An old, white-haired preacher stands before a congregation of bikers. Upright at the pulpit, he stares down at them with contempt; the squint in his eyes narrowing his hatred for everything they represent. Apple pie America won’t stand for their indecency anymore, and the words of his sermon spit with moral outrage. Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda), the leader of the gang, stands and meets the preacher’s glare with one of equal fury. Screw this false father and his paper words. From Blues’ soul pours an anthem of anarchy:
We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time. We are gonna have a party.
The climax of The Wild Angels (1966) ignites with the last word. A funeral for a friend becomes a party, and the party becomes a riot. The bikers tear to the front of the tiny church, remove their dead comrade (Bruce Dern) from his casket, and plant the preacher in his place. A lit joint is plopped in the mouth of the corpse and the gang revel in the label stamped on them by polite society. They are animals and proud of it. At least they’re not hypocrites. At least they’re not scared whelps who send their children off to war to die in their place. The Wild Angels demand their anger and transform their rage into a weapon against the country that bore them.
The anthem of Heavenly Blues sprung from a filmmaker looking to make a buck on the chaotic cultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s. The Hells Angels were gaining media attention as forerunners of the counterculture movement, and literary luminaries like Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Hunter S. Thompson flocked around them. The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones exalted their aesthetic and traipsed them around concerts like mascots. For a section of the populace that railed against a Nixon-abused government, trading the American flag for swastikas seemed like an appropriate form of protest. Roger Corman only saw dollar signs. Hippie money spends as quickly as any other green.
Turning to frequent collaborator Charles B. Griffith, whose typewriter already produced a half dozen cult classics (including Not of this Earth, Bucket of Blood, and Little Shop of Horrors) for American International Pictures, Corman requested a screenplay that would crystalize the rebellious spirit of the new Western outlaw. Griffith cranked out a couple of scripts, but Corman deemed them dull bits of visual wankery. He needed the philosophy; he needed the words of revolution. To that aim, Corman hired Peter Bogdanovich to punch up th e script. His take? “A cross between Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai, only cheap,” he told Blu-ray.com. Bogdanovich got $300 for the gig and no credit.
Originally, West Side Story Jet George Chakiris was hired as Heavenly Blues, but he got kicked off the picture when Corman learned that he couldn’t ride a motorcycle to save his life. To hear Fonda tell the story in the documentary Corman’s World, the director rang him up and asked if he could handle the wheels. “Oh yeah,” said Fonda, “I can ride.” The actor was struggling to find traction in Hollywood, nabbing the occasional gig on TV with shows like The Defenders and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Fonda was in fear of becoming the next Dean Jones (The Love Bug) for Disney and jumped at the chance to strap leather for Corman.
There were eight professional performers in the cast, and the rest of the movie was made up of extras, many of whom were hired right out of the Hells Angels motor club. Corman put them on their bikes and filmed their ride into the desert. No permits, no pleases or thank yous. He just did it. The Corman Way.
For little more than $300,000, Corman shot The Wild Angels in three weeks, tossing Bogdanovich an extra week to capture second unit footage. The film roared into drive-ins and stole the imagination of its intended audience. By the end of 1966, it ranked 16th at the box office, bringing in a haul of $5.5 million. Everyone was happy, except for the Hells Angels. They sued Corman for $1 million, claiming the film portrayed the organization in a negative light, damaging their character in the eyes of the public. Corman told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that they put a contract out on his life He was only able to negotiate his future when he got Hells Angels president Otto Friedli on the phone.
The Wild Angels hit a nerve, or at the very least tapped into a vein already pumping profusely inside the country’s nervous system. Heavenly Blues’ furious anthem from the film seared into the creative conscious, and bits from it eventually found their into Mudhoney’s 1989 track “In ‘n’ Out of Grace,” and would travel musically a little further into Primal Scream’s “Loaded.” The Peter Fonda sample even recently materialized through the confused vessel of Simon Pegg in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy closer, The World’s End. Back off, spacemen. We wanna have a good time.
In 1967, barely a few months after wrapping on The Wild Angels, Peter Fonda was back with Roger Corman for The Trip, another flick wanting to take advantage of the counterculture era. Screenwriter and Corman alum Jack Nicholson trades motorcycles for LSD, placing Fonda in the role of a commercial director who partakes in the psychedelic experience while he’s reeling from a divorce. Bruce Dern remains by his side as his spaced guru, and the film tracks the heaven and hell of a drugged-out lifestyle. The film cost less than The Wild Angels and made more. Another boon for Corman.
Fonda also met Dennis Hopper on the set of The Trip, and the two bonded almost immediately. When a promotional still featuring Heavenly Blues and Bruce Dern’s Loser was placed in the hands of Fonda by a fan seeking an autograph, the actor was struck with a vision of the biker as a modern-day cowboy, and the first pangs of Easy Rider uttered into reality. Along with Dr. Strangelove screenwriter Terry Southern, Fonda and Hopper crafted the first script for the film that mashed the personalities of The Wild Angels and The Trip together.
Corman was part of the early stages of development as well, but when a meeting with American International Pictures went south after one executive demanded the right to replace Hopper as the director if he fell behind schedule, the two actors bailed. They huffed off, made their movie, and Columbia Pictures picked up distribution. With a little extra-budgetary heft, Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) were able to bring their radicalized anti-authoritarian nature before a mainstream audience in a manner that The Wild Angels never could. Their challenging of the system was a cathartic release and seemed absolutely necessary during the same year that saw Woodstock, the Moon landing, the Manson murders, and 250,000 march on Washington in protest of the Vietnam War.
The youth of America are always screaming. We wanna be free. Listen to them. Roger Corman did, and he made boatloads of cash. Peter Fonda did, and he became an icon.