A In the early 1970s, everything was going well for Kris Kristofferson. The country music world had embraced the hard-working singer-songwriter, and covers of his songs — “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” — had met with widespread success.
By 1971, he was also ranking high on the Billboard charts as a solo artist, and in 1970 he also shot his first movie, cisco pike. The movie wasn’t released until 1972, but it’s still an incredible time capsule. As Kristofferson’s fading musician Cisco Pike walks along the murky canals of pre-gentrification Venice, Los Angeles looks too different from the millionaire’s playground it is now. Amidst the dirty and run-down streets, the only thing that looks good in the film’s opening scenes is Kristofferson himself. The star looks flawless in a chambray shirt, denim pants and cowboy boots; His shiny brown hair bounces off his brown suede covered shoulders. With a guitar case in one hand, Pike is a beautiful amalgamation of the masculine but vain Los Angeles singer-songwriters who were about to take over the world, from Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey of The Eagles to James Taylor.
However, despite connecting directly with the rock’n’roll zeitgeist, cisco pike It was a huge flop, taking a loss at the box office and getting a string of bad reviews. It’s more cult than cult now, but back then, Vincent Canby of New York Times he criticized it as “banal,” adding caustically that “it takes all the discipline I can muster to keep from immediately walking out of the theater.” Watching it half a century later, I find it hard to understand why the film garnered so much hate, especially given its fabulous and profoundly cool cast, which also includes Gene Hackman, Harry Dean Stanton, and Karen Black. Clearly, 1972 was still too early to have a posh drug dealer as the main character, and the rough-and-tumble Los Angeles full of rebellious hippies, drug smokers, rock stars, and groupies was still too much for some viewers to enjoy in this fast-paced adventure. It turns out that Kristofferson’s character Pike isn’t just a sporadic rock star, he’s also being blackmailed by Hackman’s crooked cop into dealing a bunch of pot.
Following in the footsteps of the new wave of American cinema, spearheaded by Bonnie & Clyde from 1967 and Easy Rider from 1969, cisco pike came from a new generation of young filmmakers, including the 20-something debuting director of pikeBill L. Norton, who brought their unconventional ideas to the big screen, influenced by European arthouse cinema and eager to tell stories that mattered to their generation.
In a tight hour and a half, cisco pike leans into the lighter side of such innovative filmmaking, adding a touch of cinema not to go through super-stylish shots of Pike driving through Los Angeles while the neon lights whiz by. Kristofferson’s Pike remains utterly likeable, as he saunters from all walks of life to smuggle his illegal stuff in scenes reminiscent of HBO’s hipster drug dealer comedy. high-maintenance, which would come almost half a century later. There’s also an uncanny familiarity to the film’s sets, with the Venice Beach apartment shared by Pike and his girlfriend made up of a fabulous mess that includes kitschy junk-shop finds, climbing plants, and artisan pottery. The look is heavily inspired by 2022 Instagram interior design, as is Pike’s penchant for western shirts, the favorite country uniform of contemporary musicians from Orville Peck and Charley Crockett to Harry Styles and Diplo.
cisco pike It was not only Norton’s first feature film, but also the first to star Kristofferson. He had already had a small role in The Last Movie by Dennis Hopper, but it wouldn’t be officially released until eight years after Hopper’s death, in 2018. And while he may not have had much screen experience, by 1970 Kristofferson had already done more than his share of life.
Born in Texas in 1936, Kristofferson was not only a gifted athlete, but also a published writer. He won a disputed Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, where he studied English literature, and it was around this time that he began writing songs. But instead of pursuing a music career, he enlisted in the US Air Force to appease his family. After a few years in the army, based in Germany, he moved to Nashville so he could get serious about music. So serious that he landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s front yard to convince the star to record his song ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.’ It worked, getting Kristofferson to quit his job as a janitor at Columbia Records and winning Songwriter of the Year for 1970 at the Country Music Association Awards. That same year, Janis Joplin, Kristofferson’s lover at one point, recorded her song ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, which would become a hit months later, after Joplin’s untimely death.
It was also the year that Kristofferson was first sought out for screen acting. His first performance at the legendary Los Angeles Troubadour impressed many people, including casting director Fred Roos, who thought he would be ideal for a road movie called Two-Lane Blacktop. At a party at Jack Nicholson’s house, Roos asked Kristofferson if he wanted to audition. He accepted and the next day he went to the audition. “I was drunk, it was something out of a Kafka novel,” Kristofferson told rolling stone about the damned casting call. “The guy asked me if he knew anything about cars. Two-Lane Blacktop It was about cars, but no one had told me. I told him: ‘I don’t even know how to change a tire’, and I got up and left”. Surprisingly, he didn’t get the job—it was James Taylor—but not long after he was offered the lead role of cisco pike.
“I had never been in a school play, but I read the script and I identified with this guy, this drug dealer,” he recalls. “People said, ‘Don’t do it, take acting classes first.’ But it seemed to me that acting should be about understanding a character, and then being as honest as possible. I should have been scared, but I also should have been scared the first time on stage at the Troubadour and I didn’t.”
With his deep voice, Kristofferson was perfect for the role and playing the kind of quack who greets every woman with a kiss on the mouth. He was 34 years old at the time of filming and his music also has a deserved space in cisco pike. There’s ‘Lovin’ Her Was Easier’, a slow-paced folk-rock ballad of the sort she’d given to Johnny Cash and ‘The Pilgrim, Chapter 3’, which would end up on Kristofferson’s second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, which came out in 1971, six months before the film was released. The film had several working names, including Silver Tongued Deviland also dealerbefore the least bombastic was chosen cisco pike.
Karen Black, who had just been nominated for an Oscar for Five Easy Piecesbut a few years before Robert Altman’s country music extravaganza, Nashville, looks radiant as Sue, Pike’s hippie girlfriend. Black also gets a chance to show off her musical strength in a sublime, all-too-short duet with Kristofferson on ‘I’d Rather Be Sorry’, the full version of which was later included on break awayan album by Kristofferson and his real life partner, Rita Coolidge.
The rest of the cast is also impeccable. Gene Hackman is at his peak as a slightly goofy rogue detective dressed in pastel sportswear, while Harry Dean Stanton—known as HD Stanton—after Cool Hand Luke and before that Paris, Texas, is immediately believable as a member of Pike’s gang who has fallen on hard times and harder drugs. In his first on-screen appearance he is seen naked in a bathtub holding a bouquet of flowers, but there are also flashbacks where we see him in his glory days, wowing crowds and drinking from the bottle with a beautiful blonde.
There are memorable cameos from the star of the blaxploitation (or black exploitation movies) Antonio Fargas —who came to play the charismatic Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch— whom Pike meets at Olivia’s, the Santa Monica restaurant immortalized by Jim Morrison in The Doors’ ‘Soul Kitchen.’ Also featured are Wavy Gravy—fresh from hosting Woodstock—and Tex-Mex rocker Doug Sahm, who plays Rex, a musician who, unlike Pike, has clung to fame.
Warhol superstar Viva Hoffmann—mother of the actress from Transparent, Gaby Hoffmann—appears as a dead-eyed, pregnant addict who stops by Los Angeles’s first vegetarian restaurant, run by The Source Family cult, to pick up a friend. Later, we see her wealthy heiress at the family mansion, a grand Hollywood home that was once the royal residence of silent film sensation (and Rudolph Valentino lover) Pola Negri. We meet Viva again at the Troubadour, having drinks at the bar across the street while the Hare Krishnas sing enthusiastically outside. In a sweet moment of musical quiet, a Waylon Jennings poster hangs on a wall outside the venue, unbeknownst to the cast that a few years later Kristofferson and Jennings would join Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to form the country supergroup The Highwaymen.
In the years that followed, Kristofferson played memorable roles in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Martin Scorsese; as the infamous outlaw of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid; and, most famously, alongside Barbra Streisand in the third big-screen version of A Star Is Born.
cisco pike It captures the grittiness of 1970s Los Angeles, but also the emotion. It shows a Los Angeles where you go out for a quiet drink—or on a simple drug-selling spree—and end up frolicking in a movie-star mansion. Kris Kristofferson is also proof that it is not years of practice that make a movie star, but something much more magical.