The Week In Radio: How The Monkees kick-started Easy Rider
Thursday 31 July 2008
The one thing conspiracy theorists get right is that history is never quite as simple as it seems; there's always something – some happenstance, a hidden motive – rumbling under the surface. A couple of instances of this cropped up yesterday. Movie Outcasts: the Making of 'Easy Rider' (Radio 4) showed how Seventies counterculture and modern Hollywood were, in fact, by-products of the success of The Monkees, whose drummer, Mickey Dolenz, got to narrate.
The Monkees – both band and TV series – were created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Aided by the fact that, as one interviewee put it: "Hollywood was always trying to figure out how to get the kids back," they parlayed that success into film careers, starting with two films: first, Head, a surrealist antiwar comedy directed by Rafelson and starring The Monkees, which was a semi-legendary flop (though Rafelson's career survived enough for him to make films such as Five Easy Pieces). The second, Easy Rider, was produced by Schneider and directed by Dennis Hopper, who co-starred with Peter Fonda.
The story of the film's making seemed familiar: muddled shoot, on-set fist-fights, months of rancorous editing, horror of studio bean-counters, eventual box-office success – isn't that how all decent films are made? But some of the detail was entertaining, like the discussion of how long Hopper's director's cut ran; estimates ranged from three to seven hours, with a final vote for four hours 16 minutes. In the end, Schneider took control and the film ran to 96 minutes.
More interesting was the discussion of its influence. Karen Black, who had a supporting role, thought the acting established a new level of realism; you can see Easy Rider, she thought, in the way people tell jokes today. Studios realised money could be made from an anti-establishment line – the immediate beneficiaries were directors, like Hal Ashby and Peter Bogdanovich, who happened to be part of Rafelson and Schneider's social circle. And it established a European sensibility, which allowed film-makers such as Coppola to flourish.
Still, I wondered if the case wasn't a little overstated. Somebody mentioned that Schneider's dad was chairman of the board at Columbia; Fonda, who co-produced, was, well, a Fonda; and Hopper came from money. Maybe Easy Rider's success wasn't an overturning of the old order so much as an orderly succession of the ruling dynasties.
Another bit of secret history yesterday: in Petrov's Dilemma (Radio 4), Jonathan Charles investigated the possibility that on 26 September 1983 the world only just dodged nuclear war. At the time, the Soviet Union was suffering what someone called "Cold War paranoia": its occupation of Afghanistan was going badly, Solidarity was getting uppity in Poland, and Ronald Reagan was talking tough, with the Star Wars anti-missile proposal and the new Pershing 2 missile in production. Stanislav Petrov, a Lieutenant-Colonel in Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces, was on duty in a monitoring station when automated warning systems announced an American first strike; he decided it was a malfunction, and didn't fire back. His story isn't provable, though certainly plausible: but the main lesson here was that this was one of a host of narrow squeaks – in the early days of the Cold War, even flocks of birds would set off nuclear alarms. I've heard more gripping features, but not many that left me feeling more relieved.
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