Two-Lane Blacktop, the cult classic film which stars the unlikely pairing of musicians James Taylor and the late reckless Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (in a non-musical setting) finally comes to Blu-ray today in a handsome deluxe edition via The Criterion Collection, which is loaded with extras and commentary by director Monte Hellman.
The film, which was originally released in 1971, came on the heels of other “road/youth” films at the time which were largely from the AIP (American International Pictures) Studios in the mid to late 1960s and showed young people in a more uninhibited light (bikers, juvenile delinquents, transient hippie types) than was standard fare that showcased people of that stripe in movies released by larger film companies. With the 1969 release of Easy Rider, which was distributed by Columbia, a major Hollywood studio, and to massive critical and financial success, suddenly there was an interest in these this type of genre picture, hence where Two-Lane Blacktop came in.
But the film was a decidedly different one than the low-budget cinematic products that were playing on double and triple bill theaters coast to coast. It almost had a European sensibility about it, with a richer story, superb direction and cinematography, sparse dialogue that was almost seemingly improvised, and had three non-actors as its stars (Taylor, Wilson, and the late Laurie Bird, who plays the hitchhiker transient who almost splinters the two men). Only the late, great character actor Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, Dillinger, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Stripes) was experienced in films, and his presence lifts the majestic beauty of Two-Lane Blacktop to another level altogether, delivering a performance that although was almost largely forgotten and pretty much ignored during the film awards season that year, still stands as one of the great, wondrous, whimsically quirky performances of all-time.
The plot of Two-Lane Blacktop basically plays like this: Two teenagers get their kicks drag-racing cars in early 1970s California. They don’t even have “proper” character names. Taylor is simply known as “The Driver” and Wilson is “The Mechanic.” They pick up Laurie Byrd, a free-spirited hitchhiker, along the way. Their communication is limited to cars: it’s all they know, it’s what pumps through their blood. While they have obsessive control of the direction of their car, a 1955 Chevy souped up to the max, the direction of their own lives is aimless. They meet up with “The GTO” (played by Oates) and challenge him to a cross-country road race. Oates, who is also experiencing his own kind of aimless path, via a mid-life crisis, agrees. The film then becomes an allegory and statement on alienation, loneliness, and vapid life as it progresses.
The film is helped by breathtakingly shot vistas and panoramic views of mid-America that are straight out of an Ansel Adams photo. Hellman directs the film in a one-two punch of being detached, but yet uses close-ups to illustrate the warmth, yet alienation of the characters. Two-Lane Blacktop remains more than just a cult film only, it remains a grand piece of cinema, which is highly recommended.
The Criterion Blu-Ray release sports a high definition transfer, with a 5.1 remix of the soundtrack, which includes Kris Kristofferson’s version of “Me and Bobby Mcgee” which later became a number one smash for Janis Jopin and The Doors, among others. There’s audio commentary by Hellman himself and interviews with the surviving cast and crew members, Taylor included. There’s also outtakes, trailers, still photos and a deluxe booklet in which artists ranging as wide as director Richard Linklater and musican Tom Waits trumpet the film.
Two-Lane Blacktop is absolutely essential viewing and now with the new deluxe version, it stands as even more of a reason to check out all it has to offer.
Director-Approved Special Edition
– Restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director Monte Hellman, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
– Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, supervised by Hellman and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition
– Two audio commentaries: one by Hellman and filmmaker Allison Anders and one by screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer and author David N. Meyer
– Interviews with Hellman, actor James Taylor, musician Kris Kristofferson, producer Michael Laughlin, and production manager Walter Coblenz
– Rare screen test outtakes
– Performance and Image, a look at the restoration of a ’55 Chevy used in the movie and the film’s locations in 2007
– Color Me Gone, photos and publicity from the film
– PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones, appreciations by director Richard Linklater and musician Tom Waits, and a 1970 on-set account from Rolling Stone by Michael Goodwin; the DVD edition also features Wurlitzer’s screenplay