Hail the Wild Angels
‘We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man. And we want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re gonna have a good time. We’re going to have a party.’
As bike club manifestos go this one is unbeatable. It doesn’t matter what you ride, how or where you ride, no one wants to be hassled by the man while they’re out getting their kicks. And everyone loves some kind of party, even if it leans more towards Tupperware than Dionysian. Am I right or am I right?
This is the speech delivered by Blues under the nose of the vicar of a backwoods chapel where Blues’ good friend The Loser is lying in a cheap coffin draped with a Nazi flag. It’s not the key moment in the biker B-movie The Wild Angels, but it’s the best known thanks to this monologue being sampled on songs by both Mudhoney and Primal Scream.
I’ve got a thing about movies in which bikes are used for more than a five-minute chase sequence. Films at two ends of the spectrum, Mad Max and Quadrophenia, join this Corman-helmed low budget effort in a short, shortlist of my all-time favourites. That doesn’t necessarily mean The Wild Angels is a work of high art. In fact, like all of Roger Corman’s output, it’s the kind of lowbrow culture margin-dwelling hipsters have been lapping up for the last 20 years. But it did open the 1967 Cannes Film Festival and performed well at the US box office.
The lead character is Outlaw bike club ‘prez’ Heavenly Blues, played by a pre-Easy Rider, Peter Fonda. His girlfriend is the adorable Nancy Sinatra, looking a little older than her 26 years, it has to be said. Blues’ right-hand man, The Loser is depicted by Bruce Dern with his real-life wife (and mother of actress Laura Dern) Diane Ladd playing The Loser’s ol’ lady, Gaysh.
The plot, what there is of it, follows Blues’ club of Angels ride to the desert town of Mecca to recover The Loser’s chopped hog. See, it’s been liberated by a bunch of low(er)-life’s. I won’t spoil it for you any more than saying the recovery doesn’t go entirely to plan. Hence the cheap coffin.
The film starts out like an amateur dramatics portrayal of The Rape of Bass Lake: quirky extras with fake tattoos, bongo drums and young women in mismatched skimpies (to thrill the drive-in crowd). It’s about as realistic as Pirates of the Caribbean. Then clouds start appearing on the horizon and the film becomes significantly nastier.
The Wild Angels came out at the same time as a glut of biker movies. Aficionados say it’s not even in the same league as Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Hell’s Angels ’69, Glory Stompers or Run Angel Run (can you see a pattern emerging?). But I still love this 1966 feature film for its wonderful glimpses of working class California including the memorable opening that is accompanied by the blistering fuzz-guitar of Davie Allen and the Arrows playing ‘Blues Theme’. There are also enough shots of real, mid-1960s custom Harley-Davidson Shovels and Panheads to get the readers of Dice and Greasy Kulture in a froth. They are mean-looking chops with springer front ends, skinny sissy bars and upswept fishtail exhausts – Californian choppers just at the point they were really rideable and hadn’t got too caught up in the one-upmanship of crazy raked front ends and extended forks.
The film, and even modern DVD packaging, credits the assistance of members of the Hell’s Angels, Venice – and scenes are shot on location in Venice Beach. However, in the autobiography of the most famous member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC), Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, he says the HAMC sued Corman and threatened to stomp him. The filmmaker settled out of court. So it’s not clear if they are real Hell’s Angels or the producers trying to cash-in in the club’s extraordinary infamy of the time. Even so, some extras are certainly real ‘one per centers’ from a time when looking like at outlaw biker didn’t mean you were dressing up and really a dentist during the week.
Perhaps the best part of The Wild Angels is the fact Corman didn’t feel any pressure to make his leading man a hero. Peter Fonda’s character doesn’t display any vulnerability to appeal to audience and has few redeeming features, except a loyalty to his slowly decomposing friend and some killer sunglasses. In fact, Blues personality is as likeable as a bad case of road rash. And as for a happy ending? Well, you’ll just have to watch it and see.
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