take a film like Easy Rider (1969). He just plucked what was on the airwaves and he put it in his film. No one had done this before. Before, it was, if you had rock and rollers doing your soundtrack, it was Simon & Garfunkel doing your entire soundtrack of The Graduate…. [The opening to Easy Rider] is the greatest film opening I think in history. These two guys jumping on their bikes, they throw away their watch, they hit the open road, and you’ve got Steppenwolf, ‘Born To Be Wild.’ I mean, it’s epic.


On Out of the Blue (1980), which has been called the first punk rock film:

He always wanted to be where the action was no matter what his age was…. Out of the Blue [is] sort of a punk-nihilist fantasia. Hopper really wasn’t into punk, but you know what? He said, ‘This is what was happening, so I’m going to put it in my film.’ And I think that’s sort of the great documentary quality of Hopper. He throws himself into these scenes, and then he puts what he’s seeing on film.

Watch the Canadian punk band The Pointed Sticks playing in the film Out of the Blue:


On Ice-T's title song for Colors (1988):

This was three years before Boys In The Hood, but Hopper had his finger on the pulse. Ice-T sees a rough cut and something bothers Ice -- because the title track is by Rick James. So he goes home. On spec he busts out this song, Colors, plays it for Hopper, and Hopper goes bananas.


Tom Folsom

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