There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The Wild Angels, a 1966 film directed by Roger Corman, stars Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California biker gang called The Angels. It’s the first of dozens of biker movies, many made by the B-movie powerhouse AIP, that packed in thrill-seeking moviegoers in the 1960s and early ‘70s. It’s also one of the best. Written by frequent Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith (The Little Shop of Horrors, Death Race 2000) and an uncredited Peter Bogdanovich, the film follows Blues as he and his right-hand man Loser (Bruce Dern) scrap with some rival Mexican bikers and then as the gang attempts to tend to Loser when he’s injured in a fight with the police. Diane Ladd and Nancy Sinatra round out a truly once-in-a-lifetime cast.
Why watch now?
Because Mayans MC just premiered on FX.
Co-created by Kurt Sutter and Elgin James, it’s a sequel / spinoff of the long-running Sutter-created series Sons of Anarchy. That show wound down in 2014, but FX is hoping its seven-season run didn’t exhaust the demand for violent biker drama. Here, the focus shifts to the California / Mexico borderlands, where Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes has joined the Mayans Motorcycle Club after a prison stint that cut his college career short.
Sons of Anarchy earned a reputation for brutality, a reputation Mayans MC seems determined to continue. But a trip back through old biker movies reveals that the genre has always been pretty grisly. A film like the Dennis Hopper-led The Glory Stompers can switch from images of scantily clad go-go dancers to scenes of vicious beatings and sexual assault at a head-spinning pace. These films originally promised drive-in and grindhouse audiences lurid thrills, and the creators knew they’d better deliver. Even the Dennis Hopper-directed Easy Rider, starring Hopper and Fonda, doesn’t stray that far from this tradition on its psychedelic search for America.
Roger Corman depicted biker gangs as living outside the law
If you’re going to make a film or TV show about bikers, in other words, chances are it’s going to go to some ugly places. That’s certainly true of The Wild Angels. Though real-life Hell’s Angels participated in the making of the film, some later threatened Corman with lawsuits and physical harm. Heavenly Blues’ gang is shown tangling with the police, attempting to rape a nurse, and engaging in other unsavory deeds, all leading up to a still-shocking funeral scene that climaxes in the desecration of a church and an attempt to party with a corpse. Corman’s film depicts the gang as people living outside any sort of rules, and there is a romance to that. Fonda delivers an impassioned speech on the meaning of freedom. (“We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man!”) But there’s a kind of terror to it, too, and the film ends with a sense that the Angels are heading toward some kind of abyss they can’t yet see.
Who it’s for
Fans of vintage motorcycles and scholars of 1960s culture.
In many ways, The Wild Angels was a bellwether of where the decade was headed. The rebellious attitude and sense that the old rules didn’t matter anymore soon wouldn’t be confined to biker culture. It’s easy to see the fashions and attitudes that would creep into the counterculture within mere months of the film’s release. Low-budget movies have a way of capturing the look and feel of a time and place better than their more expensive counterparts, and by using real bikers as extras and shooting on location, Corman captures a sense of what was happening at the fringes of the law in the 1960s. And though the story was fictional, it didn’t veer that far from fact, and the violence sometimes threatened to spill over to the set. (Dern and Bogdanovich wound up with their own real bruises.)
Biker films are generally exploitation films, and this one’s no exception
The performances also make it worth a look. Sinatra holds her own even if she looks a little too glamorous to be a biker mama, Fonda and Dern both bring a sensitivity to their tough-guy roles, and Ladd (looking like a dead ringer for daughter Laura Dern), is heartbreaking as Loser’s girlfriend. These characters commit awful acts, but they don’t lack souls. They have wants and needs like the rest of us beneath the chains and leather, and that’s the core truth shared by Sutter’s series and this movie.
Where to see it
The Wild Angels is available for rent on Amazon and Vudu.