Release Date: November 3, 2017 (New York)
Director: Nick Ebeling
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 99 minutes
Nick Ebeling’s Along for the Ride, a portrait of self-destructive maverick artiste Dennis Hopper and the falls and rebounds of his post-Easy Rider career, aims to profile the director-actor from a position as of yet really seen attempted; intimately.
The film is framed through the fawning stories and kind words of dutiful friend and business partner Satya de la Manitou, who spent 40+ years as confidant to the wildfire director from the New Hollywood ’70s to his death bed.
The interesting thing about watching this flawed but fascinating doc is how the film unravels less as a story of friendship through the ebbs and flows of a fickle Hollywood system that never knew what to do with a unique energy like Hopper and more like a lesson in Fifth Business. Taken from the Robertson Davies novel of the same name, to be “Fifth Business” is to essentially come to terms with the fact that, while you may not be the most important role in your life story, your role benefits the main roles nonetheless.
Upon meeting Hopper during the filming of Easy Rider, during which Satya was handed a bag of LSD by the director and wound up distributing it to the extras, Satya vowed to follow this man through all walks of life.
The good (Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, The American Friend), the bad (The Last Movie, Mad Dog Morgan, majority of the ’70s really) and the inexplicably weird (The Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act and Super Mario Bros), the ever-doting Satya was there in Dennis’ world, watching and admiring. Those years by his side formed the basis of the stories told in Along for the Ride, and for better or worse, it captures the way Satya wants people to remember Hopper.
Of course the glaring problem with this approach is that we come at the enigmatic Hopper from one uncompromising perspective of his biggest fan and best friend rolled into one not particularly engaging figure. This fundamentally singular approach means the film is less about getting know the man and why he was great and more about expounding his legacy and fluffing it with emphatic praise from people who could never bring themselves to disparage him. ‘
Told in a rather vague manner from Satya and the assembled contacts he personally chats with in striking black-and-white cinematography, the talking up of Hopper as a capital-A artist and the only true rebel visionary is rarely placed on anything tangible to an audience who’ve never watched a Hopper-directed film before. In its intimate way, you believe Satya believes every word he speaks about his departed friend, but if you weren’t in the Dennis Hopper fan club before watching this, don’t expect to be signing up afterward.
The film’s treatment of The Last Movie, Hopper’s post-Easy Rider directorial effort and the project that Along for the Ride props up as the director’s first fall from grace, is emblematic of the film’s disconnected “fact-versus-feeling” approach to his legacy. His worst-reviewed and least successful film, and one that supposedly (as is asserted very strongly) had Hopper blackballed in Hollywood ’tll 1980, is also an immutable masterpiece of artistic vision through the eyes of Satya and the assembled interviewees.
In Ebeling’s film, both statements are true because the revisionist tones of Along for the Ride are in a constant struggle to drown out the contradicting accounts that paint Hopper as the in-over-his-head control freak who made a $1 million dollar mess in Peru and blamed it on the “suits” who pressured him to finish. The same goes for the Mad Dog Morgan chapter of the film, in which, half-jokingly half-not, Satya claims Hopper’s drinking of a ¼ of rum a day on the set of the Aussie exploitation film was “method acting” and not ridiculously unprofessional as the excellent documentary Not Quite Hollywood alleged it to be.
The film so wants you to see what Satya saw in him, but often times it’s a bar too high up for a spectator to aspire to. While, tonally, it’s confusing, the final product is a love letter by someone who could never write a negative thing about its subject, despite raucous stories of debauchery and fun times on set.
Though honest to itself and intimate with the amount of behind-the-scenes snippets and personal effects it parades out, if you weren’t a fan of Hopper already, there won’t be much of anything for you to engage with here. As someone who has actually seen Last Movie, I knew where my opinion stood on the director long before Satya told me his.